7 Native American Inventions That Revolutionized Medicine And Public Health

7 Native American Inventions That Revolutionized Medicine And Public Health

Natives treating the sick, engraving by Vernier

Natives treating the sick, United States of America, engraving by Vernier from Etats-Unis … [+] d’Amerique, by Roux de Rochelle, L’Univers Pittoresque, published by Firmin Didot Freres, Paris, 1837.


DeA / Biblioteca Ambrosiana

November is National American Indian Heritage Month, a time of recognition for the substantial contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the U.S. But, the month and remembrance, like many Native influences, still frequently go unrecognized in our day-to-day lives. Whether it’s the invention of vital infrastructure such as cable suspension bridges or sport for fun like lacrosse, so much of what exists in modern culture today is a direct result of what was created before newcomers occupied these lands.

And the world’s health ecosystem, ranging from preventative measures to administration of medicine is no different, owing much of its practices and innovations to those ancestral peoples and healers.

Here are seven inventions used every day in medicine and public health that we owe to Native Americans. And in most cases, couldn’t live without today:

1. Syringes

In 1853 a Scottish doctor named Alexander Wood was credited for the creation of the first hypodermic syringe, but a much earlier tool existed. Before colonization, Indigenous peoples had created a method using a sharpened hollowed-out bird bone connected to an animal bladder that could hold and inject fluids into the body. These earliest syringes were used to do everything from inject medicine to irrigate wounds. There are also cases in which these tools were even used to clean ears and serve as enemas.     

2. Pain Relievers

Native American healers led the way in pain relief. For example, willow bark (the bark of a tree) is widely known to have been ingested as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. In fact, it contains a chemical called salicin, which is a confirmed anti-inflammatory that when consumed generates salicylic acid – the active ingredient in modern-day aspirin tablets. In addition to many ingestible pain relievers, topical ointments were also frequently used for wounds, cuts and bruises. Two well-documented pain relievers include capsaicin (a chemical still referenced today that is derived from peppers) and jimson weed as a topical analgesic.

3. Oral Birth Control

Oral birth control was introduced to the United States in the 1960’s as a means of preventing pregnancy. But something with a similar purpose existed in indigenous cultures long before. Plant-based practices such as ingesting herbs dogbane and stoneseed were used for at least two centuries earlier than western pharmaceuticals to prevent unwanted pregnancy. And while they are not as effective as current oral contraception, there are studies suggesting stoneseed in particular has contraceptive properties.

4. Sun Screen

North American Indians have medicinal purposes for more than 2,500 plant species – and that is just what’s currently known between existing practices. But, for hundreds of years many Native cultures had a common skin application that involved mixing ground plants with water to create products that protected skin from the sun. Sunflower oil, wallflower and sap from aloe plants have all been recorded for their use in protecting the skin

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