Madeleine Albright didn’t mince words. She emphatically insisted “there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.”

Amen to that, sister!

Lydia Pinkham was a woman who helped women. In that respect, she was ahead of her time. Born in 1818 in Lynn, Mass., Pinkham dedicated her life to relieving the pain and suffering of women. An abolitionist and champion for women’s health, Lydia gained notoriety among her friends and family for her brewed home remedies. One of these herbal helpers was a "woman’s tonic" especially effective at relieving what was then termed "female complaints."

In 1873, Pinkham started a company to mass produce, market and sell her product, called Lydia Pinkham’s Original Vegetable Compound. This product was incredibly successful, its bottles sporting Pinkham’s picture and a personal message. By the time of her death in 1883, this bottled herbal tonic was grossing $300,000 annually and by 1925 profits peaked at $3.8 million. The formula was even patented, assuring Pinkham family control for 50 years. It is no surprise to anyone who suffers from menstrual or menopausal pain that this product was so popular. It even spurred a silly drinking song that went like this:


Let us sing (let us sing) of Lydia Pinkham

   The benefactress of the human race.

She invented a vegetable compound,

   And now all papers print her face,


O, Mrs. Brown could do no housework,

   O, Mrs. Brown could do no housework,

She took three bottles of Lydia’s com pound,

  And now there’s nothing she will shirk,

she will shirk,


Mrs. Jones she had no children,

   And she loved them very dear.

So she took three bottles of Pinkham’s

   Now she has twins every year.


Lottie Smyth ne’er had a lover,

   Blotchy pimples caused her plight;

But she took nine bottles of Pinkham’s--

   Sweethearts swarm about her each night.


Oh Mrs. Murphy (Oh Mrs. Murphy)

     Was perturbed because she couldn’t seem to pee

Till she took some of Lydia’s compound

     And now they run a pipeline to the sea!


  And Peter Whelan (Peter Whelan)

     He was sad because he only had one nut

Till he took some of Lydia’s compound

     And now they grow in clusters ‘round his butt

Pinkham’s secret was herbs, and one plant known to be in the tonic was colicroot.  Colicroot, also known as crow corn, unicorn root and stargrass (and scientifically Aletris farinose) grows wild in Island fields. Though its white flowers in a long raceme bloom throughout summer, Lydia knew that now is the time to harvest this plant for its medicinal properties.

Its roots and rhizomes were procured in the fall and dried well before mixing with alcohol and other plants to perfect the remedy. Beware of the fresh roots, as they are thought to be mildly poisonous. Although the taste of colicroot has been described as “genuine, intense and permanent bitterness,” its medical benefits go beyond menstrual maladies.

Of course, colic could be cured, and Appalachians believed that it could treat rheumatism when mixed with brandy or whiskey. Fever doesn’t have a chance when faced with colicroot, and it was especially good for ‘expelling flatulence,’ in addition to all of its other benefits.

So no matter what your current condition, medicine may just be outside your door and the knowledge of its use, right in your neighborhood. Lydia Pinkham proved that with a little know-how and the right recipe, there is a remedy for all that ails you.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.