History Hotline

“…I'm a jake walkin' papa with the jake walk blues”

Old bottle that contained jamaica ginger“A preacher drank some ginger, he said he did it for `flu . That was his excuse for having the jake leg too.”

In a classic example of culture reflecting the conditions of the times, so sang the Allen Brothers and Vardaman Ray respectively in the 1930s. “Jake leg” or “jake walk” meant permanent paralysis for as many as 100,000 people who drank a certain patent medicine product known as Jamaica Ginger -- a ginger extract. During prohibition, the Treasury Department ordered the percentage of solids in patent medicine doubled to reduce “tippling”, and so a pair of zealous manufacturers added tri-ortho-cresyl-phosphate, TOCP, a "plasticizer" used to keep synthetic materials from becoming brittle, to their Jamaica Ginger product to meet this new regulation, thus introducing a potent neuro-toxin. Sounds a little like the recent pet food debacle that occurred in 2007!. Such incidents heighten awareness of the continuing need for agencies like the FDA to safeguard products that we assume are safe – read Emily Friedman’s commentary, Happy Tails, Jake Leg, and the Food and Drug Administration.

Delve into the details of this incident in health sciences history. The Great American Medicine Show: being an illustrated history of hucksters, healers, health evangelists, and heroes from Plymouth Rock to the present (WZ 310 A735g 1991) references the events on pg. 170 in the Patent Medicines chapter. Listen to songs about “jake leg” recorded by blues artists of the time – check out the Jake leg blues CD in the Music Library (CD 13587). Or visit the web and listen to Jake Leg: An Affliction and the Blues It Inspired, the 2003 NPR segment in which they interviewed Dr. John Morgan, an authority on the topic.

Western New York residents may wonder if our local Jog for the Jake run has anything to do with “jake leg” – the answer is it does NOT. The 5K road race and Kids' Fun Run, established in 2002 in memory of Dr. Lawrence D. Jacobs, Buffalo's world-renowned Multiple Sclerosis (MS) physician and researcher, raises funds for The Jacobs Neurological Institute to be used for neurological research. It is just coincidence that both “jake leg” and “Jog for the Jake” involve neurological conditions.

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