The Last Word: The Treatment

By: Tony Chavonne

As a young child, I always looked forward to spring each year with the first buds of dogwoods and azaleas pushing away the memories of winter. But one family tradition of each spring continues to haunt my memories – the dreaded spring dose of castor oil.

The common belief at the time was that a good treatment of castor oil could help with constipation, a lingering cold, upset stomach and maybe even childbirth labor, as I recall. My mother thought it was a true miracle drug. But looking back, I never saw her take any.

I never did join in with other kids to fake being sick to get a day off from school because I knew that ploy would result in a quick dose of castor oil. Nothing at school, no spelling test or multiplication table exercise, was worse than the fate of facing the treatment.

But my mother, being the progressive health care provider that she was, wasn’t content to allow the ailments to show themselves before getting the “treatment.”
She believed the spring was a good time to take a good dose of a preventative castor oil treatment. And while I don’t recall any real problems of relieving myself, this spring ritual was to help me “remain regular.”

Even after all these years, I can still see my mother shoving me to the kitchen where she would meet me after a stop at the bathroom for something from the medicine cabinet. Anyone growing up in the 1950s was familiar with the little bottle and the fate that awaited them. My mother filled the bottom of a glass with the thick, slow-moving liquid and instructed me to open my mouth. Tears were already welling in my eyes before my mouth ever touched the glass. I seem to recall even throwing up a few times after swallowing it.

Sometimes, my mother attempted to disguise the medicine by adding orange juice. But just seeing the juice floating on top of an inch of castor oil, separated by a clear demarcation line that prevented the orange juice and oil from really combining, only made the matter worse. The brief taste of the sweet orange juice was quickly forgotten as the thick oil slowly moved down the glass to your mouth.

Even worse, you couldn’t plan anything for the next several hours. But for all its complaints, the stuff did its job. Something to be said for progressive medicine at the time. They used to say the same think about using leeches back in the day.

A few years later, we saw the introduction of Fletcher’s Castoria as if softening the name and changing the color would really make a difference. Even as a young kid my eyes and my stomach saw through that ploy.

Castor oil’s use as a medicine dates to ancient Egypt. Introduced to China from India over 1,400 years ago, the castor oil plant is one of the oldest cultivated crops in human history.

In addition to being used to treat all sorts of ailments, castor oil and its derivatives are also used in the manufacture of soaps, lubricants, hydraulic and brake fluids, paints, dyes, inks, polishes and some plastics. Despite this, the Federal Drug Administration still lists castor oil as an acceptable product for medicinal purposes.

Castor oil has a strong laxative effect. When someone swallows castor oil, ricinolein acid latches onto molecules in smooth muscle cells on the walls of the small intestine and causes contractions, explaining castor oil’s effectiveness as a laxative.

Thankfully castor oil has joined the list of other medicines that have vanished from medicine cabinets over the years. Who can remember mercurochrome, cod liver oil, iodine or mercury thermometers? Just the names themselves would never survive the litigious era we find ourselves in today.

We are all the products of our upbringing. Given the benefit of time, we look back and choose the family traditions and experiences we want to convey to our children. I always promised myself that I would never expose my children to eating beef tripe, to taping a piece of fatback on a boil to bring it to a head or to the castor oil “treatment.”

I only hope they remain regular.