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Alumnus book conjures the healing power of historical, modern medical practices

Katie Cowart

Growing up fishing and shrimping in the salt creeks near Savannah, Georgia, William Crump (BS '75) took a keen interest in the local ecology. When his parents brought him to the University of Georgia on a tour a few years later, his fire was lit. 

"Eugene Odum was at UGA. When my parents brought me to Athens, he stopped what he was doing, came down to meet me and my parents, and took me on a tour of his labs," said Crump. "When I walked out of there, I thought, this is a special place. Odum literally wrote the textbook on ecology, and he took his time for this high school kid."  

After graduating with his bachelor of science in zoology from UGA, Crump realized that his thirst for knowledge had grown beyond ecology and decided to pursue a medical degree. He earned his MD from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and completed his residency in family practice at University of Alabama-Birmingham. He has been a professor and associate dean at University of Louisville School of Medicine Trover Campus since 1998. 

"Eugene Odum's legacy is the reason I became a teacher. If a high school kid thinks they want to be a doctor, I stop and sit with them and light that fire," said Crump. "Later in college if they get frustrated with organic chemistry or the MCAT, I encourage them not to give up. I keep lighting those fires. It's a feeling of accomplishment that you just can't get anywhere else."

Crump has now published his first book, "Savannah's Hoodoo Doctor: The Tyranny of Dogma," which contrasts his modern medical training with the healing traditions of the West African and indigenous American peoples around Savannah. Crump pairs his years of experience with the sights, smells, and sounds of the coastal southeast to create a backdrop that accompanies the protagonist on his quest for knowledge and forgiveness.   

"The Europeans brought their medical traditions and history with them and that is the tyranny of dogma the book talks about," said Crump. "The Europeans had one way of thinking about things, but couldn't there be other ways? I explore traditional medical practices and broach differing perspectives."

From a young age, Crump was interested in the Gullah culture and the hoodoo spirituality that grew with it around Savannah. European overseers would leave the rice islands in the summer to avoid malaria, and the relatively immune enslaved West Africans were able to practice their traditions unencumbered by the tyranny of European control. 

"I learned a lot about that as a high school kid in Savannah. My father, to teach me the value of a dollar, allowed me to work at a moving company where summers are 100 degrees and 98% humidity," said Crump. "I worked with Gullah descendants. They spoke Gullah around me. Once I had the time, I learned everything I could about Gullah, and that's in the book."

The protagonist of the book embarks on a magical adventure after drinking root doctor tea that propels him into a dreamscape that blurs time and reality. Forced to participate in the horrors of medical practices of 1864, the protagonist works with Mary, a mysterious woman of mixed Gullah heritage, to forge a new understanding of his own experiences as a modern practitioner. The experience leads to an internal journey seeking forgiveness for perceived missed opportunities and an eventual convergence of the different traditions of healing. 

"Doctors sometimes fail patients, or at least we think we do, but there are a hundred things that can go wrong. There is forgiveness for patient care. There's forgiveness for the environment I grew up in, the racist, sexist environment," said Crump. "I chose a biracial female healer to be the focus to address what many people ignored and stamped out much of the cultural richness around them in favor of European tradition. My work on this book provided a sense of hope that things can change." 

"Savannah's Hoodoo Doctor: The Tyranny of Dogma" will be followed by two more books set in the 1700s around Savannah with a focus on healing traditions of Native Americans and Haitians, with a closer look at gender and race. 

Image: Dr. William Crump


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