The first evidence of herbal medicine dates back to the Neanderthal era, according to Bob McCandless, the master herbalist at Gaia Garden Apothecary on Vancouver’s West Side. “Right around the graves, they found very carefully laid-out pollens from medicinal herbs, such as yarrow and nettles—many of the herbs we still use,” he told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview.
McCandless said that tens of thousands of years ago, herbs were also commonly used to treat ailments in India. From there, Buddhists spread this knowledge eastward to China. He also suggested that travellers, including the armies of Alexander the Great, likely also brought this healing tradition west to the Mediterranean area, where it was embraced by Hippocrates, the father of western medicine.
“He taught classic Ayurvedic medicine, essentially,” McCandless stated. “When the Romans took over, they adopted that as their national medicine.”
One of the great figures of Roman medicine was Galen of Pergamon, an expert on anatomy who built on the work of Hippocrates. McCandless described him as “essentially a Greek-Roman herbalist”.
“Every Roman army had its own doctor, who was trained in the Greek style of medicine,” he said. “That spread right into Europe—France, Germany, into Britain.”
In the Middle Ages, he said, every monastery had a herb farm. McCandless explained that in those peasant cultures, herbalists were often women, who also performed midwifery in addition to healing ailments. He added that some men specialized as “poisoners”, selling their services to kings and emperors. By reducing the amount of toxicity by reducing the dose, they discovered healing properties in certain metals.
“They found things like mercury could take away the symptoms of syphilis, even though you could die of mercury poisoning later,” he commented.
During the Renaissance, he said, two schools of healing emerged. Chemists, who were mostly men, used stronger ingredients. McCandless suggested that they came out of the “poisoner” tradition. And female herbalists went into fields to pick plants.
Unfortunately for the herbalists, religious fanatics of the time believed that women who had knowledge in this area were witches. This resulted in wholesale executions of herbalists. “It turned medicine on its head,” McCandless said. He noted, however, that the son of King Henry VIII of England was healed by a herbalist, which resulted in a British law protecting these practitioners from persecution.
Herbal medicine received a boost in the 18th and 19th centuries when European conquerors learned how it had been used by North American aboriginal people. But a backlash arose in the early 20th century when the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations pushed North American medical schools to embrace modern pharmaceutical treatments in return for funding.
The founder of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Abraham Flexner, wrote a Carnegie Foundation–funded paper in 1910 that shaped the future of medical education. “Indirectly, this development led to the demise of more financially strapped schools of alternative medicine,” Lyn Freeman writes in Mosby’s Complementary & Alternative Medicine: A Researched Based Approach.
In their book Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial (Bantam Press, 2008), Exeter University professor Edzard Ernst and science writer Simon Singh point out that pharmacologically active chemicals exist in plants, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they can have an effect. They also note that many drugs—such as aspirin, the anticancer agent taxol, and the antimalarial drug artemisinin—have their origins in plants.
“It is certainly appropriate that the word drug comes from the Swedish word druug, meaning ”˜dried plant’,” Ernst and Singh write.
They mention that British physician William Withering was one of the first to subject herbal remedies to rigorous scientific scrutiny in the late 18th century. While the book highlights numerous herbs with “good” or “medium” efficacy, others are characterized as having a “poor” impact on health. Like conventional medicines, herbal remedies may have side effects.
“If you are already taking a conventional drug, then be aware that there is the risk of interactions between the conventional drug and your herbal remedy,” Ernst and Singh caution their readers.