The American Association for the History of Medicine held its 90th annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, May 4-7, 2017 at the Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel.

Stephen Mawdsley presented ‘Race and the Jake Walk’ at the conference.

Paper Abstract

Race and the “Jake Walk”

During America’s Great Depression and before Prohibition was repealed, the popular patent medicine, Jamaica Ginger (JG), became adulterated with a toxic substance that could cause limb paralysis or death. Contaminated JG primarily affected white and African American sharecroppers and mill workers, who sought the medicine during Prohibition due to 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 severe social stigmas. Although white American cases were quickly reported, many African American cases went unnoticed because of prejudice, segregation, isolation, and economics. Even when cases among blacks were discovered, there remained a strong perception among white health officers and medical researchers that JGP only affected whites. Although historians of JGP have briefly examined the clinical, regulatory, and legal perspective of this episode, they have not considered how prevailing conceptions of race affected responses and accounts of this outbreak. Drawing on a collection of oral history interviews, medical journals, historical newspapers, and archived government records, this paper will explore how perceptions of race shaped health professionals’ reactions to JGP.

  • To provide a historically nuanced understanding of how the ideology of race shaped public health and medical responses.
  • To increase historical awareness of social stigmas linked to physical disability and alcoholism.
  • To deepen understandings of illness and patient perspectives.