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The Medicine Man

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Medical training has changed some over the years. Today, the end result of eight or nine years of college, medical school, internships and residencies is often a specialist who knows all there is to know about ears—at least the left ear.

Contrast this with the medicine man who made his rounds of small towns up and down the Mississippi Valley at the turn of the century. His training must have required a liberal arts degree combining science with music, advertising, public speaking, theater, and bookkeeping—and a smidgeon of science.

The medicine man who frequented Macomb, Illinois, around 1915 or so must have been typical. He arrived each summer for a two week stay, setting up his tent in a vacant lot on West Jackson Street across from the Catholic Church. Each night he put on a free show, drawing crowds of curious people. His first act was musical; he played the sweet potato and a cigar box fiddle. His specialty was penny whistles. He played a duet in harmony through a penny whistle in each nostril. "I play my flute-lets with my snoot-lets," he told the crowd. Every kid in the crowd who had wasted time studying piano or clarinet was envious of the flute-lets. He became a personal inspiration to many.

Next, the medicine man would invite a number of men and women to give testimonials of their cures: showing large bottles of preserved tapeworms and other items as evidence. Each patient had suffered unbelievably until they had taken this man's tinctures, syrups, compounds, salves, and tonics—which he would then sell for a dollar a bottle to an eager audience. The medicine man had a way of describing a list of diseases so effectively that most of the audience discovered they had the same symptoms, and so the medicine sold well.

The medicine man's patent medicines may not have always worked, but it always made the patients feel better, being, as it was, mostly alcohol with different flavors.

Modern impersonal HMOs could learn something from these liberally educated predecessors. I know that if my doctor played flute-lets with his snoot-lets which the nurse drew blood, I'd enjoy it a lot more.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.