Tales from the Morgue: Indian medicine men praised

2012-04-23T09:15:00Z Tales from the Morgue: Indian medicine men praisedJohanna Eubank, Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 23, 2012 9:15 am  • 

Even in such enlightened times as the 1940s, many people must have been confused by the rituals of Native Americans or perhaps thought them backward.

The United States Public Health Service loaned doctors to the Indian service to research Indian health problems and exchange information.

Immunizations were a primary concern, but it was discovered that medicine men were indeed concerned for the health of their people and were ready to learn more about modern medicine.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Jan. 4, 1940:


Indian Medicine Men Lauded by a Health Service Surgeon

Only Woman With Rank of Surgeon, U. S. Public Health Service, Is Loaned to Indian Bureau for Four-Year Health Program


Indian medicine men  of America should not be destroyed, for their aid is needed in reservation health programs. In fact, even older medicine men are taking Indian patients to government hospitals and are going there themselves for treatment, according to Dr. Estella Ford Warner.

Those Indian doctors may still use strange herbs, chants and taboos, but they have their place. Even their probable sanction of the custom of disposing of one child when twins are born, may have another aspect, from the primitives' standpoint.

Dr. Warner, who is one of seven doctors in the U. S. public health service loaned to the Indian service for four years, knows her southwestern Indian medicine men and has a healthy respect for them. She's the only woman doctor in the public health service with a commission and a rank of surgeon.

Praises Medicine Men

Yesterday when Dr. Warner passed through Tucson on her way to Sells she paused for a few moments to discuss Indian health problems. She is district medical director for Arizona, New Mexico, Eastern California and southern Colorado. Under her are 35 hospitals and two tubercular sanatoriums on 13 reservations, with a personnel group of 600 physicians, specialties, dentists, trained nurses, attendants and war aids. One third of all the Indians and the United States are on those reservations.

“We don't want to destroy the medicine man,” she said yesterday. “He is more than just a dispenser of herbs. He is a general counselor and guide. We are trying to win him to understand what we are trying to do and to get him to cooperate with us. In that direction he has performed very well. We find that medicine men are now bringing cases to our hospitals and are coming in themselves for treatment.

Needs Realized

“I was interested in December when we held a conference on the Papago Indians' health problems. Four members of the Papago counsel sat with us and one was a medicine man who spoke no English. Through the interpreter we asked the councilmen what was the greatest Papago need. The medicine man piped up instantly with ‘what our people eat.’ In other words, nutrition.”

Dr. Warner told of an even more thrilling example of medicine men's cooperation. That was June of 1938 when the fine hospital at Fort Defiance was being dedicated. Medicine men had been asked to bless the hospital, for which there is no Navajo word. So they called it the hogan of many rooms. The medicine men elected eight to bless the building. They spread their blankets outside, scattered sacred meal to the four corners of the building and did their chant. Then they went up a modern elevator to the various floors, getting off at each landing to bless the building corners.

A Fair Exchange

A day after the dedication a very old medicine man presented himself to the “great white chief medicine man of the hospital. He offered to tell of Navajo medicine if the white doctor would tell of white men's medicine,” she continued. So the Navajo was shown sterilizers, operating room, trusses for broken legs, the maternity ward and nursery. Finally the party stood before a door which was opened suddenly. A bleached, white skeleton hung at full-length in a large closet.

“Who is he?”  snapped the medicine man in Navajo. He probably as much as his people fear the dead, “the old people.” Quickly the interpreter replied: “He came from Washington.” That made everything all right. The skeleton was of a white foreigner.

“But my hat is off to these Indians,” Dr. Warner went on. “They give us far better cooperation, have fewer taboos and are more intelligent about health problems than the Slavs in Pennsylvania, the white mountain people in Tennessee and Kentucky, the Italians in New York and the southern Negroes with whom I've worked.

Germless Language

 “It is amazing to realize that these Indians have no word in their language for germ, which is the basis of our whole health structure. How can one explain communicable disease to them without that word? To get them to understand the idea of lifecycles of microscopic beings is an achievement. Yet somehow they do, and they come in for immunization. It is really a wholesome sign.”

The greatest health problems among Indians, she said, are: tuberculosis, syphilis, tracoma, infant diarrhea and dysentery, and all respiratory diseases. Added to those are “the whole category of other diseases which are communicable and for which they have built up no immunity within themselves.”

There are two or three things in relation to syphilis and Indians on which the public health service and Dr. Warner are “cogitating,” she said. Most important of these is why so high a percentage of Indian blood tests show neither positive or negative Wasserman reactions.

Search for Reason

“Dr. Robert Greene of the state laboratory here at the University of Arizona finds he gets a very high percentage of doubtful reactions in Indians' blood. It is higher by 20 per cent than a comparable group of white persons' blood specimens. I've discussed this with New Mexico Hospital physicians and others and find they get 8 to 20 per cent doubtful reports.

“What makes this?” she questioned. “We don't know, but we are organizing now to do some research in the field. Some diseases do this, but usually they are tropical diseases. We've got to find out what is happening.”

During this past year the Indian service with the public health service has made its first attack upon syphilis in Indians. Blood tests are being taken and treatments given. “Excellent cooperation” is the result, considering great distances and lack of transportation among the Indians. “Plus a lack of realization of the importance of treatments,” she remarked.

Tracoma Control

Jubilant was Dr. Warner about the results being obtained in tracoma by using sulfanilamide. Records are being kept on every case after the drug is given orally. She says figures already show it gives “very rapid and lasting cures,” checks the progress of the dread eye disease quickly in light cases. It was at Fort Apache on the White River Reservation that last year the research on tracoma was completed after discovering the virus and demonstrating its reproduction. It was there sulsanilamide was first used as a cure.

Dr. Warner, who outlines the health program and the research work for the entire southern district, isn't worried about Indian taboos and superstitions. Particularly in the face of the cooperation being obtained from Indian boys and girls who have once been to schools.

Problem of Twins

That applies to destruction of twins. She knows it is still practiced, for often a starved, little thing is brought in off some lonely mesa. The hospital raises these babies thought to be possessed of devils. It rarely can adopt them out, for Indian families fear such twin children. Navajos believe they should be destroyed for their god creates no two like things. Other tribes have different beliefs about them. Eventually this taboo will disappear.

Proud is Dr. Warner that last year the American College of surgeons approved four Indian service hospitals and that this year three more will go before the college for sanction. “By and large Indian service hospitals are well-managed, equipped and are of high standards,” she said. “They should be, we have an enormous piece of work to do. We're only just starting.”

She will return to her headquarters in Albuquerque, N. M., when she completes the inspection of Arizona health work.


Tracoma or trachoma is an infectious eye disease that is one of the leading causes of blindness.

The Morgue Lady thinks that Native American remedies likely came about the same way as most folk remedies: trial and error. When an effective remedy was found, others tried it as well and then refined it. This isn't superstition, it is scientific.

Current medical studies are simply done in a more controlled environment and with more sophisticated equipment. Researchers also have the benefit of not having to start at the beginning.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

"Tales from the Morgue" is a way for the Star to share stories from the treasure trove of information held in its old files.

Johanna Eubank, aka the Morgue Lady, was a research assistant in the Star Library — also known as News and Research Services — for 18 years before becoming an online content producer. She has had her share of sneezing fits after digging into dusty old files, so she's sure to find a few old stories to re-examine.

If you have suggestions, comments or questions about this blog, e-mail jeubank@tucson.com

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