Acknowledging the Unacknowledged

Families have long searched for effective and affordable medical care. Just as free or reduced-cost clinics help those who cannot afford regular doctor visits today, residents of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region found their own ways to help those without access to medical care, beginning in the earliest days of mining communities.

Karol Kovalovich Weaver ’92, associate professor of history at Susquehanna University, noticed a gap in Pennsylvania’s history: researchers have spent decades examining the working conditions of coal miners, yet relatively little information exists regarding health choices for their mothers, wives and children. In her recent book, Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, 1880–2000, she examines how traditional medical practitioners stepped up to help those unable to see a biomedical doctor.

“Mining history focuses on men and labor struggle,” explains Weaver, a medical historian. “I wanted to look instead at the cultural and social issues during the period.”

Weaver’s research revealed discrepancies between the level and delivery of medical care available to miners and their family members. Some mining companies had doctors on-site to treat employees at no charge, but workers’ families had to pay for treatment. Consequently, women and children sought medical help from caregivers who worked free of charge in homes and corner stores, repaid in gifts of food or livestock or, simply, kindness. While men occasionally sought aid from traditional medical caregivers they more often visited company physicians or self-medicated.

Traditional medicine successfully co-existed with biomedicine until government regulation became more commonplace. According to Weaver, these laws coincided with trends within the medical community to become more “professional” in order to improve itself. Increased penalties for unlicensed medical practitioners gradually pushed traditional medicine out of the spotlight in favor of hospital treatments, she says, citing the meeting minutes of a small medical society in Northumberland County. Members complained about the “illegality” of midwifery and included thoughts on government regulation of the practice.

While government agencies clearly promoted biomedicine, caregivers in both fields saw value in each other. “Professional” doctors understood the importance of caregivers in the community, especially in terms of their close work with herbal supplements and patients’ diets. “They saw the benefits of seeing a variety of practitioners,” Weaver says.

Weaver admits to a personal interest in this often-overlooked aspect of Pennsylvanian coal mining history. She is a coal region native whose grandmother was an herbalist and mother told her stories about caregiving. The casual storytelling of her childhood helped Weaver with her research, prompting her to examine folk songs and legends of the region to learn more about the people within mining communities. Drinking songs were particularly popular, she says, indicating that alcohol consumption was an important aspect of socializing and in treating symptoms of black lung.

“That was one of the things I really liked about the project,” Weaver says, “uncovering sources that you don’t normally think of as historical or medical sources.”

—Christine Heller ’12

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