Big Pharma had not yet perfected the widespread manufacture of synthetic drugs in 1932. Instead, the industry relied on “western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee [to] furnish 75% of the crude botanical drugs which the continent of North America supplies to the drug markets of the world,” according to an article in Economic Geography that summer. “The productive area is not more than 200 miles in extent in either north-south or east-west direction.
“The southern Appalachians are very rich in variety of planet life. Of the 250 botanical drugs produced in the United States, more than two hundred are found in this region. The causes for this botanical wealth are to be found in its intermediate position between the North and South; the ancient ice-sheet invasion, crowding northern species southward; and the great diversity of climatic conditions, relief, and soils.”
Henry C. Fuller discusses the particulars of commercial medicinal herb gathering in a book titled ‘The Story of Drugs:’
“There is an important industry in the Carolinas engaged in collecting the many hundreds of our native botanical drugs. The firms thus engaged receive their wares from the mountaineers, and their own collectors sort the drugs, bale them, and ship them to the crude-drug dealers in the large cities, and to the larger pharmaceutical manufacturers.
“Ewing and Stanford have written an interesting account of a personal survey of the botanical resources and the methods pursued by the drug-collectors in this region. They found that crude drugs are collected in small amounts by a large proportion of the people of the mountains. Few, or none, gather drugs as a chief occupation. The mountaineers, in general, make their principal livings on tiny hillside clearings. “Because of the rugged character of the land, which unfits it for machine farming, large plantations are rarely found. Marketing of farm crops in large amounts is also difficult, owing to the steep grades and poor repair of the mountain roads, which in many places are little more than bridle-paths. Work away from the farms is normally scarce and wages are extremely low.
“Drug-collection is carried on largely when no other work offers, chiefly by the women and children, and is a rather haphazard process. The men, in general, consider such occupations beneath them, and collect, ostensibly, only heavy and bulky products, such as barks of the larger trees, and bring in the other products with an apologetic “Here’s some yarbs the women got.”
“The principal collecting seasons are spring, when most barks and some roots are gathered, and late summer, when the crops
no longer need cultivating, and herbs, leaves, and flowers abound, and roots may be distinguished by the herbage.
“Probably twenty tons of boneset pennyroyal and thorn apple leaves come from these Southern mountain districts every year (1897 figure) and forty to fifty tons of mandrake, Culver’s root, golden seal, garget root, blood root and black cohosh.
“The firms of the Blue Ridge region, with one exception, grind no drugs.
“Incoming stocks are, in some cases, inspected by the dealer in person. A number of firms employ comparatively young men as inspectors; in other cases, veterans grown old in the trade pass on the drugs. These inspectors, apparently without exception, are without scholastic training in science, and in some cases are quite illiterate.
“Scientific names of drugs are almost unknown. Microscopic and chemical tests are not resorted to. Even a hand-lens is rarely or ever used. Appearance, odor, taste, and “feel” are the chief criteria.
“With long experience, these inspectors attain a remarkable proficiency. Some even claim sound as definitive. One veteran, in search of certain material, went through a pile of unmarked bags, announcing the contents of each after a thrust or shake. Interrogation brought forth the modest response, “I reckon I tell ‘em by the rattle.”
“Colored help is frequently employed in the warehouses, but the inspectors are almost invariably white. One colored veteran, however, boasted an experience of forty-two years. While unable to read or write, he has a wide reputation as a “doctor” among his own race, and even is said to “send medicines North.”
“The knowledge of these inspectors as to the various properties of the products they handle, and of other locally used ‘medicinals,’ is an interesting blend of hearsay, superstition, tradition, and folklore.”
Sources: Botanicals of the Blue Ridge, by C.O. Ewing and E. E. Stanford, ‘Journ. Amer. Pharmaceutical Assn.,’ Vol. 8, 1919, p. 16
Wild Plant Industry of the Southern Appalachians, by Ina C. Yoakley, ‘Economic Geography,’ Vol 8, No 3 (July 1932)
The Story of Drugs: a popular exposition of their origin, preparation and commercial importance, by Henry C. Fuller, The Century Company, 1922