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The term granny women is associated with midwives and healers who practiced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These women, usually located in the Appalachia and Ozark Mountain regions, were older women who cared for people in areas that did not have many other options for health care. In fact, granny women would often represent the only health care practitioners in some of the poorest, most remote regions. These women were highly respected for their knowledge and experience and were typically called on for natural healing, such as with herbs, and assisting women with childbirth.
In general, granny women did not have formal training in medicine; many of them relied on experience and information they gained from other healers. For example, a granny woman would have learned a new remedy from another healer and shared her remedies as well. Additionally, remedies and techniques were often passed on from one generation of healers to the next.
Granny women were typically experts on the use of plants in healing. They created healing remedies by choosing the right herbs in the quantities they believed were best and boiled or infused them to create their treatments; they also used herbs to create ointments. Interestingly, they often used different parts of one plant for various purposes. For example, they might have split the leaves, fruit, and roots of one plant for a variety of different remedies. These women also took safety into account by learning which plants were safe to use, what harmful qualities they might have, and the best time to harvest them.
Often, pregnant women called on granny women for help with their pregnancies as well as for assistance with childbirth. Having a baby could be dangerous, especially in the most remote areas, as a doctor may not be close enough to get to the expectant mother in time. Instead, granny women typically acted as midwives, not only for normal labors and deliveries, but also for those that were complex and risky.
Eventually, there was a decline in the use of granny women, which corresponded to improved access to doctors, even in rural communities. As the medical community grew, training and education became more and more important. In many cases, these healers, who had formerly been in high demand in health care, could not compete with trained, educated doctors — some granny women were even illiterate. As licensing requirements and medical standards gained a foothold, these older healers often ceased to practice. Some historical accounts report, however, that some of them may have continued their healing efforts in secret.
I know there are granny women who still deliver babies and probably prescribe herbal remedies in places like Appalachia. People can't afford doctors, and medical advice is all over the Internet.
I have a friend who found himself in something like a competition with a granny woman when he did a turn as a community doctor in a clinic in Appalachia. People would invariably go to her first. He finally reached a compromise with her when he said he would allow her to help in his office, and be present at births. But she had to clear it with him before she prescribed an herbal remedy. She agreed and they were able to work together for the five years he worked there.
He did say she helped him because she knew everyone in the community and could give him family background on everyone, including current and past family problems, and that helped him treat his patients.
My great-great grandmother was a granny woman. They were also called "root doctors" or "herb doctors." My grandmother was from a very rural area, where trained doctors were scarce, and in that day and age, a granny woman knew about as much as a doctor. More, in fact, since they often understood the importance of cleanliness when delivering a baby.
A newspaper clipping mentioned my grandmother and how she was a popular figure in the community and children loved her. The estimate was she had delivered some 500 babies over the years, possibly more. They called her "Granny Polly." It was a nice tribute to a woman who, according to family history, was quite a character. She lived during the Civil War and the story goes that she shot a Yankee deserter and buried him under the smokehouse.
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