Open wide, here comes the castor oil

By Wesley Harris

If you watch old cartoons or movies, you may have seen references to castor oil. The scene usually involves a grandmother pushing a huge spoonful of the liquid down a sick or injured person’s throat, causing odd facial contortions from the concoction’s awful taste. For many sick children even up into the 20th century, castor oil proved the point that the cure is often worse than the disease.

Once employed to treat for just about every ailment known to man, the multi-purpose vegetable oil has been used for thousands of years. Castor seeds have been found inside ancient Egyptian tombs and mentioned in writings by ancient Greek historians. The oil is extracted from the seeds of the Ricinus communis plant, sometimes called the palma Christi or palm of Christ.

These seeds, known as castor beans, contain a toxic enzyme called ricin. However, the heating process castor oil undergoes deactivates it, allowing the oil to be used safely.

Castor oil has numerous medicinal, industrial, and pharmaceutical uses. The seeds of the plant contain approximately 60% vegetable oil. It is commonly used as an additive in foods, medications, and beauty products, as well as an industrial lubricant and biodiesel fuel component. In ancient Egypt, castor oil was burned as fuel in lamps, used as a natural remedy to treat ailments like eye irritation, and given to pregnant women to stimulate labor. Today, castor oil remains a popular treatment for common conditions like constipation and skin ailments.

Castor oil is one of the most widely used plant extracts in the world. The largest exporters of castor oil include Brazil, China, and India, but the plants are not a stranger to America. 

During the Civil War, castor beans were cultivated in large amounts in north Louisiana.

In his 1864 inaugural address, Louisiana’s new governor, Henry Watkins Allen, lamented the lack of medicines for citizens and soldiers alike. He encouraged the state legislature to fund a bureau to manufacture drugs, including establishing a laboratory to prepare indigenous medicines. Dr. Bartholomew Egan of Mt. Lebanon in Bienville Parish was appointed to lead the operation.

Egan purchased the land and buildings of Mt. Lebanon Female College, employed staff, and set up operations to produce the most needed medicines available from indigenous ingredients—turpentine, alcohol, castor oil, and opium.

Constipation and diarrhea were chronic problems among soldiers and civilians. The common cure for constipation was castor oil. When the war started, castor beans were selling at a dollar per bushel, but the conflict increased the prices. A year into the war, castor oil had risen from its ordinary price of $2 per gallon to over $10. While castor grows easily in the South, little was in production in the Confederacy at the time war broke out.

A Claiborne Parish physician, William C. Hedrick, wrote Egan to inform him a local farmer, 42-year-old John W. Willis was manufacturing excellent castor oil. Originally from Virginia, Willis and his father 68-year-old Joshua had operated a castor oil factory in Georgia and currently had 15 acres of castor beans under cultivation on their Forest Grove farm northeast of Homer.

Willis provided samples to Egan which earned him a place on the lab staff in November. By January 1865, the Willis operation had sent 33 gallons of castor oil to the Mt. Lebanon lab. 

Within a few months, the war wound down and the lab closed. Despite its abbreviated   operation, Governor Allen considered the venture a success. The state had medicines “amply sufficient for many months to come,” he told the legislature. “Every citizen of Louisiana can now be abundantly supplied with medicines of all kinds.”

Born during the final days of the war, John’s son, James Clinton Willis, may have been influenced by his father and grandfather’s efforts to improve the health of Louisianans. James became a prominent Shreveport physician and the namesake of one half of the Willis-Knighton Health System in northwest Louisiana. His partner, Joseph Knighton, also grew up Claiborne Parish and partnered for a time in Homer before moving their practices to Shreveport.

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