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The History Of Herbal Medicine and RemediesThis post may contain affiliate links. Thank you for supporting Self-Reliant School with your purchases.August 21, 2015
Welcome back! Today we are exploring the history of Herbalism. To me, it’s important to know where we came from, so we know where we are going. Herbalism as a tradition has had many twists and turns - far too many to go into detail but we will touch on the high points. Let’s get started!
An herb can be defined as any plant that can be put to use either in our kitchen, or in a medicinal way. This includes herbs that we may associate with man-made medicines such as foxglove or poppy, as well as everyday plants like garlic and lovely sage.
The use of herbs and medicinal plants have been around since the beginning of time. Dare I say it began in the Garden of Eden!! “Then God said, “I give you every herb and seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” ~Gen 1:29~
Let’s take a look at a little herbal historyEvery culture on Earth has relied on the vast variety of plants, trees, seeds and bark that we call herbs and all their healing properties for a variety of therapeutic purposes. Take a look at a few statistics that show the world-wide interest in herbs:
We begin our journey over 5,000 years ago with the Sumerians - people from ancient Babylonia - who documented hundreds of medicinal herbs they used on clay tablets. (1) Then we pick up our trail with the Egyptians around 1500 B.C. who listed in the Ebers Papyrus over 850 medicinal plants; including garlic, juniper, cannabis, castor bean, aloe, and mandrake. Egyptians usually used herbs indigenous to their location although they did import a few. (2) Then we jump over to India where they practice Ayurveda, a form of medicine that uses many herbs including Turmeric, this tradition started as early as 4000 B.C. Sanskrit writings are some of the earliest manuscripts available detailing the medical knowledge of the Ayurvedic system. Herbs and minerals that were used were documented by herbalist Charaka and Sushruta who describe 700 medicinal plants, 64 mineral preparations and 57 animal preparations in The Sushruta Samhita. (3,4,5)
That is just a few examples of how far Herbalism dates back and how extremely important and widespread they were from Egypt to India and beyond.
Other civilizations contributed to the advancement of herbalism:
The origins of Chinese herbalism are unclear and rooted in myths. The legendary figures such as Shennong (13) (who was reportedly the “divine cultivator”) invented agriculture and identified many medicinal plants. It was said he tasted the flavor of hundreds of herbs and supposedly he also discovered tea drinking as well. Apparently leaves from a bush fell in a bowl of water boiling nearby, hence tea!
The Chinese usually prescribe herbs in standard formulas and these may be adjusted slightly depending on the specific condition the patient is experiencing. The formulas may include two herbs or twenty-two and the interaction between the herbs is extremely important. Herbs are generally given as pills, powders or as decoctions or “soups”. In traditional Chinese herbalism the characteristics of a plant always include taste, temperature and an indication of the organ it affects. (14)
Remember the fall of Rome?After the fall of Rome, herbalism in Europe was not completely plunged into the Dark Ages. On the contrary, the barbarians that swept the country also brought with them their own herbal healing customs.They added their traditions to the Roman herbal practices.
During this time the oldest herbal remedies book was written (these books are also called herbals), “The Leech Book of Bald” dates from the first half of the 10th century. (15) This book included remedies sent by the Patriarch of Jerusalem to King Alfred. Numerous treatments are described for ailments caused by “flying venom” and “elfshot”. Among the most popular herbs of these times were Wood Betony, Vervain, Mugwort, Plantain and Yarrow. These would be taken internally and also worn as amulets.
The Church was largely responsible for all herbal healing during this time frame. Monasteries would grow medicinal herbs and tend the sick. Healing was part prayer and part herbs.
Herbal Books or Materia MedicaDuring this timeframe, illustrated herbal books which we call Materia Medica, came into being. Nicholas Culpeper, an apothecary by trade, was determined to make medical knowledge more accessible to other apothecaries, who prescribed most of the herbal remedies. He authored one of the most popular and controversial English herbals in 1653 called The English Physician. Culpeper's herbal was criticized by the medical establishment for its mix of magic and astrology with botanical medicine, but it became one of the most popular books of botanical medicine for its day. (16) There were also several other great herbal books written in this time period:
Gerard describes mint as “...marvelous and wholesome for the stomach…it stops hiccups and is good against watery eyes and a sure remedy for children’s sore heads.”
Lemon balm, according to Gerard, is good against “the bitings of venomous beasts.” The juice “holds together” green wounds.
Gerard also found the distilled water of lavender “virtuous,” whether it be “by smelling or applied at the temples and bathed on the forehead.” (paraphrased) (17)
North American Traditions: A Mix of Native American & Old WorldThe first settlers arriving in North America brought with them many familiar healing plants from home such as Heartsease and Plantain. The early settlers also integrated many Native American healing traditions and discovered new herbs such as Boneset, Purple Coneflower, Goldenseal and Pleurisy root. The combination of traditional herbs with the Native American healing methods eventually made it back home to Europe and has had a lasting influence on herbal practices there.
The early pioneers and Native Americans shared much of their herbal knowledge with one another. An early enthusiast, Samuel Thomson founded the Physiomedical movement. He believed that parents were responsible for both their own health and that of their children’s health. He patented a series of handbooks full of remedies called, “Thomson’s Improved System of Botanic Practice of Medicine”. (18) His main theory was that “All disease is caused by cold.” Central to the Physiomedical view was the belief that by strengthening the bodies vital forces we keep our tissues and nervous system in balance. Using herbs to help maintain this balance was an intricate component of this theory.
Other systems based in the botanicals followed, among them the United States Infirmary in New York, followed in 1829 by the Reformed Medical College, both were founded by Dr. Wooster Beech. The Eclectics liked to combine the use of herbal remedies with Native American healing practices. In its day, Eclecticism had more than 20,000 practitioners.(19)
Physiomedicalism and Eclecticism made their respective ways over to Europe and eventually in 1864 these various groups merged into The National Association Medical Herbalist. That association continues on today as The National Institute of Medical Herbalists.(20)
Plants = Pills, Oh My!Extracts and essential oils have been prepared from plants for a very long time. Traditional herbalism has always combined herbs to modify effects, viewing the whole as greater than the parts. The movement to identify individual active ingredients and use these single constituents as drugs began in the 18th century. The chemical properties from these single components were quite different, property wise, from the original herb.
Initially these drugs could only be obtained from plant extracts but later the chemical structure of many extracts were identified and synthesized. In creating chemical copies from plants for the sake of convenience, we have lost the art of combining herbs.
Three “Old” Modern DrugsLet’s look at 3 herbs that had their chemical structure identified, synthesized and made into modern drugs:
Let’s remember: instead of trying to remove symptoms of sickness when they appear, to try and stay consistently in-tune with our bodies and recognize symptoms of imbalance as it manifests itself, and treat the causes to restore our bodies back to wellness.
Let’s bring back the old traditions…and make them new again!
1. Sumner, Judith (2000). The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Timber Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-88192-483-0.
2. Sumner, Judith (2000). The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Timber Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-88192-483-0.
3. Susan G. Wynn; Barbara Fougère (2007). Veterinary Herbal Medicine. Elsevier Health Sciences. p. 60.
4. Aggarwal BB, Sundaram C, Malani N, Ichikawa H (2007). "Curcumin: the Indian solid gold". Adv. Exp. Med. Biol. ADVANCES IN EXPERIMENTAL MEDICINE AND BIOLOGY 595: 1–75. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-46401-5_1. ISBN 978-0-387-46400-8. PMID 17569205.
5. Girish Dwivedi, Shridhar Dwivedi (2007). History of Medicine: Sushruta – the Clinician – Teacher par Excellence (PDF). National Informatics Centre. Retrieved 2008-10-08.
6. Grammaticos PC, Diamantis A (2008). "Useful known and unknown views of the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates and his teacher Democritus". Hell J Nucl Med 11 (1): 2–4. PMID 18392218.
7. "Hippocrates". Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. Microsoft Corporation. 2006. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31.
8. Strong, W.F.; Cook, John A. (July 2007), "Reviving the Dead Greek Guys" (pdf), Global Media Journal, Indian Edition
9. Traditional Greco-Arabic and Modern Western Medicine: Conflict or Symbiosis? by Hakim Mohammed Said Copyright 1975 by Hamdard Academy - Karachi, Pakistan pp. 17 - 23
10. "Greek Medicine". National Institutes of Health, USA. 16 September 2002. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
11. Forbes, Andrew ; Henley, Daniel; Henley, David (2013). 'Pedanius Dioscorides' in: Health and Well Being: A Medieval Guide. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books.
12. Traditional Chinese Medicine, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction
13. Christie, Anthony (1968). Chinese Mythology. Feltham: Hamlyn Publishing. ISBN 0-600-00637-9.
14. Flaws, B., & Finney, D., (1996): "A handbook of TCM patterns & their treatments" Blue Poppy Press. 6th Printing 2007. ISBN 978-0-936185-70-5
15. Nokes, Richard Scott ‘The several compilers of Bald’s Leechbook’ in Anglo-Saxon England 33 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 51-76
16. Hanrahan, Clare; Odle, Teresa. "Herbalism, Western." Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. 2005.Encyclopedia.com. 3 Aug. 2015
18. Dr. Samuel Thompson's Botanic System - from The History of Warren County, Ohio (W. H. Beers & Co. of Chicago, 1882), p304 ff.
19. The History of Western Herbal Medicine, Chanchal Cabrera, 2006.
21. Haughton, Claire (1980). Green Immigrants. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. pp. 133–134. ISBN 0-15-636492-1.
William Withering, An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses (Birmingham, England: M. Swinney, 1785).
22. Meyer, Klaus (2004). "Dem Morphin auf der Spur". Pharmazeutischen Zeitung (in German). GOVI-Verlag. Retrieved 8 Sept 2009.
23. Uchytil, RJ (1991). "Salix drummondiana". Fire Effects Information System,. Online. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,
Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Retrieved 2006-07-19.
Howdy there, I'm Kat! I'm a southern gal who loves being a wife, mother, blogger, writer and a follower of Jesus Christ. I adore coffee, chocolate, sweet tea, essential oils, herbs, gardening, homemade bread, meows, guns, drag racing and TEXAS! Simply Living Simply was created 3 years ago, from my hearts desire to share Simple ideas pertaining to homesteading & preparedness, gardening & food, herbs to DIY and everything in-between, all with a Semi-Homemade twist. Two rules we live by around here: Keep it Simple & always Semi-homemade!