Tuesday, October 14, 2003
Jamaica Ginger Paralysis
The September 15, 2003 New Yorker included a fascinating story, "Jake Leg," by Dan Baum.
(The article is available for download here.) The article tells the tale of a strange
paralysis that may have affected as many as 100,000 Americans, primarily poor men, in the early 1930s.
Symptoms of the disease included paralyzed feet and partial to full paralysis of the legs, along with sexual
impotence. This large-scale public health disaster might be lost to history if it weren't for the efforts of
Dr. John Morgan, who has written quite a bit about it. (See, e.g., Morgan, John P., "The Jamaica Ginger
Paralysis." Journal of the American Medical Association 248(15): 1864-1867, October 15, 1982.)
An important source of information for Dr. Morgan has been references to jake leg in blues songs from the
early 1930s. Dan Baum interviewed Dr. Morgan and had access to Morgan's copious files for the
New Yorker article.
The Jamaica Ginger Paralysis was a product of national alcohol Prohibition, it seems. Jamaica ginger
extract ("jake") was a high-alcohol product, but as it was ostensibly intended for medicinal, not beverage
purposes, it could be legally manufactured and sold during Prohibition. Jake's high alcohol potency and
affordability made it particularly popular with poor drinkers. Consumption of adulterated (and poisonous)
jake seems to have been the cause of jake leg, the paralysis.
If jake was able to be manufactured and sold legally during Prohibition, why would there be adulterated
versions or any significant problems with quality control? The reason lies in the desire that Prohibition
enforcers had to limit the size of the "for medicinal purposes" loophole. To prevent this particular end run
around Prohibition, regulations were enacted to make fluid extracts like jake unpalatable (in a manner
similar to the denaturing of alcohol intended for industrial purposes to preclude its diversion to
beverages.) It was in an effort to skirt these regulations, it seems, that led two shady Boston brothers
to adulterate their jake, and ultimately to paralyze many thousands of people.