Medical Practices

Slave Medicine

West African Medicinal Plants

West African slaves brought not only herbal knowledge with them across the Atlantic; they also imported the actual seeds. Some wore necklaces of wild liquorice seeds as a protective amulet. Captains of slaving vessels used native roots to treat fevers that decimated their human cargo. The ships’ hellish holds were lined with straw that held the seeds of African grasses and other plants that took root in New World soil. Moreover, since the West African climate is similar to the climate in the mid-Atlantic region, slaves may have found counterparts to their own plant species. Certainly the herb lore of captive Africans was expanded by contact with Indian tribes as well as by interaction with Europeans. (Fett, p. 63ff) French missionaries in the 17th Century, for example, noted the use of boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) by the Iroquois. In the 18th Century, both Europeans and their African slaves used it. By the 19th Century, the medical establishment was regularly prescribing it for fevers.

Although the exchange of plant knowledge was cross-cultural, there were distinct differences in the way this knowledge was preserved and applied. Slave remedies were transmitted orally from generation to generation whereas white domestic healers like Lucy tended to write down cures, along with recipes for preserves and meat pies, in “receipt” books. Their healing recipes were often complex and required considerable amounts of time to prepare. A recipe for dysentery, for example, demanded boiling a “teacup of logwood chips in a pint of sweet milk”, then boiling another ten minutes with sugar, and finally burning “four tablespoons of brandy” in a plate, then stirring it into the milk mixture. (Clinton, p. 145) Slave remedies tended to be simpler than white medicines. Teas or poultices were made with one or two plants. Scholar Sarah Mitchell Cotton speculates that slaves had less time to gather ingredients and less time to prepare complex mixtures. Other researchers suggest that simplicity may have been a result of a more sophisticated understanding of the properties of each plant. (Fett, p.74)

Religion and Healing

Unlike the science-based medicine of today, 18th century medicine had a religious component for both black and white healers. As Eileen Malone-Brown observes in her essay, “Healthcare During Lucy's Lifetime,” some Europeans saw healing plants as a gift from God and many practitioners resorted to prayer as well as herbs. African healers also felt a sacred connection to plants they found in the woods, and they used elements from African religious rituals when they prepared medicines (Fett, p.76ff). Europeans, however, dismissed African spirituality as “superstition” and an indication of a child-like mentality. Lucy may or may not have exchanged remedies with slave “root doctors” and midwives, but as a devout Christian, she certainly would have disapproved of slave “conjurers” who, in the tradition of their forebears in Africa, cast spells and, along with plants and animal parts, used trickery and intimidation to treat illness of both body and soul. Lucy was a Methodist and the Methodists were known for evangelizing amid slave communities. So it is probable that many of Lucy’s slaves, perhaps without altogether abandoning ancestral religious beliefs, adopted their owner’s creed. Converted slaves likely would have gained not only her favor but also inspiration from Biblical stories like Exodus that hold the promise of triumph over oppression. (For more on Lucy and slavery, see “Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks: Her Life and Her World”.)

Slave Remedies and Recipes

Slaves used many of the plants used by the community of their white owners: snakeroot, mayapple, red pepper, boneset, pine needles, comfrey, and red oak bark, to name a few. Slave healers understood the various preparations of pokeweed and how to avoid its dangers while taking advantage of its curative properties. Sassafras root tea was a popular seasonal blood cleanser believed to “search de blood” for what was wrong and go to work on it. (Fett, p.75). Jimsonweed was used for rheumatism, chestnut leaf tea for asthma, mint and cow manure tea “fur consumption”. (Genovese, p.169) Slave midwives would have known and used herbs for “female complaints” and to ease childbirth. Slaves preferred their own doctors to white doctors and their “heroic” purging and bloodletting. For an enlightening look at what it meant to be sick when you didn’t own your own body, see historian Todd L. Savitt’s on-line essay “Slave Health and Medicine: If You Got Sick And Were Black”.

Slave Health and Plantation Productivity

The health of a planter’s work force was critical to economic success. All slave illnesses had to be reported to a farm’s overseer or owner, under pain of punishment. The responsibility for the health of slaves often fell to the mistress of the plantation. In 1781, a year after Lucy married her second husband John Marks, a French nobleman visited William Byrd’s large plantation on the James River and remarked that Mrs. Byrd took “great care of her negros, makes them happy as their situation will permit, and serves them herself in times of sickness.” He goes on to say:

She has even made some interesting discoveries on the disorders to them, and discovered a very salutary method of treating a sort of putrid fever which carries them off commonly in a few days, and against which the physicians of the country have exerted themselves without avail. (Blanton, p. 169)

Like Mrs. Byrd, Lucy would have spent considerable time attending to her slaves’ health, especially since after the death of her second husband, she was not only mistress of her plantation, she was master as well. Presumeably, like her slave-owning neighbor Thomas Jefferson, she would have followed common health practices like providing warm clothing in cold weather and restricting heavy labor for pregnant women at the end of their terms.

Still, despite her investment in the health of her slaves, they would have suffered from complaints ranging from worms and skin ulcers to respiratory diseases and influenzas. (Savitt, p.49ff) Moreover, any complaint could become a point of conflict. It was not simply a question of slaves preferring their own doctors and often being reluctant to report illness to an overseer or owner. There was the more complicated question of malingering. Slaves often complained of sickness to avoid work – a strategy that encouraged a perception of slaves as “lazy” and “deceitful.” However, in West African mythology, the Trickster Eshu was a hero. On American shores, he wore the guise of Br’er Rabbit, the admirable scoundrel of the Uncle Remus stories.

Like her fellow slave-owning planters, Lucy would have had to determine whether a slave was actually ill or was faking illness. Given that she was a disciplinarian with her own children, we can suppose she was strict with her “servants” – as she and her peers euphemistically referred to their slaves. Nonetheless, a slave’s claim of sickness would have put her on the horns of a dilemma: to ignore a real illness might result in a prolonged, more serious illness or even death. On the other hand, to allow a slave to take to bed reduced her labor force. In either case, farm profits would suffer. (Fett, p.177ff)

Some plantations like George Washington’s Mount Vernon which had over 300 slaves had separate quarters for sick slaves. We do not know if Lucy, who owned 47 slaves at the time of her death, had a “sickhouse” at Locust Hill . No doubt she was assisted in her doctoring by slave nurses who, under her supervision, would have administered medicines, prepared gruels. and cleaned patients and their bedclothes of blood, vomit and excrement .(Fett. p.118) We do know that Lucy paid a neighbor, a Mrs. Via to “wait on Frankie”, a pregnant female slave. Lucy may also have owned a slave “doctoress” or “granny” who would have combined her herbal knowledge with midwifery skills. (Blanton, 174) Slave midwives were more valuable and earned their owners (and perhaps themselves) money by safely delivering slave babies, and in some cases, white babies as well.

Legal Restrictions on Slave Doctors

If healing skills were an advantage to both slave and owner, they also posed a threat. Slaves who knew their plants had easy access to poison. They knew which herbs could abort pregnancies, which could sicken, which could cause sudden death. In Virginia, the decades between 1791 and 1809 were marked by a series of slave uprisings; the most notable of these was the Gabriel Plot in which over a thousand slaves attacked the city of Richmond. In 1831, Nat Turner led his famous slave rebellion in Virginia’s Tidewater. Virginia state records show that between 1780 and 1864, 58 slaves were convicted of poisoning or attempted poisoning. (Blanton, p. 174) No matter how much white slave owners relied on and trusted slave healers, they also feared them.

This fear prompted the enactment of laws. As early as 1748, the colony of Virginia forbade “any negroe, or other slave” to administer “any medicine whatsoever” under pain of death “without benefit of clergy”. An exception was made for slaves treating other slaves or her owner’s family, providing the owner gave permission. In 1792, the law was softened to allow acquittal if, at the slave practitioner’s trial, it was shown that there had been “no ill intent and no bad consequence.” Thus, if a “doctoress” administered a preparation of herbs and the patient happened to die, an angry owner could have the slave hanged. As an earlier historian observed: “With stringent laws and with fear of poisoning constantly in the public mind, it is surprising that any of the negroes should have attempted the risky business of prescribing for the sick.” (Blanton, p. 174)

In fact, the laws were no deterrent. Slave medicine flourished on plantations. While collecting wild herbs and roots, slave doctors, male and female, escaped the boundaries of their working life and perhaps experienced a fleeting taste of physical freedom. Certainly, a belief in the sacredness of healing plants allowed them to connect with an authority higher than their owners – be it animistic African dieties or a single Christian god. In treating fellow slaves, they became an instrument of divine power. They, not their owner, controlled a patient’s body. At its core, slave healing was an empowerment for both healer and patient.

Christine Andreae



Aptheker, Herbert, American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: International Publishers. 1970

Blanton, Medicine in Virginia in the 18th Century

Clinton, The Plantation Mistress

Fett, Sharla M. Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Plantations. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002

Genovese, Elizabeth Fox, Within the Plantation Household

Savitt, Todd L., Medicine and Slavery

Stanton, Lucia. Slavery at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello Monograph Series, 1996

Web sources:

Cotton, Sarah Mitchell: Bodies of Knowledge: The Influence of Slaves on the Antebellum Medical Community at

Savitt, Todd L. “Slave Health and Medicine”: