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A Short History Of Herbal Medicine

The cradle lands of civilization furnish us with written texts illustrating the use of herbs. The Ebers Papyrus, dating from about 1600 BC, lists some 700 drugs, charms and incantations. The majority of these drugs were herbs. Ancient Babylonian tablets of clay list some 230 commonly used preparations. Finally, the Ancient Chinese during the Shang dynasty (around 1700 BC) were writing texts on herbal medicine. The most famous Ancient Chinese text was a distillate of these early works, written as Shen Nung's Herbal in 273 BC.

The Classical Greeks were responsible for removing much of the magic from the practice of medicine. In particular, Hippocrates mentions some 250 useful herbs in his great works (or at least in the writings attributed to the great physician.) This was later extended by Dioscorides, a Greek physician of the first Century AD, who published his De Materia Medica, which contained over 600 medicinal plants. Hippocrates believed that the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, acted upon by some sort of vital force became activated into humors or Vital Fluids once they had been assimilated and absorbed into the body. There were four Vital Fluids - blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. He taught that air absorbed through the lungs would be transformed into blood; water would eventually become phlegm; earth (from the substance of food) would become black bile, and heat or fire would become yellow bile.

Aristotle added to this theory the idea of the elements being linked to the Four Qualities of hot, dry, cold and wet, was conceived as being a mixture of two paired qualities. This postulate allowed for the transformation of one element into another, if the predominance of one quality was altered. For example, Fire, which is Hot and Dry, plus Water which is Cold and Wet, could respectively lose Dryness and Coldness to form Earth, which is Cold and Dry; and Air which is Wet and Hot

The second Century physician, Claudius Galen, further refined this theory by linking the Vital Fluids (or humors) and Qualities with the Temperaments of Man. There were thought to be four basic temperaments - sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic and choleric.

The pure Choleric temperament is generally confident, irascible, touchy and proud. Ambition is usually well developed and there may be arrogance. The Phlegmatic, or lymphatic temperament is fussy, a bit obsessional, practical, but hates the limelight. The Sanguine temperament is excitable, impressionable, impulsive and sometimes unreliable. He can sometimes seem frivolous and thoughtless to others. The Melancholic temperament is cautious, serious, industrious and solitary. There is, of course, a tendency to become depressed.

According to these theories, diseases could be worked out as being hot or cold, moist or dry, or any appropriate combination. Balance could be restored, it was said, by utilizing the Doctrine of Contraries. This meant that a predominantly moist disease could be cured by administering a Dry remedy, whereas a Hot Drug would be most effective against a Cold disease. This system of pharmacology became known as Galenism, after Galen, and the drugs came to be known as Galenicals. Indeed, in our expression - as cool as a cucumber - we see a reference to the use of this simple vegetable as a Galenical.

It is a cooling agent, which has been found to have a scientific rationale, since it is rich in salicylates, which are related to aspirin.

This theory became the major model of medicine for the next millennium and a half, only being disputed as the Renaissance brought the scientific approach to western thinking. However, although herbalism went out of fashion it was never suppressed. As orthodox medicine developed in Europe emigrants to America carried herbal practice with them as they settled the great frontier. Our next significant character was one Samuel Thomson (1769-1843), a self-educated farm boy who learned his herbalism from a local wise woman.

Thomson was wise enough to put his method down on paper in a book which was to become an incredible success. It was decidedly based upon the old humoral theories and the temperaments of herbs and plants. It rapidly spread westwards by a companion to the Bible in the covered wagon trains carrying settlers across the great continent. Unfortunately, physiomedicalism, as the Thomson method became known, met considerable resistance from the rapidly developing American Medical Association towards the end of the nineteenth century. It may even have died out completely had it not been taken back to its roots by emigrants to Britain and Europe. It was a time when the soil was fertile, for the Industrial Revolution had created many great cities where people from the country had been forced to move to gain employment. The new herbalists readily found a market for their skills, since the former country people craved for their old country treatments rather than the expensive new drugs of the orthodox medical profession. Herbalism experienced a renewed popularity, to the extent that the Thomsonian approach was adopted as the basic philosophy of the fledgling organization, the National Association of Medical Herbalists.