Campus News

Kirk Johnson's "Works In Progress" Lecture Discusses Ethnomedical vs. Biomedical Practices

Story posted December 07, 2000

The semesterís final "Works In Progress Series" lecture featured Professor Kirk Johnson, Sociology and Anthropology, discussing "The Victory of Voodoo: Why African-American Healers Succeed Where Doctors Fail."

Professor Johnsonís research focuses on the ongoing desirability of "ethnomedicine" over "biomedicine," and investigates why African-American patients might employ ethnomedical treatment for ailments (herbal remedies, prayer, plant products, voodoo, the use of signs, prophesy, dream readings) rather than consult a physician.

Johnsonís interest in this area was sparked by his father-in-law, who had been suffering from terrible nightmares and sleeplessness. The father-in-law, it seems, had been sleeping under a blanket previously owned by a dead friend with whom he had had a bad falling out. When he realized this, he took the blanket out to the back yard, drove a stake through it, burned it, and buried the ashes. After this ritual, he was able to sleep soundly again.

Why, Johnson asked himself, would an intelligent, progressive man like his father-in-law keep one foot so firmly planted in the world of old, traditional practices?

Among Johnsonís accumulated research is a New England Journal of Medicine article that claims black Americans do not often seek out biomedical treatment. Further research brought Johnson to The Defender, an African-American newspaper published in Chicago, which even today boasts a retail advertising section packed with ads for herbalists and healers. "How can this be?" Johnson asked. "And in Chicago of all places, a city with 75 hospitals in the back yard of the American Medical Association?"

To understand the predominance of healers who practice ethnomedical treatment methods, Johnson began tracing black migration to Chicago. He studied newspaper accounts of African-American healers through 55 years of The Defender. He traveled to Chicago to study the methods of contemporary practitioners, and consulted a Voodoo priest, a magical and spiritual healer who used conjuring, and a Baptist minister who dehexed patients using Christian methods. "If you can understand the context," Johnson believes, "you can understand the practice."

Johnson traced black migration to 1915. Upon arrival, these migrants were immediately subjected to segregation, with hospitals denying access and treatment to black patients. Black doctors and nurses were not allowed in white hospitals. By necessity, among the African-American migrants, non-biomedical habits were practiced, and a preference for ethnomedicine became further ingrained in the culture. Those habits did not disappear as time went on. Johnson related a story about an African-American patient who consulted a pharmacist in 1969: the pharmacist suggested the patient see a doctor, and the patient replied, "I never thought of that."

Another revealing story was discovered in early issue of The Defender. A family with seven children migrated to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama. Four of the children contracted measles, and were treated by the mother using the "traditional" methods followed in the rural south (including "boneset tea," "sheep ninny tea," and "hog hoof tea"). The four children recovered. Then, a fifth child became ill. The mother treated that child using the same methods. However, this child got worse. Alarmed, the mother consulted a physician. She was informed the child was seriously ill with measles and pneumonia, that the case must be reported to the health department, and that the house would be quarantined. The physician dismissed the motherís objection to having a red quarantine sign tacked to her door (she believed it would suggest "evil" lurked in her house). The mother was further criticized for being careless and foolish in believing she could treat measles and other diseases with home remedies. (Yet, as Johnson points out, the mother used methods with which she was familiar and comfortable, and which had worked for her other four children.)

This story serves as a good example of the ethnomedical/biomedical separation or "disconnect." When the mother sought biomedical treatment, she received such an unwelcome reception from the biomedical establishment that her ethnomedical practices naturally would remain more attractive and her first choice for treating ailments.

During the years of World War II (1940-44) some 60,000 black workers entered the Chicago workforce. Upon their entrance into the white workplace, violence (arson, stonings) broke out against the black workers. The police did little or nothing to stop the attacks. The perpetrators (white men, women, children, and the elderly) demonstrated "a spirit of fun" in their actions, according to reports. The scenario was frighteningly similar to the days of southern lynchings. Johnson offers this as further evidence of the "disconnect" which led African-Americans patients to stick with their traditional ethnomedical practices at home.

Johnson contacted healers who advertised in The Defender during 1998-99 (quickly devising a method to weed out the frauds from the legitimate practitioners). Among his discoveries was that healers are popular across a wide demographic. Their clients include people of all ages and financial status, both black and white. One healerís client list included an investment banker who had him bless his computer for luck in the stock market. Another claimed Mayor Richard Daley made an appointment (but never showed up). Johnson also learned that all healers believe in biomedicine, and insist their clients consult medical doctors as well.

Healers remain popular, Johnson discovered, for five main reasons:

  • They can converse in ethnomedicine, including magical transactions.
  • They have integrity and are highly principled.
  • Money is not their main reason for being (many say "pay what you can," or offer free services to the poor, believing as one healer said, "If I cut off their blessings, God will cut off mine").
  • Geographical, emotional, and temporal accessibility.
  • Willingness to adjust their rituals to the clientís needs.

Johnson concluded that there has not been enough inquiry into the reasons African-Americans seek out ethnomedical methods of treatment. Such research can lead to developing processes to encourage patients to seek out biomedical treatment. Johnson will next talk to African-American patients and physicians to discover their insights into the "disconnect" between patients and the biomedical establishment. A goal of Johnsonís is to work with a biomedical clinic which is receptive to pairing with ethnomedical healers. By attracting patients to a clinic offering traditional healing methods, he believes, physicians may be able to persuade patients to accept such biomedical treatment as a physical or blood pressure screening.

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