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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

“You must be Ned’s boy,” an old man said to me once. “I knew your father. Yes, I knew your great-grandfather and all his family, and I’m going to tell you something that will surprise you.

“You probably don’t know it, but if a family is dying off of consumption, the disease goes no farther after one of the members of the family has been buried face down.

“I was at the funeral of your great-uncle John. He died of old-fashioned consumption just as other members of the family before him. I was one of several who made up our minds to stop the run of consumption in that family, so we stayed in the cemetery until the relatives had gone, then we lifted the casket from the open grave and turned it over. So your great-uncle John was buried face down, and it ended consumption in that family.”

This conversation sounds like it could have come from an episode of “Leave it to Beaver”—except for the topic, of course, which is anything but Beaverish; it’s just plain odd . I found this excerpted conversation when I was reading an article on folk medicine in an old issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The circularity of the chain of research that leads to something pertinent often amazes me. I was directed to the NEJM article by an entry in the UCLA Archive of American Folk Medicine.

This archive of thousands and thousands of records was begun by Professor Wayland D. Hand (1907-1986) in the 1940s. Hand, a long-time professor of German and Folklore at UCLA, edited the materials that eventually were published as two volumes (“Popular Beliefs and Superstitions”) of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (Duke University Press, 1961, 1964). With these data as the foundation for the archive, Hand extracted information from the writings of medical practitioners dating to the late 18th century. He also obtained data from scientific journals, popular magazines, newspapers, and historical sources (diaries, travel accounts, treatises on plants and animals) over the past 200 years. More than 3,200 published works served as sources for archive holdings. Other materials came from field collections in archives at UCLA, Detroit University, Pan American University, UC Berkeley, Sacramento State, and the University of Oregon.

When I was a graduate student in the Folklore & Mythology Program at UCLA (1969-1972), I was a Research Assistant for Hand. My task was to sort stacks of 4x6" cards, placing them into pigeon holes that were organized according to disease, injury, or condition. Different therapies were filed alphabetically with each illness. As it states in the History of the Archive: “Duplicate cards were needed for purposes of cross referencing, creating nearly one million records in order to access the database of about 210,000 distinct treatments.” So, it does amaze me that my research has taken me back to an entry that I very well might have read and sorted forty years ago. If only I had remembered  this particular entry, I could have saved myself a significant amount of research time!

Now, back to the odd conversation. It appeared in one of the earliest issues of Yankee magazine. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate an archived copy of the issue. I have sent off an inquiry to the folks at Yankee and am waiting for a reply. In the meantime, does anyone out there hoard old issues of this magazine? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

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