19th – 21st centuries

19th – 21st centuries

By the beginning of the 19th century, chemical-based medicines were in the ascendent and individual active constituents were being isolated from plants. Morphine was first extracted from the Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum) in 1803, and as the century progressed more and more ‘isolated actives’ were discovered. In 1838, salicylic acid, a natural forerunner of aspirin (= acetylsalicylic acid), was isolated from Willow bark (Salix alba). By 1860, salicylic acid had been synthesised in the laboratory and began to be used as an effective anti-inflammatory. In 1899, German scientists had synthesised aspirin, closely modelled on salicylic acid, but significantly stronger in action.

It is easy to think that isolated extracts or laboratory produced chemicals are inherently superior to simple extracts of medicinal plants, but it is not true. The stronger the action of a medicine or drug, the greater the risk of side effects. Life-threatening illness may well require extreme measures but milder illness requires milder treatment. It is in this sense that the French call herbal medicine – medicin doux, gentle medicine. Garlic is a natural antibiotic that has perhaps 1/10 of the strength of penicillin. This does not mean that Garlic has no role as an antimicrobial. During the 1st World War, before the advent of modern antibiotics, Garlic was shipped by the tonne to the trenches and used to pack the wounds of soldiers. At the time it was the best available treatment to prevent septicaemia; now its use is for non-severe infection and as a means of controlling antibiotic resistance.

The rapid growth of cities in the 19th century drew people from the countryside, and away from easy access to plant medicines. It also exposed them to hugely insanitary conditions. With dense living conditions, poor sewage and contaminated water, diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera were endemic. There was no cure for tuberculosis at the time, but herbal medicine could undoubtedly be used to prevent and treat cholera. Despite the fact that most working people could not afford costly doctor’s fees and medicines, many European countries made it illegal to practice herbal medicine without a medical qualification. In Britain, such moves were resisted and many working people instead relied on professional herbalists and local herbal suppliers for medical treatment. In 1864, the first association of professional herbalists was established in Britain, later becoming known as the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. These herbalists, often employed by local trade unions, provided cost effective herbal medicine to the urban poor and consolidated the use of a core group of plant medicines that remain the key medicinal herbs used by herbalists to this day. Native plants such as Dandelion – an excellent liver tonic; Eyebright – as its name suggests, a remedy for the eyes; Meadowsweet – a key digestive remedy; were used alongside imported herbs such as Ginger and Cloves from the east, and Echinacea and Black Cohosh from north America.

In the 20th century herbal medicine in the West appeared for a while to go into terminal decline, as modern medicine produced new synthetic medicines that transformed the treatment of many serious illnesses. This was not so true in the rest of the world where traditional medicine continued alongside an expanding modern medicine sector. It is an irony, that in the 20th century herbal medicine flourished where pharmaceutical medicines were least available, whether for economic or political reasons. In India, where most people have until recently been unable to afford such medicines, and Ayurveda offers a true alternative, similarly in China where the 1949 revolution recast traditional Chinese medicine as a specifically Maoist project, and in Africa where traditional medicine systems continue to be deeply embedded.

Yet in the West in the 21st century, plant medicine is on the way back.

There is a growing awareness, based on a wealth of scientific data, that chronic disease, from osteoarthritis or dementia, can be prevented or its onset slowed by changes in lifestyle, including diet and the judicious use of plant medicines. This is of key importance given the aging populations and prevalence of chronic illness in Western countries.

Secondly, there is an over-reliance or dependence on mainstream healthcare. People are taking back responsibility for maintaining their own health and well-being – no one else can do it for you! Herbal medicine lies at the heart of such an approach, providing gentle remedies that support the body in its path back to good health. The year-on-year expansion of sales of over-the-counter herbal medicines suggest that this trend is well established.

Thirdly, plant medicines are natural medicine, they can be grown and harvested with minimal impact on the environment. In fact, plant medicines can be grown in a way that supports and enhances a return to greater ecological diversity. Though rarely thought of in this way, plant medicines also support and enhance ecological diversity within the internal environment of our bodies. Our bodies are made up of trillions of bacteria that do not ‘belong’ to us, that live in symbiosis, in harmony, with all those cells that are ‘ours’, that have our unique DNA. As scientific studies increasingly show, good health depends upon a healthy, ecologically balanced relationship between the two.

Better self-care, greater resilience and improved chances of preventing chronic ill health all indicate that plant medicines have a vital future. Sometimes herbal medicines can even taste good!