Saras Secrets  »   History & Lore  »  

The History

The Chinese, the Egyptians, and Indian Ayurvedic Medicine
The history of herbs goes back a long, long time. An Egyptian medical document, called the Ebers Papyrus, found in 1874 by a German Egyptologist, Georg Ebers, contains a listing of 800 medicinal drugs including anise, caraway, coriander, fennel, cardamom, garlic, saffron, and poppy seed to name a few. They used these in medicine, cosmetics, aromatics, cooking, fumigating, and most important, embalming. It dates back to about 1700 B.C. and records the use of common herbs such as garlic and juniper being used medicinally for about 4000 years.

In the days of Ramses III, hemp was used for eye problems just as it may be prescribed for glaucoma today, and poppy seeds were used to quiet crying children. The Chinese claim an even earlier record than the Egyptians. Who wrote the first herbal may not be as important as the knowledge that herbs have been used to benefit mankind since way before recorded history. This knowledge was handed down for generations until writing was invented. There is proof of their use by three ancient and great civilizations: the Chinese, the Indian medical system, known as Ayurveda, whose treatments include not only herbs, diet, and exercise, but also mental and physical practices (yogas) intended to help people develop positive emotions and qualities, and the Egyptians. With the Egyptians, we get a sense of herbal history as being closely connected with the history of economic botany. It is woven into the history of peoples and civilizations that depended on wild plants for food, medicine, fiber, and other raw materials. The need for herbs and spices for embalming was instrumental in stimulating trade.

Traditional Chinese medicine is a system of healing dating back to about 2500 B.C. Ancient Chinese herbals are still studied and followed today, and while much has been added, nothing much has been taken out. The Chinese practitioner treats illness as a disharmony within the whole person. The purpose of the physician is to restore harmony and balance to enable the body's natural healing to work efficiently. Herbs are central to the treatment aided by acupuncture and massage.

Ayurvedic medicine, "the knowledge of how to live", stresses that good health is the responsibility of the individual. Illness is imbalance. Herbs and dietary controls are used to restore balance. Invaders added to and altered this body of knowledge. The British closed Ayurvedic schools in 1833, but fortunately did not destroy the ancient learning altogether.

The East and the West
With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the center of learning shifted to the East in Constantinople and Persia. The most influential Arab text of the time was The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna. It was based on Galen's principles, and by the 12th century had been translated into Latin and brought back to the West to become one of the leading texts in Western medical schools.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church copied faithfully Galen's and Dioscorides' texts. Monks cultivated "physic gardens" and introduced new herbs. Medicinal knowledge spread beyond the cloister and became part of folk medicine and herbal remedies passed on through the generations. The Saxon herbal, The Leech Book of Bald, which dates from the first half of the 10th century, includes remedies and treatments and lots of superstition. Herbs of common use internally, or that were worn as amulets to ward off evil or disease at the time, were wood betony, vervain, mugwort, plantain, and yarrow. Healing was as much a matter of prayer as medicine.

By the 1530's, Paracelsus was revolutionizing European attitudes toward health care. Condemning the complex and often fatal purgatives prescribed by crooked physicians, he advocated a return to simpler medicine inspired by the Doctrine of Signatures. This doctrine maintained that the outward appearance of a plant gave an indication of the ailments it would cure. At times, the theory was surprisingly accurate. Today, some herbal books still refer to the Doctrine of Signatures when giving background information about the herbs they are describing. Examples: the leaves of lungwort were said to resemble diseased lungs, so the plant was used for bronchitis and tuberculosis. Yellow flowering plants were like jaundice and so were used for liver problems. (Dandelion is still used to improve liver function). Nutmeg and walnuts were compared to the brain and thought helpful for strengthening mental ability.

The Age of Herbals
It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that the herbals of Gerard, Parkinson, and Culpepper were written. An herbal is a book that describes plants and shows how to use them. During the time when doctors were as scarce as they were expensive, the herbal held an important place, second only to the Bible, in the literate household. In 1597, John Gerard, an eminent Elizabethan herbalist, published The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants. He had come upon an unfinished translation of an herbal entitled Cruydboedk written by Dodoens. The translator, Dr. Priest, had died before completing the translation from Latin to English. Gerard cribbed Dr. Priest's work, altering the arrangement of the herbs, adding his own comments, while describing the rare exotics he had growing in his own garden (he was an avid gardener and grew over 1,000 species), along with English flora and botanico-medical lore and his own remedies. After Gerard died in 1612, this work was revised by Thomas Johnson who corrected much of Gerard's misinformation, enlarged the output to cover 2,850 plants, and illustrated it with woodcuts from the most prestigious botanical publisher of the day. This text is still in print today.

John Parkinson, who called himself the "Apothecary of London and the King's Herbarist", wrote Theatrum Botanicum. It was as much a gardening book as an herbal and covered 3,800 plants, the largest work of its type in English. It groups plants into 17 categories including "Venomous Sleepy and Hurtfull plants and their counter poisons," "Hot and sharpe biting Plants," "The Unordered Tribe," and "Strange and outlandish plants." Like Gerard, some of his work perpetuates follies that seem quite amusing now. On the title page was an illustration of a small plant that existed only in the mind. This fantastic plant called a "vegetable lamb" bore a fruit that looked like a lamb which grazed on the grass around it and then died. In spite of this, his work is distinctive and comprehensive.

The follies of Gerard and Parkinson seem trivial in light of Culpeper's. Nicholas Culpeper was, of the three, the most outrageous and the most popular. He was a Puritan, while the medical establishment of his time was loyalist. He translated the London Pharmacopoeia from Latin to English, putting it into the hands of the general reading public and out of the exclusive ken of the medical establishment. This did little to endear him to this illustrious group. He subscribed wholeheartedly to the Doctrine of Signatures and was fascinated by astrological botany (Plant astrology came from the Arab world into western medical lore). It allied plants to the planets according to color and shape and then connected the astrological influence of the planet with the plants. This blend of the Doctrine of Signatures and astrological botany created quite a brew, and culminated in his work, The Complete Herbal, published in 1651. This herbal is perhaps the swan song of the Age of Herbals, as it was the beginning of the scientific era and Sir Thomas Browne, whose Vulgar Errors (1646) and Enquiries Into Very Many Received Tenets and Commonly Presumed Truths (1658) attacked many of the "truths" in the herbals.

The New World
The Age of Exploration brought European settlers to the New World and with them, they brought herbs as well as vegetables which they grew in "kitchen gardens." These were planted right outside the door for convenience and for safety. The colonists did not plant in rows and used raised beds. Today their method would be described as intensive gardening-interplanting vegetables with herbs and flowers as companion plants to confuse pests and to enhance growth. Colonial interest in herbs continued through the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson grew herbs in his kitchen garden in Monticello. After looking for years, he finally found plants of true French tarragon. His favorite though, was nasturtiums. His nasturtium bed stretched 10 by 19 yards!

The Native Americans called one herb, heartsease (Johnny jump-ups), the "white man's footsteps" because it sprung up wherever the white man went. The following herbs were found in the colonists' gardens: lavender, rosemary, thyme, savory, sage, germander, hyssop, southernwood, lavender cotton, dill, chamomile, caraway, fennel, lemon balm, mint, basil, parsley, borage, chervil, tarragon, rue, comfrey, and licorice. Dye plants such as alkanet, calendula, saffron, tansy, woad, and madder colored colonial clothing and potherbs such as sorrel, purslane, skirret, burnet, and cress were used in salad and in cooking. The colonists also became acquainted with native herbs: boneset, purple coneflower (Echinacea), goldenseal, and pleurisy root, and learned Native American treatments such as inducing perspiration in a saunalike sweat lodge to encourage the body to expel toxins and bacteria. A melding of European and Native American traditions became the basis of the schools known as Physiomedicalism and Eclecticism.

The Physiomedicalists and the Eclectics
Samuel Thomson, born in New Hampshire in 1769, was the force behind the Physiomedicalists. His early experience with orthodox medicine turned him against the practice of bleeding and mineral-based medicine. He believed medicine should help the body heal itself. He used hot baths to induce sweating and herbal regimens to purge the body and promote healing. He used native herbs, such as black cohosh, blue cohosh, and Indian tobacco. This brought him into opposition with the medical establishment of the day. To protect his therapies, he patented "Thomson's Improved System of Botanic Practice in Medicine". He then sold, for $20.00, rights to the therapies along with some instruction. It is likely that Thomson did not foresee the evils this would bring about. Obtaining a patent on a medicine allowed an unscrupulous entrepreneur to confer some legitimacy on the compound to "make a fast buck." Alcohol, opium, cocaine, and marijuana were sometimes added to the quack medicines.

The Eclectics (Eclecticism began in 1830 and was the brain-child of Dr. Wooster Beech) also combined Native American healing practices and herbal remedies. They differed from the Physiomedicalists in combining these with more orthodox techniques in the analysis of disease. This movement was squelched when Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller gave financial support solely to orthodox medical schools.

Thomsonian Physiomedicalism was brought to England in 1838 by Dr. Albert Coffin who set up a similar system of patent remedies and do-it-yourself guides to diagnosis. Then came Wooster Beech's preaching the Eclectic message, which caught on in the 1850's. In 1864, the various groups merged to form the National Association of Medical Herbalists, which continues to thrive to this day as the National Institute of Medical Herbalists-the oldest formalized body of specialist herbal practitioners in Europe.

Modern Medicine
Traditional herb practice has always combined herbs, viewing the whole as greater than the parts. The movement to identify active ingredients and to isolate them and recreate them synthetically began in the 18th century. But these chemicals display quite different properties from the original herb in its whole form. In the transition from the use of plants to clinical pills, modern medicine has lost the art of combining herbs to modify toxicity. Also, modern medicine does not use whole plants, which contain other ingredients that help reduce the risk of bad side effects and work together with the active chemical to heal.

At first, drugs could only be obtained from the plant, but later the chemical structures of the substances were identified, isolated, and made synthetically. One of the first modern drugs to be isolated was morphine. White crystals were extracted from the crude opium poppy. Similar techniques were used to produce aconitine from monkshood, atropine from deadly nightshade, and quinine from Peruvian bark. These are very powerful alkaloids. In 1852, salicin, the active ingredient in willow bark, was artificially made for the first time. Later it was changed to reduce severe effects on the stomach, and in 1899, Bayer launched the first aspirin.

In less than 100 years extracts have filled the shelves of pharmacists. These extracted chemicals can be extremely potent and cause side effects that could never be dreamed of when the whole plant was used. Indian snakeroot, Rauwolfia serpentina, has been used for centuries for snakebite, anxiety, and fevers. In the West, it was used as a tranquilizer, for high blood pressure, and in the treatment of schizophrenia and psychosis. In 1947, reserpine, an alkaloid from snakeroot was marketed as a cure for hypertension under the name Serpasil. It had side effects that included severe depression and abnormal slowing of the heartbeat. In the '50s, a new drug was developed from the herb. It is restricted to prescription-only in the US, but in Europe and Asia, the whole plant is still taken as a soothing tranquilizer.

The above trend in medicine is the norm today. Few of us remember another time. It hasn't taken long for most herbal knowledge to have fallen by the wayside. It would be nice to think that the revival in interest in herbs today is because people have come to realize the importance of herbs in healing. Unfortunately, that is not the case for most of us. Except for some lucky souls whose knowledge of herbs and their uses has been passed down form generation to generation, we will need to hit the books and learn from the plants all over again. It is in part the insurance companies that have begun funding alternative medicine who have been an impetus in this movement. And the media and marketers are also in part responsible for this rebirth in herbal knowledge. Now that the interest has been rekindled, it is important that those interested in using herbs educate themselves so they won't be swept up in the marketing blitz that sometimes distorts the way herbs work. It seems we've come full circle!