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Manitoba History: Medicine Chests of the Far North or Pills For All Ills

by Martha McCarthy

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

If you were spending your life as a missionary in the far North in the 19th century, what sort of supplies would you ask to be sent to you? In the lists of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Roman Catholic missionaries there, can be found such essential items as clothing, fishing net, matches and cooking pots as well as religious goods such as rosaries and catechisms. But also on the lists is found the item "homeopathic boxes and books". Would you know what this is and why the missionaries would want it?

The Oblates, most of whom came from France, were evangelizing an area where there were no doctors for thousands of miles. The Indians relied on their own medicine-men or native remedies, and the Europeans had to be their own doctors and druggists, though untrained in medicine. Many of them in this situation turned to a system called homeopathic medicine. This had been begun in 1796 by a German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann, who revived an ancient medical belief that "like cures like", opposing the orthodox medicine of his day which attacked disease with mixtures of drugs opposed to the disease. Hahnemann decided that very minute doses of one drug similar to whatever was causing the illness would also cure it by forcing the body to defend itself against the drug, and therefore against the illness.

Homeopathic medicine was adopted by some doctors, and also became very popular with ordinary people, especially in France. Books were written outlining the proper treatment for various illnesses, and kits were made up with a number of medicines and the booklet of explanation so that the layman could cope with a large variety of illnesses without calling in a doctor. The French missionaries were enthusiastic about the possibilities of this type of self-help medicine, for like most missionaries of the time, they believed that to heal the body helped to draw people to listen to what the missionary said about God.

The missionaries requested refills for the medicines they used the most, and as you would expect from the far north, these were the remedies for colds and rheumatism, such as Acon (monk's hood), Bryony, Nux vomica, and Puls (windflower). They also ran out of Arnica for healing cuts and bruises, Silica used for migraines and toothaches, and Belladonna, used to prevent scarlet fever, one of the epidemic diseases so fatal to the Indians.

Not all the Oblates were enthusiastic about the homeopathic boxes, and no medicines could cure the epidemics which decimated the Indian population, but perhaps in the circumstances the homeopathic medicines were the best available. If they didn't cure, at least the very small doses they came in didn't do much harm either.

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