Since the dawn of man, humans relied upon plants and seeds as a vital source for survival. It was both a mainstay of nutrition, as well as an important factor in the treatment of illness. In a long series of trials and errors over many generations, primitive peoples tasted and tested various plants and herbal combinations in an effort to cure disease and prolong life.
Archaeological digs have brought forth physical evidence of these early efforts to create medicine, some dating back sixty thousand years to Neanderthal burial sites in Iraq. There have also been sites going back many thousands of years in Sumeria, India, China, Egypt and the Americas. Separated by oceans, mountains and continents, many ancient societies methodically and independently developed closely related herbal species in almost identical remedies. Many were passed down by word-of-mouth and continued through the ages in herbal medicines because they worked, and when a system of writing was developed, early written pharmacopoeias became the foundation of early herbal medicine and, more interestingly, the forerunner of modern medicine. For example, the first-century Greek physician, Dioscorides, knew and wrote about the medicinal benefits of white willow bark, which contains salicylic acid. This natural substance was first synthesized in 1838, and in 1899, the Bayer Company of Germany introduced a drug composed of the synthetic chemical compound, similar to the active compound found in white willow bark - the "aspirin." What is more intriguing is the fact that this natural painkiller contains the beneficial effects of aspirin without the side effects typically associated with synthetic aspirin products. It is believed that roughly twenty-five percent of today's prescription drugs are said to contain at least one ingredient derived from higher plants. In addition, some of the new synthetics may cause undesirable side effects that the old botanicals did not precipitate.
In the Middle East of antiquity, the Sumerians, who inhabited the Mesopotamian area between the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers (considered the "Cradle of Western Civilization" and now Iraq), developed cuneiform writing about 3500 B.C., and later recorded their medicines on clay tablets, which included opium, licorice, thyme and mustard, among others. Dates of origin are sometimes questionable, but it appears that one of the earliest pharmacopoeias was developed a bout 2000 B.C., at the order of King Assurbanipal of Sumeria. The Babylonians of the same region extended their predecessors' collection of herbal medicines to add saffron, coriander, cinnamon, garlic and many others.
Four thousand years ago in Egypt, the earliest herb gardens were planted for use in medicinal preparations, temple rituals and food preparation. By 3000 B.C., it appears that the Egyptians had acquired a sophisticated knowledge of herbs, but unfortunately, there are few documents to illuminate their progress. Pictorial and physical evidence found in the pyramids, however, attest to the many herbs used by Egyptian physicians and priests. Among the earliest medical texts, the "Ebers Papyrus" (named after a German Egyptologist who purchased the text from an Arab in 1873), demonstrated that in the sixteenth century B.C., over eight hundred medical recipes, encompassing over seven hundred herbs (including aloe, peppermint, henbane, etc.), were documented for remedial use in decoctions, infusions, salves and other preparations.
In Judea of about 1200-587 B.C., Jews were well known for their high standards of health and public hygiene, and because biblical literature has survived largely intact, we know that Old Testament Jews used herbs for religious and practical applications. During the time of Jewish enslavement in Egypt, scholars claim that they learned many of their herbal remedies from the Egyptians (and vice-versa).
In the Far East, the Emperor Shen Nong (circa 2697 B.C.) of China is said to have inspired the earliest known Chinese pharmacopoeia, the Pen Tsao (Canon of Herbs). Among the many medicinal plants that he identified and recommended included the opium poppy, rhubarb, aconite and ma huang. He is said to have tasted and tested hundreds of herbs himself and is credited with the discovery of tea drinking. The Emperor Huang Ti (dates vary from 800 B.C. to 200 B.C.) is believed to be the author of the Nei Ching (Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine), which is said to be the oldest medical textbook in the world and still used to this very day as a medical text.
About the first century A.D., unknown authors produced a Chinese materia medica, a description of individual herbs (including 252 botanical substances), their medicinal effects on symptoms, proper methods of preparation and toxicities.
Since that time, there have been many revisions of Chinese materia medica that have included accumulated knowledge of substances from China's folk medicine and those from other areas, such as Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and North America. The latest compilation of Chinese materia medica was published in 1977 as the Encyclopedia of Traditional Chinese Medicine Substances (Zhong yao da ci dian). The compendium includes 5,767 entries and is said to be the definitive compilation of China's herbal tradition.
Situated between China and the West, India developed its own comprehensive system of healing, called Ayurvedic medicine or the "Science of Life," which some claim is the oldest existing system of medicine. Ayurvedic medicine was rooted in Vedic culture, the earliest known civilization in India, dating back (according to some scholars) as early as the fifth millennium B.C. Ayurvedic medicine grew as a result of an extensive, acquired medical knowledge, herbal remedies and the rise of the philosophies of various schools of thought in India, and looked upon healing as a holistic treatment of both body and soul. Herbs played an important role in Ayurvedic medicine. The principal Ayurvedic book on internal medicine, the Charaka Samhita, describes 582 herbs, and the Sushruta Samhita lists some 600 herbal remedies. Most scholars agree that these books are at least two thousand years old. Ayurvedic Medicine is still widely used today and is recognized by the World Health Organization.
Reaching west, we first look to ancient Greece. About 400 B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, preached a regimen of diet, sunshine, water and exercise. Similar to the healers of the East, Hippocrates believed that the four elements - fire, water, earth and air - were represented in the human body by yellow bile, phlegm, black bile and blood, and one's health depended on the balance of these four humors. Like the Chinese and Indian healers, he claimed that if the balance of these "cardinal juices" were upset, sickness would be the result. Among the many medical herbal remedies he prescribed were diuretics (parsley, thyme, fennel and celery) and laxatives (aniseed and castor beans). Later, Aristotle catalogued the properties of various medicinal herbs, and his pupil, Theophrastus (circa 371-287 B.C.), a botanist, created Inquiry Into Plants, which influenced both botany and medicine for many centuries thereafter. In the first century A.D., Dioscorides, the most influential pharmaceutical writer of antiquity, produced the forerunner of all modern pharmacopoeias on the subject of botanical medicine, De Materia Medica, which was a compilation of 950 curative substances, six hundred of which were medicinal plants (the remaining substances were of mineral or animal origin). Each plant entry included a description of the plant, an illustration, the medicinal properties, warnings and method of preparation.
In ancient Rome, the first-century scholar and natural historian, Pliny the Elder, collected thousands of Greek and Roman treatises on the subject of botany and pharmacology in a thirty-seven-volume record entitled Historia Naturalis (Natural History). He stated the proposal that nature was the servant of man, and plants existed to serve man's needs. His work influenced physicians and herbalists for centuries, as its wisdom was passed down through the ages throughout Europe and into the New World. In second-century Rome, Galen, a Greek born in Pergamum (circa A.D. 130-200), was the premier physician, treating the Roman aristocracy (including the emperor) with his acquired medical techniques (he was an authority on the pulse) and the teachings of Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle. Galen developed his own medical theories based upon experiments and animal dissection, and he codified all the existing medical knowledge into his anatomical and physiological work, De Simplicibus, a medical text that remained the standard in Europe and the Arab world until the Renaissance. Today, the term "galenicals" refers to medicinal substances extracted from plants by methods established by Galen.
In the Islamic world, Muslims preserved and translated the original Greco-Roman treatises, refining and expanding on the body of knowledge, and the Arabs added plants such as camphor, saffron and spinach to the classical pharmacopoeia. The Persian "Prince of Physicians," Avicenna (A.D. 980-1037), followed in the footsteps of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Dioscorides and Galen when he wrote the Canon of Medicine, expanding earlier knowledge with his own observations. "Book Two" of the Canon was a compendium of Avicenna's pharmacology of herbs and the discussion of herbal remedies, including balsam and chicory. His Canon was translated into Latin and became the basic medical text at all medieval universities in both the Christian and Muslim world and remained the standard text until the seventeenth century. Jami of Ibn Bair, who died in A.D. 1248, compiled the principal storehouse of Islamic materia medica in a text that incorporated over two thousand entries, including many plant products. This information was carried back to Europe by returning Crusaders during the Middle Ages, when trade in herbs emerged as an important commercial enterprise.
In the New World of pre-Columbian America, ancient peoples grew primitive cultivars that later became dietary staples and important components in their religious rituals and medicinal treatments. For example, in the Arcaicia Period of Peru (circa 3800 B.C.) indigenous peoples began cultivation of maca root, a valuable commodity, nutritious dietary staple and herbal medicine. The local populace utilized it to enhance fertility in humans and provide energy and stamina.
Archaeological sites throughout the Americas have unearthed much physical evidence of the cultivation and use of herbs and plants that date back thousands of years. The Mayas, Olmecs, Xochicalos, Mixtecs, Toltecs and Aztecs of Mexico all contributed to the rich horticultural and botanical heritage that engendered a wide variety of foods, condiments and medicines. By 500 B.C., beans, peppers, papayas, cacao, sweet potatoes, mate and corn (among a myriad of other plants) were under cultivation in the Americas and were not only dietary staples but also helping to remedy many ailments and diseases.
After the conquistadors made their mark in Central and South America, many local plants were "discovered" by the Spanish and Portuguese and introduced to the Old World, where they were domesticated and included in European herbal remedies. For example, Spanish Priests found that the quinine in the bark of the cinchona trees controlled malaria (although some give this credit to Samuel Hahnemann in 1790). Cocaine (important in medicine, despite other uses) came from Peru, and Brazil gave us ipecac root, the source of emetine, which is used to treat amoebic dysentery. South America is also the source of curare (used for centuries by local tribes) and employed in modern medicine in anesthesia as a muscle relaxant. Some of the most powerful modern drugs originated in the plants and herbals of Central and South America, and one is inclined to forget that they were, in fact, indigenous to the Americas.
In Europe, herbal medicine carried on the accumulated knowledge gleaned from the physicians and herbalists of antiquity, and enhanced many of these remedies with the latest scientific findings of the day. In Britain, fifth century medical texts were Anglo-Saxon translations of Latin manuscripts that were herbal based. During the eighth century, the Emperor Charlemagne, whose Holy Roman Empire encompassed half of present-day Italy and Germany, parts of Austria and Spain, establishing a central government over Western Europe, prescribed official remedial and protective herbs to be grown within his domain. In twelfth century Germany, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote extensively on the subject of herbal healing (recalling Hippocrates' ancient doctrine of the humors, calling phlegm the cause of most illness) in her pioneering work, the Book of Healing Herbs.
The Swiss physician and alchemist, known as Paracelsus (1493-1541), pioneered the extraction of plant essences and use of tinctures, revolutionizing pharmacology and introducing chemistry and the theory of controlled dosages to medicine. He is regarded as the founder of homeopathy (popularized over two hundred years later by the German physician, Samuel Hahnemann on a large scale), proposing the theory that symptoms (such as fever or boils) are the body's way of ridding itself of disease. Thus, if miniscule dosages of herbs that produce the same symptoms are administered, it will stimulate a healthy resistance to that disease - or "Like cures Like." Paracelsus also introduced the theory of the "Doctrine of Signatures," claiming that the appearance of plants is a divine sign of their curative powers. His pharmacological research in his unfinished herbal, On the Virtues of Plants, Roots and Seeds included extensive documents on botanical medicine.
Thanks to the age of exploration, the discovery of new lands and the opening of worldwide trade and commerce, many exotic plants and herbs were introduced into Europe from the New World. Spanish conquistadors and other European explorers brought new plants and medicinal recipes back to the Old World and ushered in the "Golden Age of Herbals."
Several esteemed herbals were published in England during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. William Turner, the father of English Botany, wrote A New Herball in three parts (1551-1568), complete with illustrations. In 1597, John Gerard, an apothecary and surgeon, compiled the Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, based upon the work of the Belgian botanist, Dodoens. Gerard even grew and observed herbs in his own botanical garden in London. The venerable (and perhaps most famous) English herbalist was Nicholas Culpeper (or Culpepper). He authored the English Physitian of 1652, and his updated English Physitian Enlarged of 1563 became one of the best selling herbals of all time and contains descriptions of herbs, along with recommendations for their use as remedies. Well-educated and versed in Latin and Greek, he translated the Latin pharmacopoeia into everyday English, angering the medical establishment, which had previously held a virtual monopoly on medical knowledge. Greatly beloved by the English people who understood his genuine concern for their welfare, his herbal was not only highly respected in England, but was also carried to the New World as a medical reference, along with many seeds from the old country to provide the herbal remedies that would be needed in a New World.
When the New World was opened up by early European explorers, settlers in North America learned of the curative powers of the indigenous plants growing in the new lands (i.e., goldenseal, boneset and pleurisy root, to name a few) from the Native Americans who had been using these herbal remedies for centuries and had, in fact, developed their own pharmacopoeia by the same trial-and-error method that the ancients from around the world employed. The Colonists, in turn, shared their knowledge of herbal medicines with their new neighbors, often having brought imported plants and seeds with them from the Old World (i.e., heartsease and plantain). In some cases they were pleasantly surprised to find that other, new species of a genus from the old country worked just as effectively, if not better.
In the early 1700s, the French Jesuit missionaries, Père Jartoux and Père Lafitau, observed the beneficial effects on overall health of the wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolia) that the Colonists had been using. They collected samples in southern Canada and created a huge market for the herb in China, where it was prized by Chinese herbalists, because it is sweeter than the Korean Panax ginseng and still considered the premium ginseng in Asia to this day.
Native Americans, such as the Cherokees, Chippewas and Iroquois taught the Colonists about Squaw Root, which was commonly used by the tribes to facilitate childbirth, and it was so effective it was officially listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia from 1882 through 1905. White settlers were puzzled by the fact that indigenous tribes never suffered from scurvy, a common plight of the Colonists, and it was finally discovered that the Indian diet of fresh fruit and spruce tea made the Indians free from the devastating effects of vitamin C deficiency. Native Americans also taught the settlers which herbs would sharpen their senses for hunting, others that would stop bleeding and heal wounds and those that would build endurance. There are too many examples to list here, but as medicine evolved in the United States, plants continued to be the backbone of country medicine to treat common ailments, passing from family to family and physician to physician and creating a strong bond between home folk medicine and the family doctor.
One of the early proponents of herbal physiomedicalism was Samuel Thomson who, in the early 1800s, patented "Thomson's Improved System of Botanic Practice of Medicine." He was taught by his mother, a "root and herb doctor," who relied heavily on Native American skills and acquired traditional knowledge of herbs. He claimed that the body's vital force could be strengthened by balancing the nervous system with tissue health and recommended Native American herbs and patent remedies that swept America in the early nineteenth century. By the late 1830s, he claimed three million followers, and the movement even found its way to Britain shortly thereafter.
Dr. Wooster Beech founded the Eclectic movement, another botanical system of medicine, which championed the use of herbal remedies and Native American healing practices, but also combined these practices with more orthodox medical techniques in their analysis of disease. At one time, Eclecticism was a serious rival to established orthodox medicine with more than twenty thousand qualified practitioners in the United States.
During the first years of pharmaceutical chemistry, it seemed as if herbal medicine had seen its day. As twentieth century technology advanced, synthetic drugs had nearly replaced the herbs that had been the mainstay of medicine since the dawn of man. Today, many people have forgotten their herbal heritage, not realizing that so many prescription drugs and over-the-counter remedies have their origins in botanicals and medicinal herbs. Our cough remedies are frequently based in mint, horehound, lemon and menthol; chamomile still relaxes us before bedtime; coffee wakes us up in the morning; ginger eases a queasy stomach; and we cannot forget that broccoli, blueberry and tomato are known antioxidants and highly recommended by the medical community.
Now, in the twenty-first century, there is a renewed interest in alternative and complementary medical treatments (herbs, massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture, etc.), particularly those with a natural, non-synthetic base, simply because people have found great relief and improved health with these alternative methods.
There is no question that we benefit from the giant strides that medical technology has made, but curiously, there are many physicians and new schools of medicine embracing the theory of treating the entire body and mind, not only with the latest medical breakthroughs, but also including complementary and alternative natural treatments, which serve to broaden the entire "wellness" experience.
There is an important message to be learned from the herbalists of antiquity who proclaimed that natural botanicals - in conjunction with moderation, healthy mind and good diet, mild exercise and a balance in the body - are the key to sound health. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those early physicians and scholars whose experimental successes (and perhaps more of a debt to their failures) have given us so much accrued knowledge and information (which has been time-tested and refined) from which to choose. Modern herbalists will agree that botanicals and herbs are not only nature's gift to us to help remedy a variety of ailments, but more importantly, their regular use can help us avoid unhealthy conditions and maintain good health by enhancing the body's own natural healing mechanisms to achieve an overall feeling of well-being.
From BBC Health - October 2002; last reviewed September 2005
This article gives an overview of herbal medicine including its history, how it is used, how to go about consulting an herbal practitioner and how to be safe when using herbal medicine. It is a good article to supplement our own history page.