A Brief History of Western Herbal Medicine
Medicinal Practices In Primitive Societies
Herbal medicine is one of the oldest forms of healing. Our most primitive forbears made abundant use of available plants to treat illness and injury. The choice of plants and information was consistently passed down from one generation to the next. Knowledge grew as early populations migrated to new lands and discovered and experimented with new plants.
Early Herbal Leaders
Some of the earliest writings to be discovered were focused on plants. Several early herbals have been collected. The Chinese herbal Pen Ts’ao of Shen Nung addresses 366 different plants used for medicinal purposes. They were written in approximately 2800 BC. Some Indian texts on medicinal plants are thought to be even older than Pen Ts’ao.
Hippocrates is often called the “Father of Medicine.” He strongly believed that natural laws governed health and well-being and that the environment directly influenced health. His most famous quote is that we should “let food be our medicine and medicine be our food.” Other influential healers were Crataeus, Mithridates and Dioscorides.
The Halt of Progress in the Dark Ages
Europe descended into the Dark Ages when the Roman Empire fell. During that time, monks maintained the Greek and Roman traditions of healing. They were the only people capable of translating and transcribing Latin texts. There is virtually no documentation of new works during that period, but rather the recopying of older and already established works.
People who needed healing did not always have access to a monastery. They relied on the medicinal techniques of a local healer. One of the most important techniques and beliefs was based on the “doctrine of signatures,” which said that a medicinal plant should look like the disease it treated. For example, Eyebright had a purple center inside of a white flower, and it was found to be an effective treatment for several eye irritations.
The Charter of Rights for Herbalists
During the time that Henry VIII reigned, there were growing disputes between the traditional botanical therapists and the rapidly increasing number of practitioners of alchemical healing routes. In order to quiet the critics of herbal medicine, a Charter of Rights for Herbalists was established. With the protection of the law established through the Charter of Rights for Herbalists, herbal medicine grew to great prominence. One of the first herbals to contain new information since the Dark Ages was published by the English Master-surgeon John Gerard in 1597. He addressed over 3500 medicinal plants that the English were only just beginning to recognize.
English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper popularity grew in the 1600â€™s. Culpeper wanted to transform medicine such that locally grown plants and more simple formulations could replace complex and expensive medications. The herbal, which he published in 1652, has gone through over 40 editions through today. Copies are still being sold.
Almost a hundred years after Culpeper became a prominent herbalist, Dr. William Withering isolated the first active constituent from a plant. Withering isolated the “potent active force” from foxglove, which was found to have beneficial effects on dropsy. After additional studies were conducted, the active ingredient was found to be so potent that its use was limited to only licensed practitioners. Foxglove was the first herb to be officially lost to herbalists.
Herbal Medicines in Early America
Early pioneers in America slowly began to realize that the Native Americans had a significant knowledge of medicinal plants. Once over their initial distrust, the settlers shared in the new knowledge that the natives offered. Much of that knowledge has been passed down through today. Such herbal medicines as Echinacea, Goldenseal, Yellow Root and Wild Yam were products of the medicinal efforts of Native Americans.
The Flexner Report
Medical practitioners were appalled that the herbal healers had achieved such success. The foundation of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847 was the focal point for efforts to end the use of natural remedies in favor of the new drug remedies becoming more readily available. In the early 1900’s, the AMA began a study of the available medical education establishments, and as a requirement for license approval they began looking for laboratories and texts that were neither used nor needed by the herbalists. The AMA ran out of money to complete the study. The Carnegie Foundation appointed Abraham Flexner to complete it. In 1910 the Flexner Report was released and devastated the herbal community. Herbal medicine died down for the next 60 years in America, prior to its recent revival.
According to the World Health Organization, herbal medicine is the primary form of treatment for over 80% of the world’s population. The sale of herbal products is continuing to grow. The enrollment in herbal colleges is steadily rising. And, furthermore, the standards for herbal medicines are improving.