General Practitioners   of Australia

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Aboriginal Medicine Men

    It is interesting to consider the state of health of Aboriginal people before the English settled in Australia. The Aboriginal people would have been typically very fit as the harvesting of food required much activity. All travel was by foot. Early drawings show them to be lean. Thousands of years of natural selection would mean that genetic illnesses would be infrequent. Those born with a genetic disease would rarely have reached reproductive age and so would not have passed on their genes. In contrast to England, the Aboriginal people did not live in overcrowded communities. Each tribe, although semi-nomadic, had its own territory. The food that could be harvested within this territory limited the population that it could sustain. Again, in contrast to their English invaders, the Aboriginal people did not eat highly processed foods. Their diet was a mixture of meat and plants (mostly fresh). No preservatives, no rotting foods and foods were not infested with weevils. Living within their own tribal lands meant that there was reduced ability for diseases to spread through the community.

Different tribes had different names given to the healers. Some examples are ngangkari in the western desert lands, ngaanyatjarra, marrngitj in north-eat Arnhem Land and garratji in the Sydney district. Most healers were men, although people of both genders could use plants for their healing powers.

Aboriginal healers were typically descendants of healers Those children of healers who showed promise were taught the skills by their forebears. The healers were well-respected members of their communities.

Healers were primarily concerned with a person's spirit, viewing that the spirit had to be well for the person to be well. Disease was often seen as a disturbance of a person's spirit, sometimes because another healer had sent an evil spirit. This spirit would then have to be removed. Or the person's spirit was out of balance with nature (note this is the same as Hippocrates' view of illness).

The medicine man could communicate with spirits who had passed through dreams or trances in order to obtain information about what was troubling a person. The belief was that a person's spirit would go to an underworld. As a consequence, some tribes refuse to speak the name of a ceased person in case this called the spirit back to the world of the living.

Healers would sometimes diagnose that something was stuck inside someone's body, (eg a piece of would, stone, or shell). The healer would treat this with singing, massage and sucking out the offending item

The medicine man had at his disposal a large pharmacopoeia of medicines. A few are listed below. Note that not all tribes used the same bush medicines.

  • Native hopbush (Dodonea viscosa). The leaves could be boiled and applied to treat earache
  • Stinging nettle (Urtica diocia). Arthritis joints were thrashed with the nettle.
  • Lemon grass (Cymbopogon sp.) was used to treat fever, diarrhoea
  • Headache vine (Clematis glycinoides) was used to treat headaches by inhaling the aromatic oils from the crushed leaves.
  • Corkwood tree (Duboisia myoporoides) was used as a narcotic for pain relief and as a poison for game.
  • Kangaroo apple (Solanum laciniatum) was used to abort pregnancies or for contraception. Note this plan was gron in cultivation in USSR, NZ, India and Egypt for the production of steroids used to manufacture the oral contraceptive pill.
Note that the Aboriginal healers had no traditional ways to treat diseases that did not exist in Australia before the Europeans arrived. Consequently diseases like measles, smallpox, chickenpox, syphilis, gonorrhoea and influenza were devastating to Aboriginal communities.

Many of the Aboriginal healer's beliefs sound strange to the ears of those in current times. It should be remembered that the European doctors were not much better (if at all) at the time. They had no idea what caused infections, putting them down to some miasma (the concept was that foul odours from rotting organic matter caused the diseases). These miasmas could be of local origin or be over large geographical areas or be associated with a specific area such as a swamp. malaria for example, could be associated with the "bad air" (mal air) coming from a swamp. The miasma theory did not start to be dispelled until about 1880 when Pasteur's germ theory was starting to become accepted. Another European concept of disease causation was that disease occurred as punishment for immorality (eg syphilis and gonorrhoea occurred as a punishment for illicit sexual behaviour).

The European doctors were infrequently able to treat serious infectious disease despite their practices of cupping and blood letting. Their pharmacopoeia was relatively devoid of useful medicines (quinate, digitalis, strychnine and opium being amongst the few that worked). Both Aboriginal and European doctors were reasonably able to set fractures and treat injuries.

It begs the question as to who was better able to treat their patients in the early 1700s, the Aboriginal medicine men of the English doctors. I expect that it was much better to be treated by a traditional healing in Australia in the early 1700s than to be living in overcrowded English cities and be treated by English dotors.

Sources: Clarke, P, Aboriginal healing practices and Australian bush medicine,, accesses 7/8/2016