Natures Pharmacy: The History Of Herbalism

Herbalism is ranked as one of the most popular types of traditional medicine in Western Europe according to the World Health Organisation. But where did it start?

Over 3,000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians were using garlic and myrrh. Garlic is one of the earliest documented examples of plants being used for treatment of disease and maintenance of health. Modern science today confirms these ancient beliefs regarding garlic.

Britain has 2,590 native plant species where at least 600 have been used for medicinal and healing properties. The traditions can be traced back over the past thousand years. The doctrine of signatures was probably the most important aspect of folk medicine from the Middle Ages. It believed that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used to treat and cure diseases of the body parts. It was the belief that the gods or God made plants that looked like the parts of the body they would cure. Of course, most of the herbs didn’t work as described, although some of the species determined by the doctrine have been found to have therapeutic properties. For example, the yellow sap and flowers of celandine (Chelidonium majus) which was used to treat jaundice.

By the 9th century Britain’s medicine was a hybrid of beliefs, influenced by visitors and settlers, among them Celts, Romans, Saxons and Danes. King Alfred commissioned the study of Classical authors and the collecting and assessing of local lore. The oldest surviving medicinal British texts can be traced back to this time: Laecedomas – meaning ‘remedies’ from the word laece.

Between Alfred’s reign and late Middle Ages, priests, monks and nuns became the custodians of the learned medicine. They translated, compiled remedies and gardened; the herbs they grew were used to treat a vast array of people. The service continued until the Reformation. Religious centres were not the only salvation for the sick and poor – “wise women” who were often illiterate, but revered within their communities preserved unorthodox ways, superstitions and cures using plant-based, wild ingredients.

It wasn’t until the 1500s that the medicinal practice in England started to be regulated. In 1518 Henry VIII established the College of Physicians (now the Royal College of Physicians) to grant licenses and punish unlicensed practitioners including “wise women”. For the next hundred years several physicians and botanists starting with William Turner in 1540 published volumes identifying and promoting the therapeutic properties of plants, written in English (usually in Latin) the books became “how-to” guides. Country estates were encouraged to read the works of medical botany and tend to staff, tenants and the poor.

James I put an end to the liberal approach to medical botany and instructed the Pharmocopeia Londinensis: a directory of approved substances, prohibiting practitioners from prescribing anything that was not in the directory. The list included non-native plants providing a boost to the apothecaries. The next century provided physicians and apothecaries with more non-native plant medicines to sell and prescribe. Homegrown alternatives continued to be used across the country consulting Nicholas Culpeper’s (1653) The Complete Herbal.

1775 marks a pivotal point in history where William Withering (physician and botanist) is hailed the father of modern scientific therapies after his study of a rural recipe using Foxglove for cardiac problems. He demonstrated Digitalis purpurea efficiency and toxicity by clinical trials. Digitalis derived compounds still remains an important heart medicine used to treat congestive heart failure as well as atrial arrhythmias.

Our herbal history is still providing researchers inspiration for future therapies and drugs.