Grandmother’s Finnish Medicines


The following is a story about folk-medicine from my grandpa that heard all of this from his grandmother. My grandpa grew up in the northwest United States, and went into the Navy when he was 18. He is now 74 years old. I was told this story when asking about any possible stories that his family had when he was growing up, as he had lived an exciting life, doing many crazy things with his time. I recorded him via phone call. This is a direct transcribed script of what was said in the story, with the various “umm’s” and “uhh’s” omitted.


“My grandmother was old country, she was born in 1878 in Finland. And she moved to the United States in 19… 1896, why am I thinking of what they said on that heritage site. And so, being from the old country when I was a kid growing up she had a lot of weird customs, that’s what they did back there in Finland. She was a Laplander, there from the northern part of finland. And she, they had a lot of homemade remedies for different things. And I, most of the stuff that she did to herself was stuff she had learned as a young girl in finland. And she would want, if I got sick, say she would want to use these homemade remedies on me. 

Some of them were just really bad. If you had a fever, she would want you to take chopped up onions and milk and boil them together and drink it. *laughing* I wouldn’t do it. 

They had a, there’s a medicine called ichthammol and basically what it is is it’s a pharmaceutical tar. And she used to rub it on her knees and on her hips for arthritis. If you could imagine rubbing all that black stuff all over yourself. And then she would wrap herself in linens. She was… I mean I loved her dearly, but she was really weird.”


Hearing this short piece from my grandpa about the weird ways of his Finnish grandmother was interesting. While he didn’t give too many specific examples of the folk medicine his grandma performed, he gave a couple of examples that show just how weird some of them might be. The first thing he explained with boiling the onions and milk sounds absolutely awful and I have no idea why anyone would think that that would be good for a fever. Now, I have heard that onions help with illnesses because of the way they can clear your sinuses, but pairing them with milk and then boiling it seems quite outlandish. But, to my great great grandmother, apparently, this was a common thing to be done in Finland unless she was just a mean old lady messing with my grandpa. As for the use of ichthammol, I couldn’t find anything suggesting that that actually helped with arthritis. The medicine doesn’t seem to have any origins in Finland, so I am not sure how his grandma came up with that idea to rub it on her knees.