Many of us rely on herbal remedies to maintain our health, from peppermint tea to soothe our stomachs to arnica cream for alleviating bruising. Such is the faith in these remedies that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) has funded alternative medical treatments and specialist homeopathic hospitals. However, in recent years, there has been impassioned debate about the efficacy and risks of alternative medicine. In 2010 The Telegraph reported the British Medical Association’s announcement that its members considered these practices to be ‘witchcraft.’ And in June 2013, NHS Lothian took the decision to cease funding homeopathic treatments. So what are the origins of these controversial set of healing practices? By whom were these skills used and for what purpose?
There are particular regions of the UK where historians have discovered evidence of alternative healing cultures including London, the South West, and Lancashire. Historians already know that wisewomen were important purveyors of traditional healing techniques in pre-industrial times. They were the equivalent of the present-day NHS 24; providing treatments for minor injuries such as burns or cuts and setting broken bones. These practitioners were well known for their work laying out the dead and delivering babies. Often older members of communities, they passed on their knowledge through female networks of family and friends.
Research on the career of one wisewoman working in Lancashire in the early twentieth century has revealed new and unexpected information about the history of alternative healing practices. Nell Racker (1846-1933) was a community midwife, herbalist, and spiritual healer. Nell’s career reveals that despite the challenge from the increasing importance of hospital-based medicine, remarkably, alternative healing networks and practices found ways to survive well into the twentieth century.