Approaches and Objectives

The project draws on a rich collection of archival records, oral histories, blues music, literature, and historical newspapers. It will explore the legacy of this forgotten episode in American history through the following themes

Patent Medicines and Regulation

Although instances of adulterated Jamaica Ginger occurred before Prohibition, federal agencies failed to curtail the practice. This study addresses why so little was done by the federal government to prevent the adulteration of patent medicines before 1930.

Alcohol, Stigma, and Disability

At a time in American history when alcoholism, idleness, and disability were characterized as signs of unfitness, cases of Jamaica Ginger Paralysis led to stigmatization of survivors. This study will help to understand the nature of this disability and the resulting stigmas.

Health Activism and Patient Agency

In a nation divided by race and without national health insurance, the availability and quality of medical care in America was often shaped by region, race, and class. This study will examine how survivors responded to the crisis by devising home remedies, organizing action groups, and pushing for legal recourse.

Cultural Legacy and Historical Memory

Although the Jamaica Ginger Paralysis outbreak was overshadowed by the contemporaneous hardships of the Great Depression and later the Second World War, it nevertheless left a complex lasting legacy through music, literature, and film.

Principal Investigator

Dr Stephen E. Mawdsley is a social historian of twentieth-century American medicine and public health. After earning degrees at the University of Alberta and the University of Cambridge, he became an Isaac Newton–Ann Johnston Research Fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge and then a Wellcome Trust University Award Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde. He is Principal Investigator on The Jake Walk Blues research project, which focuses on the history of alcoholism, disability, and stigma during America’s Great Depression.

Research Funding and Support


The Jake Walk Blues is a multi-year research project funded by the Wellcome Trust (200350/Z/15/Z) and is hosted at the University of Bristol, England.