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While these applications sound bizarre today, they were based on the teachings of women who practiced medicine back then. Doctors were few and far between, especially in rural areas, so women, as natural caretakers, were expected to step in as replacements.
“Medicine was a part of a woman’s education,” said Amy Arden, a Folger Shakespeare Library spokeswoman. “We take for granted things like pharmacies and hospitals, so we forget how much time and effort went into producing one medicine.”
One such remedy was snail water, used to cure consumption and jaundice. Two cases in the exhibit lay out the lengthy process. Women would gather garden snails and wash them in beer before adding ingredients such as earthworms, bark and rosemary to the mix. After leaving the combination to stew overnight, more ingredients such as deer’s horn and cloves were added.
The combination sounds more like a witch’s potion than a modern medicine. But an oath administered to midwives, similar to today’s Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors, warned against the use of witchcraft.
“That you shall not in any wise use or exercise any manner of Witchcraft, Charm or Sorcery, Invocation, or other Prayers then may stand with Gods Laws and the Kings,” the oath reads.
The oath exemplifies the seriousness of the jobs women aimed to do.
“It was the beginning of a true scientific inquiry, but for these women, it was really about providing different types of care,” Arden said. “They did it because they had to.”
“Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine and Science” is a free exhibit that runs through May 14.