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Mary Jane Thornhill (1875-1949) Lynchburg Midwife

Mary Jane Thornhill’s grandson Kyle Thornhill remembers his grandmother leaving at night to go to sit up with people. She used castor oil and “bread soda” (baking soda) as medicines.

“She would rub salve on you and wrap you in flannel and make you lie on your back. She’d pin you down to the covers with big pins and you’d have to stay in that position all night.”

Once Kyle Thornhill had a sore on his knee that would not heal. His grandmother got a friend’s dog to come and lick the sore, and shortly after that, it healed.

For a severe, deep cough, she would “take corn liquor and peppermint candy and mash it up for a toddy.”

White medical professionals viewed African American midwifery as superstitious and backward, but many traditional practices were sound. For example, a midwife might help a woman give birth in a squatting position, give rice water for an infant’s loose bowels, or use hot water in a bottle to keep a premature baby warm.

Donated by Yvonne Thornhill Ferguson

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