Pioneer Healthcare
in Grey and Bruce 

Pioneer Healthcare in Grey and Bruce counties was not administered by doctors, nurses, or pharmacists, no it was the responsibility of the women of the community.


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The Great Lakes Raconteur

This winter, the flu has taken its toll. To avoid becoming ill many people went to their doctors for a flu shot. 

Those who fell victim to the influenza epidemic which spread across North America depended upon local pharmacies for medicine to reduce the aches and pains associated with the illness. 

In North America, doctors and pharmacies are an important part of every community. In fact, they are both considered essential services for any area. 

However, in the early days in Grey and Bruce, neither doctors nor pharmacies were a luxury enjoyed by the settlers of this region. Who filled the role of doctor and pharmacist in the pioneer settlements of Grey and Bruce? Most often it was the women of the community who provided pioneer healthcare. In each settlement there was usually one or two women who served as midwives and delivered many of the babies born into pioneer families. 

However, it was usually the mothers and grandmothers who tended to the illnesses suffered by family members. 

Nature Provided Cures for Pioneer Healthcare

The general stores did not carry pain killers or vitamins. Instead, the treatments used to heal the maladies which struck during that era were concoctions developed in the kitchens of the settlers' homes. 

The ingredients used came from products used in the home and from plants that were either grown in the garden or found in the nearby forests. 

Although many of these homemade medications were the result of trial and error, many were recipes which had been handed down from one generation to the next. 

The early settlers also learned of the medicinal value of certain plants from the natives who lived in the area. 

One of these native remedies was a tea made from the seeds of the plantain plant, which was a cure for diarrhea. The natives also boiled chips of sassafras or Spicewood bark to purify the blood. They also smoked mullein leaves to relieve congestion and used dried puffballs to stop bleeding. 

Today, sufferers of indigestion have a choice of numerous tablets and liquid remedies available at every variety store. In the early days, hop tea was used to relieve digestive problems. 

To relieve the pain of bruises and swelling, a concoction was made with smartweed steeped in vinegar. Another pain reliever was a salve made of black alder, lard, resin and beeswax. 

To draw out an infection, a poultice made of either crushed plantain or bread was applied to the injury. If the wound was open, peat moss was used to dress the cut. 

When a member of the family caught a cold, the mother of the family administered a syrup which she made from the roots of the spikenard and the tuber of the bloodroot. Other cold remedies were catnip, hemlock and pine bough tea. 

When I was a youngster, I had the opportunity to experience first hand one of these pioneer treatments. I had been sick for several days with a high fever. My grandmother decided that the only remedy was one which she had without a doubt learned from her mother. 

When she arrived at our house, she told me that she would make something which would make me feel better. After that pronouncement she headed to the kitchen. Soon the house was full of the aroma of onions. 

When my grandmother next appeared, she was carrying a cloth from which even the most blocked nasal passages could detect the smell of onions. Grandmother was about to apply an onion poultice to her unwary grandson. 

The heat and the reek of onions was almost more than I could bear, but it was not long after the ordeal that I was feeling considerably better and the fever had disappeared. 

To this day I still wonder if that onion poultice really cured me or whether I felt better just because I dreaded another visit from grandmother and her remedy! 

The information in this article came from many sources, (including my childhood memories). However, Normanby Reflections; A History of Normanby Township was of primary importance.

A version of this article originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on January 28, 2000.

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