Folk medicine refers generally to healing practices traditionally used for alleviating illness and injury, or to aid in childbirth. It is a category of informal knowledge distinct from “scientific medicine”, as well as more formal and systematic, but unscientific, medical practices such as Ayurveda. However, it may coexist with these in the same culture or society.
Folk medicine is usually unwritten and transmitted orally until someone “collects” it. Within a given culture, elements of folk medicine knowledge may be diffusely known by many adults, or may be gathered and applied by those in a specific role of healer, shaman, midwife, witch, or dealer in herbs. Elements in a specific culture are not necessarily integrated into a coherent system, and may be contradictory.
Folk medicine is sometimes associated with quackery when practiced as theatrics or otherwise practiced fraudulently, and sometimes with witchcraft and often with shamanism, yet it may also preserve important knowledge and cultural tradition from the past.
Herbal medicine is an aspect of folk medicine – the use of gathered plant parts to make teas, poultices, or powders that purportedly effect cures. Many effective treatments adopted by physicians over the centuries were derived from plants (salicylate, digitalis, quinine), and botany was an important part of the materia medica of professional medical training before the 20th century. In the last century, modern medicine has continued to seek effective botanical treatments among exotic places and peoples but tended to regard herbal medicine of Western societies negatively. Recently, controlled studies of some of the herbalists’ cures have suggested some are effective.
Increasing attention is being paid to the herbal medicine of indigenous peoples of remote areas of the world in hope of finding new pharmaceuticals. Of special concern is the extinction of many species by the clearing of formerly wild rainforests, that may cause the loss of species of plants that could provide these new aids to modern medicine. Attitudes toward this type of knowledge gathering and plant preservation vary and political conflicts have increasingly arisen over “ownership” of the plants, land, and knowledge in several parts of the world.
One problem in getting the attention of modern medicine is that most research is funded by those who hope to eventually make a profit from such research. For example, honey has been a part of many folk cures, but it is common and cheap (compared to pharmaceuticals), and cannot be patented, therefore it is difficult to fund any research of its effectiveness.
American folk medicine
In the USA, an old folk medicine field called apitherapy, in which bee stings or venom is used to aid victims of autoimmune disorders like arthritis or multiple sclerosis, is receiving renewed interest in recent years.
“Vermont folk medicine” was a supposed local form of folk medicine from which D.C. Jarvis claimed to derive his “cures” during the 1950s. Apple cider vinegar was a major ingredient in the mixtures prescribed by Dr. Jarvis. Jarvis’ 1955 book, “Folk Medicine”, is widely considered quackery by both allopathic doctors and herbalists alike, and Jarvis was incarcerated for a short time on the suspicion that the book was an illegal form of promotional prop for a product that he was selling. The book also contained dozens of patent untruths, such as the claim that sugar is alkaline.
Folk Medicine by D.C. Jarvis, 1955.
Heaven, Ross. ‘Plant Spirit Shamanism: Traditional Techniques for Healing the Soul’. Vermont: Destiny Books, 2006.