CHICAGO — Bran for breakfast and aerobics in the afternoon may not sound like folk medicine, but one researcher says they are simply the latest in a long line of remedies that includes Huck Finn's cure for warts: Throw a dead cat at the devil.
Huck's cure, first shared by Mark Twain in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," is recounted by researcher James Whorton in a review of America's fascination with folk remedies in a recent Journal of the American Medical Assn.
The nation's fitness craze fits comfortably into its folk medicine tradition, Whorton said, "a spectrum darkly occult at the magical end, but enlightened at the other end, in the sense of relying on common sense, empiricism and a rudimentary sort of scientific thinking."
Often, Whorton notes, the two approaches meet halfway.
Roots and herbs might be mixed in a way that has some medicinal value, then administered in a ritual fashion expressing "belief in the power of magic to at least temporarily control the supernatural forces beneath a threatening and inexplicable reality."
Whorton said new traditions of self-care, such as running, vitamin therapy and macrobiotic diets, are "rooted in the same fear of illness and desire for personal control of cure and health that gave life to the old ones."
Whorton recounts what he calls "one of the most engrossing medical consultations of the 19th Century." Huck reminds Tom that his cure for warts is most effective after a particularly evil person has been buried and the devil shows up to take the sinner away.
"You heave your cat after 'em," Huck says, "and say, 'Devil follow corpse, cat follow devil, warts follow cat, I'm done with ye!' That'll fetch any wart."
"However sophisticated the modern fitness enthusiast may deem himself, his morning bowl of granola replete with bran flakes is not all that far removed from dead cats being thrown at the devil," wrote Whorton, who did not try to evaluate the effectiveness of the modern therapies.
Whorton traces the folk remedy tradition from the American colonists' practice of drinking sheep-dung tea to treat smallpox to practices like macrobiotic dieting, marathon running, megadoses of vitamins and aerobic dancing.
The decline of folk treatment in the United States, except for self-care, most likely began with the emergence of the urban-industrial society of the early 1800s, Whorton said.
Many of the earliest folk medicine practices were rural and regional. Chewing mustard seed, for instance, became a widespread preventive measure in the yellow fever belt of the South.
But city dwellers' highly specialized economy forced them into dependency on others for many services, including medical care, Whorton wrote.
There were campaigns in the early 1800s "to return medical autonomy to the people by organizing folk remedies into practicable systems of self-care," Whorton said.
Effort Brought Graham Cracker
Among the most successful efforts were those of New Hampshire farmer Samuel Thomson and Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham, inventor of the Graham cracker.
But, Whorton said, "The high degree of commercialization, even hucksterism, that now characterizes health-food consumption" can be traced to John Harvey Kellogg, who learned of Graham's folk-healing philosophy through his upbringing in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Kellogg implemented Graham's high-fiber, highly moral campaign at the Battle Creek Sanitarium that he directed in Michigan from 1876 until 1942.
A tireless lecturer and author, Kellogg developed nut- and soy-based meat substitutes at the sanitarium and later, with his brother, Will, and former sanitarium patient C. W. Post, put Battle Creek on the map with breakfast cereals.