Society for the Social History of Medicine Conference 2016
7 – 10 July 2016
Canterbury, England, United Kingdom
Hosted by the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities, University of Kent

In 2016, the SSHM conference explored the theme of ‘place.’ Stephen Mawdsley presented ‘Place, Prohibition and Patent Medicine: A Case Study of Jamaica Ginger’


During America’s Great Depression and before Prohibition was repealed, the popular patent medicine, Jamaica Ginger (JG), became adulterated with a toxic substance that could cause limb paralysis or death. Manufactured in the North and shipped to suppliers in the South and West, contaminated JG primarily affected white and African American sharecroppers and mill workers, who sought the medicine for many reasons, including its high alcohol content. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people became afflicted with Jamaica Ginger Paralysis (JGP), leaving survivors with lasting physical disability, limited economic opportunity, and social stigmas.

Although historians of JGP have briefly examined clinical, regulatory, and legal perspectives, they have not explored the ways in which region and culture informed the use of the patent medicine, the discovery of adulteration, and the local response. Why was JG widely consumed in the South and West? What does the use of JG reveal about the culture of medicine and healing in these regions? Drawing on a collection of oral history interviews, medical journals, historical newspapers, and archived government records, this paper will explore the ways in which regional medical traditions shaped one of worst mass poisonings in American history.