Ornamental Separator

Researching Spotlight: Finding Dr. PawPaw Part 2

Hi everyone, this is Emily Zimmerman, back with the second part of my blog series “Finding Doctor Pawpaw,” where I share my work analyzing the commonplace book of John Custis IV and following the trail of the elusive Dr. Pawpaw, author of one of the remedies in the book. If you haven’t had a chance to read the first post in the series yet, you can find it here.

[Header image is Dr. Pawpaw's Remedy for Pox or Yaws from the Custis Commonplace Book. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.]

Doctor Pawpaw’s Remedy for Pox or Yaws:

“Take four ounces of y inward barke of Spanish oak two ounces of y inward barke of pine and two ounces of Sumake root of all wch make a Strong decoction – Let y patient first drink a pint of this liquor milk warm while he is fasting, and one minute after that is don let him drink ½ a pint more of ye same liquor cold and he will vomit plentifully – The next morning let him drink half a pint of the decoction milk warm; as much at noon, and as much at night, he must continue to take this – quantity till ye symptoms disappear wch will commonly happen in a month or six weeks, in case there Should bee any ulcers in ye mouth or throat, the patient must chew y Shumake root every day and swallow ye Juice but if he has outward sores he must keep them perfectly clean wth a solution of ye blew Stone and yn anoint ym wth deer or hares dung and turpentine; made into an oyntment wth oyl of Rattlesnake, or for want of yt wth hogs lard, in y mean time he must abstain from salt meat, and Strong drink, wch is all y confinemt is necessary, this medicine will allso cure y yaws if taken a longer time unless in very bad cases and then it will moderate ye symptoms and keep ye distemper under, This medicine will cure ye dropsy and is essentiall against poison, but in these cases few –Experimt have yet bin made, except by Doctor Pawpaw himself.”

The remedy above was one of 42 recorded in the commonplace book (or the CPB, as we call it) of John Custis IV that he attributed to a doctor. Of those mentioned, 41 were known medical practitioners, and some had even published their remedies and treatments. John Custis’ cursive is often almost illegible, so when I first ran across Dr. Pawpaw’s name, I initially read it as “Doctor Panapan.” I tried searching for more about Dr. Panapan but found nothing relevant to medicine or medical remedies—frustrating to be sure! I was left with little to do other than search random combinations of terms I thought might lead me to the original author of the cure. I wound up finding a book, titled Writing African History, where an enslaved man in Virginia, named “Panpan,” was briefly mentioned as having gained his freedom in 1729 after revealing a “secret concoction of roots and herbs” he used as a cure for yaws and syphilis.

Writing African History and its story of Panpan led me to a host of additional resources. I followed the trail and found the same basic story told again and again but with a few variations to the name, along with two later references to his age. One resource described him as an “old African” and another as “a very old slave.” Once, he was mistakenly referred to as “Pagan” but, most of the time, is called Pawpaw, Papaw, or Panpan. A few sources even mentioned his first name. Coincidentally, I found an earlier transcription of the CPB—the very document I have been working to transcribe—where he had been called, “Doctor Taupan.” Everywhere I looked I found a new interpretation, but the most common one seemed to be, Pawpaw or Dr. Pawpaw. Eventually, I understood that Custis’ handwriting had been the biggest hurdle on my journey to find the man who, according to several sources beyond the CPB, had found a cure for yaws and, according to Virginia’s colonial records, the name I was looking for was, indeed, Pawpaw—James Pawpaw.

A book entitled, Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World —incidentally, the only source outside of the CPB where I found Pawpaw referred to as “Dr.”—included a letter that recounted a story about Dr. Pawpaw’s cure. The letter was written in 1757 by an English medical practitioner by the name of Dixon. Apparently, Dixon and his business partner received a shipment of enslaved people in 1730, some of whom had come down with “the pox.” Dixon was supposedly “famous for curing these distempers,” but his partner bet him that Dr. Pawpaw’s remedy could cure them faster than his own. Dixon used a mercurial to treat seven slaves, and they were cured “pretty well.” But when the partner asked how the other slaves recovered, Dixon admitted that Dr. Pawpaw’s remedy worked faster than his own.

As it turns out, the Dixon letter was written close to 30 years after Dr. Pawpaw’s remedy was made public in 1729. In my continued search, I found that the Executive Journals of the Council of Virginia recorded a decision made by Governor William Gooch and the Governor’s Council that freed James Pawpaw on April 29, 1729. The document states that 50 pounds would be paid to Ms. Frances Littlepage for Pawpaw’s freedom. The Littlepage family, living in New Kent County Virginia, owned James Pawpaw at the time of his emancipation. One source interprets this exchange as Governor Gooch having purchased Pawpaw from the Littlepages. I think that’s a fair assumption, considering that the Executive Journals also state that Pawpaw would “remain under the direction of the government until he make a discovery of some other secrets he has for expelling poison, and the cure of other diseases.” According to American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World, in order to ensure that Pawpaw would reveal more remedies, the colony of Virginia offered him an annual pension of 20 pounds.

An interesting sidenote on the decision to free James Pawpaw is the fact that our very own John Custis IV was a member of the Governor’s Council at the time. That Custis would have been among the first to know about the remedy would certainly have colored his support of the governor’s decision to emancipate Pawpaw. Reinforcing his decision, though, might have been the fact that Pawpaw would apparently become a sort of employee of the Virginia Colony, meaning that Custis could keep up with any new cures offered by Dr. Pawpaw—a perpetual connection to an invaluable resource.

Thanks for joining me for part two of Finding Dr. Pawpaw! Stay tuned for part three to see my analysis of Doctor Pawpaw’s remedy!

Emily Zimmerman is an archaeology lab technician with the Colonial Williamsburg Department of Archaeology. In addition to her work transcribing and researching the remedies recorded in the Commonplace Book of John Custis IV, Emily works tirelessly cataloguing the many artifacts uncovered at Custis Square.


The American Revolution Project (2020) The Business of Freeing a Slave in Virginia. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Breslaw, Elaine G (2014) Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America, NYU Press.

Brickell, John (1737) The Natural History of North Carolina, Johnson Publishing Company.

Chappell, Gordon W. Ed. (2000) Southern Plant Lists, Southern Garden History Society, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Edwards-Ingram, Ywone (2005) Medicating Slavery: Motherhood, health care, and cultural practices in the African diaspora. College of William & Mary – Arts & Sciences.

McIlwaine, H.R. Ed. (1930) Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia Vol. IV, Virginia State Library, Richmond VA.

Parish, Susan Scott (2012) American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. UNC Press Books.

Parramore, Thomas C. (1971) The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, The “Country Distemper” In Colonial North Carolina. North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

Paugh, Katherine (2014) Yaws, Syphilis, Sexuality, and the Circulation of Medical Knowledge in the British Caribbean and the Atlantic World. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 88 (2). Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schiebinger, Londa (2017) Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World, Stanford University Press.

Taylor, Lyda Averill (1940) Plants Used as Curatives by Certain Southeastern Tribes, Botanical Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge MA

World Health Organization (2019) Fact Sheet: Yaws, Geneva, Switzerland.

Zuppan, Josephine Little Ed. (2005) The Letterbook of John Custis IV of Williamsburg, 1717-1742. Rowman & Littlefield.

Colonial Williamsburg is the largest living history museum in the world. Witness history brought to life on the charming streets of the colonial capital and explore our newly expanded and updated Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, featuring the nation’s premier folk art collection, plus the best in British and American fine and decorative arts from 1670–1840. Check out sales and special offers and our Official Colonial Williamsburg Hotels to plan your visit.

Explore Related Topics

Learn More

Bringing the Past to Life: From Archaeologists to Actors

10 Minute Read

What Similarities and Differences Did the 13 Colonies Share?

6 Minute Read