In an age of medical specialization in which an expert in neurology will know little about the latest developments in medicine for the ear, nose, and throat, it is difficult to imagine the practices of an earlier time, when healing was holistic in nature and heavily reliant on magic, mysticism, and age-old oral traditions.
The Development of Medicinal Lore
Medicine Breaks from its Mystical Origins
Foundation of Major Herbal Traditions 300 BCE–600 CE
Folk Healing in the Middle Ages
Islamic & Indian Medicine 500–1500 CE
Central & South American Cures
Rebirth of European Scholarship 1000–1400 CE
Trade between Continents 1400-1700
Health & Hygiene 1400–1700
The Influence of Paracelsus
Deadly Cures 1700–1900
The New Rationalism
The Gap in the Scientific Approach
Laboratory versus Nature
New Frontiers, New Herbal Medicines
Samuel Thomson & his Followers
Western Influences on Asian Medicine
Herbalism Outlawed 1850–1900
From the earliest times, medicinal plants have been crucial in sustaining the health and the well-being of mankind. Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum), for example, provided its harvesters with a nutritious food oil, fuel, a cosmetic balm for the skin, and fiber to make fabric. At the same time it was used to treat conditions such as bronchitis, respiratory congestion, boils, and a number of digestive problems.
Given the life-enhancing benefits that this and so many other plants conferred, it is hardly surprising that most cultures believed them to have magical as well as medicinal abilities. It is reasonable to assume that for tens of thousands of years herbs were probably used as much for their ritual magical powers as for their medicinal qualities.
A 60,000-year-old burial site excavated in Iraq, for instance, was found to contain eight different medicinal plants, including ephedra (Ephedra sinica). The inclusion of the plants in the tomb suggests they had supernatural significance as well as medicinal value.
In some cultures, plants were considered to have souls. Even Aristotle, the 4th-century BCE Greek philosopher, thought that plants had a “psyche,” albeit of a lesser order than the human soul. In Hinduism, which dates back to at least 1500 BCE, many plants are sacred to specific divinities. For example, the bael tree (Aegle marmelos) is said to shelter Shiva, the god of health, beneath its branches.
In medieval Europe, the Doctrine of Signatures stated there was a connection between how a plant looked—God’s “signature”—and how it might be used medicinally. For example, the mottled leaves of lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) were thought to resemble lung tissue, and the plant is still used to treat ailments of the respiratory tract.
Even in Western cultures, beliefs in plant spirits linger. Until the first half of the 20th century, British farm workers would not cut down elder trees (Sambucus nigra) for fear of arousing the anger of the Elder Mother, the spirit who lived in and protected the tree.
In a similar vein, native peoples of the Andes in South America believe that the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) is protected by Mama Coca, a spirit who must be respected and placated if the leaves are to be harvested and used.
In many traditional societies today, the world is believed to be shaped by good and evil spirits. In these societies, illness is thought to stem from malignant forces or possession by evil spirits. If a member of the tribe falls ill, the shaman (the “medicine” man or woman) is expected to intercede with the spirit world to bring about a cure. Shamans often enter the spiritual realm with the aid of hallucinogenic plants or fungi, such as ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi), taken by Amazonian shamans, or fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), taken by traditional healers of the Siberian steppes.
At the same time, the shaman provides medical treatment for the physical needs of the patient—putting salves and compresses on wounds, boiling up decoctions and barks for internal treatment, stimulating sweating for fevers, and so on. Such treatment is based on a wealth of acutely observed plant lore and knowledge, handed down in an oral tradition from generation to generation.
It is generally recognized that our ancestors had a wide range of medicinal plants at their disposal, and that they likewise possessed a profound understanding of plants’ healing powers. In fact, up until the 20th century, every village and rural community had a wealth of herbal folklore. Tried and tested local plants were picked for a range of common health problems and taken as teas, applied as lotions, or even mixed with lard and rubbed in as an ointment.
But what were the origins of this herbal expertise? There are no definitive answers. Clearly, acute observation coupled with trial and error has played a predominant role. Human societies have had many thousands of years to observe the effects—both good and bad—of eating a particular root, leaf, or berry.
Watching the behavior of animals after they have eaten or rubbed against certain plants has also added to medicinal lore. If one watches sheep or cattle, they almost unerringly steer a path past poisonous plants such as ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) or oleander (Nerium oleander). Over and above such close observation, some people have speculated that human beings, like grazing animals, have an instinct that recognizes poisonous as opposed to medicinal plants.
As civilizations grew from 3000 BCE onward in Egypt, the Middle East, India, and China, so the use of herbs became more sophisticated, and the first written accounts of medicinal plants were made. The Egyptian Ebers papyrus of c. 1500 BCE is the earliest surviving example. It lists dozens of medicinal plants, their uses, and related spells and incantations.
The herbs include myrrh (Commiphora molmol), castor oil (Ricinus communis), and garlic (Allium sativum). In India, the Vedas, epic poems written c. 1500 BCE, also contain rich material on the herbal lore of that time. The Vedas were followed in about 400 BCE by the Charaka Samhita, written by the physician Charaka.
This medical treatise includes details of around 350 herbal medicines. Among them are visnaga (Ammi visnaga), an herb of Middle Eastern origin that has recently proven effective in the treatment of asthma, and gotu kola (Centella asiatica), which has long been used to treat leprosy.
By about 500 BCE in developed cultures, medicine began to separate from the magical and spiritual world. Hippocrates (460–377 BCE), the Greek “father of medicine,” considered illness to be a natural rather than a supernatural phenomenon, and he felt that medicine should be given without ritual ceremonies or magic.
In the earliest Chinese medical text, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine written in the 1st century BCE, the emphasis on rational medicine is equally clear: “In treating illness, it is necessary to examine the entire context, scrutinize the symptoms, observe the emotions and attitudes. If one insists on the presence of ghosts and spirits one cannot speak of therapeutics.”
Trade between Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia was already well under way by the 2nd century BCE, and trade routes became established for many medicinal and culinary herbs. Cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata), for example, which are native to the Philippines and the Molucca Islands near New Guinea, were imported into China in the 3rd century BCE, and first arrived in Egypt around 176 CE.
As the centuries passed, the popularity of cloves grew, and by the 8th century CE, their strong aromatic flavor and powerfully antiseptic and analgesic properties were familiar throughout most of Europe.
As trade and interest in herbal medicines and spices flourished, various writers tried to make systematic records of plants with a known medicinal action and record their properties. In China, the Divine Husbandman’s Classic (Shen’nong Bencaojing), written in the 1st century CE, has 364 entries, of which 252 are herbal medicines, including bupleurum (Bupleurum chinense), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), and gan cao (Glycyrrhiza uralensis). This Daoist text laid the foundations for the continuous development and refinement of Chinese herbal medicine up to the present day.
In Europe, a 1st-century CE Greek physician named Dioscorides wrote the first European herbal, De Materia Medica. His intention was to produce an accurate and authoritative work on herbal medicines, and in this he was dramatically successful. Among the many plants mentioned are juniper (Juniperus communis), elm (Ulmus carpinifolia), peony (Paeonia officinalis), and burdock (Arctium lappa). The text, listing about 600 herbs in all, was to have an astonishing influence on Western medicine, being the principal reference used in Europe until the 17th century.
It was translated into languages as varied as Anglo-Saxon, Persian, and Hebrew. In 512 CE, De Materia Medica became the first herbal to feature pictures of the plants discussed. Made for Juliana Arnicia, the daughter of the Roman emperor Flavius Avicius Olybrius, it contained nearly 400 full-page color illustrations. Galen (131–200 CE), physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, had an equally profound influence on the development of herbal medicine.
Galen drew inspiration from Hippocrates and based his theories on the “theory of the four humors”. His ideas shaped and, some would say, distorted medical practice for the next 1,400 years. In India and in China, elaborate medical systems somewhat resembling the theory of the four humors developed that have endured to the present day.
Though European, Indian, and Chinese systems differ widely, they all consider that imbalance within the constituent elements of the body is the cause of illness, and that the aim of the healer is to restore balance, often with the aid of herbal remedies.
The theories of Galenic, Ayurvedic (Indian), and Chinese traditional medicine, however, would have meant practically nothing to most of the world’s population. As is still the case today for some indigenous peoples who have little access to conventional medicines, in the past most villages and communities relied on the services of local “wise” men and women for medical treatment. These healers were almost certainly ignorant of the conventions of scholastic medicine, yet through apprenticeship and practice in treating illness, attending childbirth, and making use of locally growing herbs as a natural pharmacy, they developed a high level of practical medical knowledge.
We tend to underestimate the medical skills of apparently undeveloped communities—particularly during the so-called Dark Ages in medieval Europe—but it is evident that many people had a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of plant medicine. For example, recent excavations at an 11th-century monastic hospital in Scotland revealed that the monks were using exotic herbs such as opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) and marijuana (Cannabis sativa) as painkillers and anesthetics.
Likewise, the herbalists in Myddfai, a village in South Wales, obviously knew of Hippocrates’ writings in the 6th century CE and used a wide variety of medicinal plants. The texts that have been handed down from that herbal tradition are filled with an engaging blend of superstition and wisdom. Two prescriptions from a 13th-century manuscript illustrate the point. The first recipe could have been written by a modern, scientifically trained herbalist; the second, one must presume, is pure fancy, and would not choose to try it out!
To Strengthen the Sight
Take Eyebright and Red Fennel, a handful of each, and half a handful of Rue, distil, and wash your eye daily therewith.
To Destroy a Worm in the Tooth
Take the root of a cat’s ear, bruise, and apply to the patient’s tooth for three nights, and it will kill the worm.
Folk medicine was largely unaffected by sweeping forces of history, but Western scholastic medicine suffered greatly with the decline of the Roman Empire. It was thanks to the flowering of Arabic culture in 500–1300 CE that the gains of the classical Greek and Roman period were preserved and elaborated.
The spread of Islamic culture along North Africa and into present-day Italy, Spain, and Portugal led to the founding of renowned medical schools, notably at Cordoba in Spain. The Arabs were expert pharmacists, blending and mixing herbs to improve their medicinal effect and their taste. Their contacts with both Indian and Chinese medical traditions meant that they had a remarkable range of medical and herbal knowledge to draw on and develop.
Avicenna (980–1037 CE), author of Canon of Medicine, was the most famous physician of the day, but perhaps the most unusual herbal connection was made a century before his time by Ibn Cordoba, an intrepid Arab seafarer, who brought ginseng root (Panax ginseng) from China to Europe. This valuable tonic herb was to be regularly imported into Europe from the 16th century onward.
Further east, in India, the 7th century saw a golden age of medicine. Thousands of students studied Ayurveda at university, especially at Nalanda. There, scholars recorded the medical achievements of the time, with advances such as the development of hospitals, maternity homes, and the planting of medicinal herb gardens.
On the other side of the world, the ancient civilizations of Central and South America—Maya, Aztec, and Inca—all had herbal traditions with a profound understanding of local medicinal plants. One account tells of Incas taking local herbalists from what is now Bolivia back to their capital Cuzco in Peru because of the herbalists’ great capabilities, which reputedly included growing penicillin on green banana skins.
At the same time, medicine and religion were still closely interwoven in these cultures, possibly even more so than in Europe. One gruesome account tells of Aztec sufferers of skin diseases who sought to appease the god Xipe Totec by wearing the flayed skins of sacrificial victims. Fortunately, a supernatural appeal to the gods was not the sole means to relieve this and other afflictions. Many herbs were available as alternative treatments, including sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.), a tonic and cleansing herb that was used in treatments for a variety of skin complaints including eczema and psoriasis.
As European scholars slowly started to absorb the lessons of Arabic medical learning in the early Middle Ages, classical Greek, Roman, and Egyptian texts preserved in the libraries of Constantinople (later Istanbul) filtered back to Europe, and hospitals, medical schools, and universities were founded.
Perhaps the most interesting among them was the medical school at Salerno on the west coast of Italy. It not only allowed students from all faiths—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—to study medicine, but it also allowed women to train as physicians. Trotula, a woman who wrote a book on obstetrics, practiced and taught there in the 12th century CE.
Herbs were, of course, central to the healing process. An adage from the Salerno school on sage (Salvia officinalis) went as follows: Salvia salvatrix, natura conciliatrix (sage, the savior; nature, the conciliator).
By the 12th century, trade with Asia and Africa was expanding and new herbs and spices were being regularly imported into Europe. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), the famous German mystic and herbal authority, considered galangal (Alpinia officinarum)—used in Asia as a warming and nourishing spice for the digestive system—to be the “spice of life,” given by God to provide health and to protect against illness.
Marco Polo’s travels to China in the 14th century coincided with the unification of the whole of Asia from the Yellow Sea in China to the Black Sea in southeastern Europe by Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan, whose capital was in China, not far from Beijing. Neither the Chinese nor Ayurvedic medical traditions were directly threatened by this conquest.
The Mongol rulers were strict in banning the use of certain toxic plants such as aconite (Aconitum napellus), but their decree may have held an element of self-preservation, given aconite’s alternative use as an arrow poison—one that could have been used against the ruling powers. Moreover, the Mongol unification may have encouraged greater communication between the two medical disciplines.
In other parts of Asia, such as Vietnam and Japan, Chinese culture and medicine exerted the primary influence. While kampoh—the traditional herbal medicine of Japan—is distinctive to that country, its roots stem from Chinese practices.
Trade routes had slowly expanded during the Middle Ages, bringing exotic new herbs in their wake. From the 15th century onward, an explosion in trade led to a cornucopia of new herbs becoming readily available in Europe. They included plants such as ginger (Zingiber officinale), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), turmeric (Curcuma longa), cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.), and senna (Cassia senna).
The trade in herbs was not entirely one way. The European herb sage, for example, came into use in China, where it was considered to be a valuable yin tonic. The arrival of Columbus’ ships in the Caribbean in 1492 was followed by the rapid conquest and colonization of central and south America by the Spanish and Portuguese. Along with their booty of plundered gold, the conquistadores returned to the Old World with previously unheard-of medicinal plants.
Many of these herbs from the Americas had highly potent medicinal actions, and they soon became available in the apothecaries of the major European cities. Plants such as lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale) and cinchona (Cinchona spp.) with strong medicinal actions were used with greater and lesser degrees of success as treatments for fever, malaria, syphilis, smallpox, and other serious illnesses.
For most rural communities, however, the only foreign plants that were used medicinally were those that could also be grown locally as foods. Garlic offers one of the earliest and clearest examples. Originating in central Asia, over time it was cultivated farther and farther west and was grown in Egypt around 4500 BCE. In Homer’s 8th-century BCE epic poem The Odyssey, the hero is saved from being changed into a pig thanks to garlic.
The herb was introduced into Britain after the Roman conquest in the 1st century CE, and by the time it reached the island its remarkable medicinal powers were well understood. In later centuries, potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and corn (Zea mays), both native to South America, would become common foods. These plants have clear medicinal as well as nutritional benefits. Potato juice is a valuable remedy for the treatment of arthritis, while cornsilk makes an effective decoction for urinary problems such as cystitis.
Between the 12th and 18th centuries, the influx of exotic medicinal plants added to an already large number of useful European herbs. Conceivably, an overall improvement of health in Europe might have resulted. After all, not only were new medicinal plants available, but Europeans had the opportunity to observe the different medical practices of people in South America, China, Japan, and especially in India, where trade was well established. But, in fact, the reverse was the case.
People living in Europe during this period probably experienced some of the most unhealthy conditions the world has ever seen. In contrast, Native Americans before the arrival of Columbus lived longer, healthier lives than their counterparts in Europe. This fact is unsurprising given the cities of medieval Europe, with their open sewers, overcrowding, and ignorance of simple hygiene.
Conditions such as these laid fertile ground for the spread of plague-infested rats from the ports of the Mediterranean throughout Western Europe. From the mid-14th century onward, plague killed millions, in some cases close to 50 percent of the population. No medical treatment—herbal or mineral—was able to alter its fatal course. Epidemics continued to decimate the cities of Europe and Asia well into the 18th century. An outbreak in India in 1994 reawakened the terror inspired simply at the mention of the word “plague.”
Syphilis was another disease spread by seafarers. It was reputedly brought back from the Caribbean to Naples by Columbus’ crew in the 1490s, spreading quickly throughout Europe and to the rest of the world, reaching China in 1550. European doctors had little success in combating diseases as devastating as plague. The medicine they practiced was based on the blind acceptance of Galen’s humoral principles.
Perhaps if, as in Chinese and Indian medicine, European medicine had continued to evolve, revising ancient medical texts and reinterpreting them in the light of new discoveries, it would have had greater success. As it was, European physicians were at least as likely to kill their patients with bloodletting and toxic minerals in misbegotten attempts to balance the humors as they were to cure.
Indeed, the increasingly fashionable use of mineral cures such as mercury led to the growth of chemical formulations, culminating in scientific medicine’s ultimate break away from herbal practices.
One of the key European figures of the 16th century was Paracelsus (1493–1541), a larger-than-life character who rejected the tired repetition of Galen’s theories in favor of detailed observation in medicine. “I have not borrowed from Hippocrates, Galen, or anyone else,” he wrote, “having acquired my knowledge from the best teacher, that is, by experience and hard work.” And again, “What a doctor needs is not eloquence or knowledge of language and of books, but profound knowledge of nature and her works.”
He also paid great attention to the exact dosage, saying that “it depends only on the dose whether a poison is a poison or not.”
As a result, Paracelsus was an influential force in the future development of chemistry, conventional medicine, herbal medicine, and homeopathy. Though he is known as the “father of chemistry,” he also explored alchemy, which concerned itself with the transmutation of base materials to gold, and the search for immortal life. Paracelsus also revived interest in the Doctrine of Signatures—the ancient theory that held that a plant’s appearance indicated the ailments it would treat—and affirmed the value of locally grown medicinal herbs over expensive imported specimens.
Paracelsus’ advocacy of local herbs was later fiercely espoused by Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654). The frontispiece to his The English Physitian contains the memorable words: “Containing a Compleat Method of Physick, whereby a Man may preserve his Body in Health, or Cure himself, being Sick, for three pence Charge, with such things only as grow in England, they being most fit for English Bodies.”
Wounded during the English Civil War fighting for the Commonwealth, Culpeper championed the needs of the ordinary people who could afford neither the services of a doctor nor the expensive imported herbs and formulations that doctors generally prescribed. Drawing to some degree on Dioscorides, Arabian physicians, and Paracelsus, Culpeper developed a medical system that blended astrology and sound personal experience of the therapeutic uses of local plants.
His herbal became an instant “bestseller” and appeared in many subsequent editions. The first herbal published in North America, in 1700, was an edition of his herbal. While the popularity of The English Physitian was notable, other herbals also found a place in households. The development of the printing press in the 15th century brought herbal medicine into homes on a wide scale. Texts such as Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica were printed for the first time, and throughout Europe herbals were published and ran through many editions.
By the end of the 16th century, Paracelsus had become the figurehead of the new chemical medicine. However, where he had insisted upon caution in the use of metallic poisons—mercury, antimony, and arsenic—the new medical thinkers were not so inhibited. Larger and larger doses of the purgative known as calomel (mercurous chloride, Hg2Cl2) were given to those suffering from syphilis and many other diseases.
The treatment was very often worse than the illness, with some patients dying and many more suffering from the long-term consequences of mercury poisoning. Hippocrates’ saying “Desperate cases need the most desperate remedies” was taken very literally, as is evident in the incredible excess of purging and bleeding that developed over the next three centuries in Europe and North America.
These practices reached a peak in the “heroic” medicine of the early 19th century. Its leading proponent, Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), maintained that only bloodletting and calomel were required in medical practice. His position was obviously extreme, but it is clear that in this new climate herbal medicines were becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Along with the new emphasis on chemical cures, modern medicine came to look askance at the notion of the “vital force.” Up until the end of the 16th century, nearly all medical traditions had been based on the concept of working with nature, with the body’s healing capacities, which could be supported and strengthened with appropriate medicinal herbs. In traditional Chinese medicine, qi is the primal energy that maintains life and health. In Ayurveda, it is prana, and in the Western tradition, Hippocrates writes about “vis medicatrix naturae” or the healing power of nature, while modern Western medical herbalists and homeopaths use the term “vital force.”
The importance of the vital force was diminished in the West by the philosophy of René Descartes (1596–1650). This French mathematician divided the world into body and mind, nature and ideas. His philosophy ordained that the intangible vital force that maintains life and governs good health was the province of religion rather than of the newly self-aware “science” of medicine. To the new medical establishment, inching its way forward toward scientifically sound medical practices, “supernatural” concepts such as the vital force were a reminder of the ignorance and superstition that were part and parcel of older healing practices.
Even before Descartes’ theories, the rational approach to scientific and medical exploration was beginning to reap rewards. Slowly, medical understanding of bodily functions was gaining ground. William Harvey (1578–1657) made a detailed study of the heart and circulation, proving for the first time that, contrary to Galenic thought, the heart pumped blood around the body. Published in 1628, his study is a classic example of the revolution in medical science.
Since Harvey’s time, science has had astounding success in revealing how the body works on a biochemical level and in distinguishing different disease processes. However, by comparison it has been altogether less successful in developing effective medical treatments for the relief and cure of diseases.
In hindsight, it seems as if the new science of medicine could only be born in separation from the traditional arts of healing, with which it had always been intertwined. As a result, even though traditional medicine has generally lacked scientific explanation, it has frequently been far ahead of medical science in the way it has been applied therapeutically. In American Indian Medicine (University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), Virgil Vogel provides a good example of “ignorant” folk medicine outstripping scientific understanding in therapeutic application: “During the bitter cold winter of 1535–6, the three ships of Jacques Cartier were frozen fast in the fathom-deep ice of the St Lawrence River near the site of Montreal.
Isolated by four feet of snow, the company of 110 men subsisted on the fare stored in the holds of their ships. Soon scurvy was so rampant among them that by mid-March, 25 men had died and the others, ‘only three or foure excepted,’ were so ill that hope for their recovery was abandoned. As the crisis deepened Cartier had the good fortune to encounter once again the local Indian chief, Domagaia, who had cured himself of the same disease with ‘the juice and sappe of a certain tree’. The Indian women gathered branches of the magical tree, ‘boiling the bark and leaves for a decoction, and placing the dregs upon the legs.’
All those so treated rapidly recovered their health, and the Frenchmen marvelled at the curative skill of the natives.” Naturally, the Native Americans had not heard of vitamin C deficiency, which causes scurvy, nor would they have been able to explain in rational terms why the treatment worked. Indeed, it was not until 1753 that James Lind (1716–1794), a British naval surgeon, inspired partly by Cartier’s account, published A Treatise of the Scurvy, which showed conclusively that the disease could be prevented by eating fresh greens, vegetables, and fruit, and was caused by their lack in the diet.
James Lind’s work is a marvelous example of what can be achieved by combining a systematic and scientific approach with traditional herbal knowledge.
The discovery of the medicinal value of foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is another case where traditional herbal knowledge led to a major advance in medicine. Dr. William Withering (1741–1799), a conventionally trained doctor with a long interest in medicinal plants, started to investigate foxglove after encountering a family recipe for curing dropsy (water retention).
He found that in some regions of England, foxglove was traditionally used to treat this condition, which is often one of the indications of a failing heart. In 1785, he published Account of the Foxglove, documenting dozens of carefully recorded case histories, and showing how foxglove’s powerful (and potentially dangerous) active constituents, now known as cardiac glycosides, made it a valuable plant medicine for dropsy.
Cardiac glycosides remain in common use to the present day. Yet despite this clearcut example of the possibilities inherent in a marriage of herbal medicine and scientific method, conventional medicine was to take another path in the 19th century.
From the early 19th century, the chemical laboratory began to regularly supplant Mother Nature as the source of medicines. In 1803, narcotic alkaloids were isolated from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). A year later, inulin was extracted from elecampane (Inula helenium). In 1838, salicylic acid, a chemical forerunner of aspirin, was isolated from white willow bark (Salix alba), and was first synthesized in the laboratory in 1860. From this point on, herbal medicine and biomedicine were to take separate paths.
Aspirin, an entirely new chemical formulation, was first developed in Germany in 1899. But this was still an early step. For the time being, the influence of the universities, medical schools, and laboratories of Europe would remain limited, and herbal medicine would prevail as the predominant form of treatment for most people around the world.
Wherever Europeans settled during the great migrations of the 18th and 19th centuries—North America, South America, southern Africa, or Australia—much of the European medicine familiar from home was either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Settlers came to learn that native peoples were a wellspring of information about the medicinal virtues of indigenous plants. For example, European settlers in southern Africa learned about the diuretic properties of buchu (Barosma betulina) from native peoples; and Australian settlers came to understand the remarkable antiseptic properties of tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) from observing the medicinal practices of the Aborigines. Mexican herbal medicine as it exists today is a blend of Aztec, Mayan, and Spanish herbs and practices.
In North America, native herbalists were particularly adept at healing external wounds and bites—being superior in many respects to their European counterparts in this area of medicine. This is not surprising, given the range of highly effective medicinal plants Native Americans had discovered—including well-known herbs such as Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), and lobelia (Lobelia inflata).
European settlers learned much from observing native practices. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as pioneers moved west across the frontier territory, new plants were constantly being added to the official record of healing herbs. In addition to the three species mentioned above, about 170 native plants were listed in The Pharmacopeia of the United States.
Lobelia was one of the key herbs, along with cayenne (Capsicum frutescens), advocated by Samuel Thomson (1769–1843), an unorthodox herbal practitioner who believed that all illness resulted from cold. His simple approach was entirely at odds with the conventional practices of his time (see North America). Thomson’s methods were often very effective and were well suited to the needs of people living in frontier territory.
His system of medicine—in many ways an early form of naturopathy, in which ill health is treated with naturally grown food, sunlight, fresh air, and natural medicines—became extraordinarily popular, with millions of people across North America following his methods. Thomson’s success waned as other more sophisticated herbal approaches were developed—those of the Eclectics and Physiomedicalists, for example—in the fertile medical world of 19th-century America, which also saw the birth of osteopathy (a system of healing based upon the manipulation of bones) and chiropractic (a similar system primarily involving manipulation of the spine).
Across the world in China, Thomson’s practices might have been looked on with a measure of surprise, but they would have been familiar. In Chinese medicine, there has always been a debate as to what degree illness arises from cold, and to what degree it arises from heat. The Shanghanlun (On Cold-Induced Maladies), written in the 2nd century CE, and revised and reinterpreted in commentaries over the last 1,800 years, recommends the herb cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.) as a principal remedy when the patient “shivers with fever, breathes heavily, and feels nauseous.”
In the 14th century, Wang Lu distinguished between cold-induced illness and febrile illness, and treated them in different ways, and this distinction was elaborated in greater and greater detail by different Chinese herbalists right up to the 19th century.
During the early 19th century, the influence of Western biomedicine was beginning to affect traditional practices in both China and India. This was certainly beneficial in many respects. The judicious incorporation of scientific principles and methods into traditional herbal healing offers the possibility of greatly refining the effectiveness of treatment.
But in India under British rule, Western medicine eventually became the only alternative. Ayurveda was seen as inferior to biomedicine (see India & the Middle East). Western practice was introduced not as a complement to traditional medicine, but rather as a means to supplant it. According to one authority, “before 1835 Western physicians and their Indian counterparts exchanged knowledge; thereafter only Western medicine was recognized as legitimate and the Eastern systems were actively discouraged” (Robert Svoboda, Ayurveda, Life, Health and Longevity, 1992).
In China, the influx of Western ideas was less traumatic. Increasing numbers of Chinese medical students studied Western medicine, but this did not stop the continuing development of traditional herbal practice. By and large, each tradition was recognized as having both advantages and disadvantages.
In Europe, conventional medicine was seeking to establish a monopoly for its own type of practice. In 1858, the British Parliament was asked to impose legislation banning the practice of medicine by anyone who had not been trained in a conventional medical school. Fortunately, this proposal was rejected, but in countries such as France, Spain, and Italy, and in some states of the U.S., it became illegal to practice herbal medicine without an orthodox qualification. Herbalists were forced to risk fines or imprisonment simply for providing herbal medicine to patients who had sought their help.
In Britain, concerns such as these, combined with a desire to establish Western herbal medicine as an alternative to conventional practices, particularly in the industrial cities of the North of England, led to the formation in 1864 of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, the first professional body of herbal practitioners in the world. Its history is an example of how tenacious herbal practitioners have had to be simply to retain their right to give safe, gentle, and effective herbal medicines to their patients.