History of Herbal Medicine

A collection of herbs for tea.

The history of herbal medicine probably began with our most ancient ancestors, hunter-gatherers, who would have learned that eating certain herbs resulted in a palliative effect. Most likely this began with a marshmallow plant, which has the effect of calming stomach upsets. Today, herbal medicine is a constantly evolving science and incorporates information we have learned over the centuries and from herbal practitioners around the globe.

History of Herbal Medicine - The Beginning

While we suspect that the history of herbal medicine began with earliest man, we know that the first written herbal record was in 2800 B.C., the Pen T'sao by Shennong (also known as The Divine Farmer). In 400 B.C., Hippocrates wrote the first herbal medicine record in Greek. In 100 B.C. the first illustrated herbal record was produced in Greece. In 50 B.C., the Roman Empire began spreading information about herbal remedies throughout the empire as well as the plants used for various remedies.

In 200 A.D., Galen, an herbal practitioner, developed a classification system for remedies and illnesses. In 800 A.D., monks helped spread knowledge about herbal medicine through their infirmaries at each monastery.

During the 1100's, Avicenna, a physician and Persian scholar, wrote the Canon of Medicine.

During Henry VII reign, Parliament passes acts that protect herbalists from persecution. A century later, a two-tiered medical treatment system emerges: drugs for the rich and herbs for the poor. During this time period, Nicholas Culpepper writes the English Physician, which explains in detail herbal medicine.

In the 1800's the National Association of Medical Herbalists is founded to help promote and defend the practice of herbal medicine. In 1941, the Pharmacies and Medicine Act is passed, stripping herbal practitioners of the right to dispense medicinal herbs.

In 1968, the Medicines Act is passed and restores practitioners' rights to dispense medicinal herbs. The British Herbal Medicine Association was also founded and published the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia.

In 2000, the British government decrees that herbal medicines undergo the same testing as conventional drugs. These herbal medicines would then be licensed.

Herbal Medicine Practiced Today

Herbal medicine is practiced today in countries around the world. Each government determines the extent to which practitioners may distribute their herbal remedies. In Europe, for example, if a medical consultation is given, the herbs are considered drugs. If the herbs are purchased over the counter, they are considered herbal supplements.

In the United States, herbalists cannot prescribe drugs legally, unless they also happen to be medical doctors. Herbs can only be sold as herbal supplements. These supplements can be found in stores locally and online. The FDA does not approve most of these herbs because they are not considered medications. An exception to the drug prescription rule is the Shaman who practices on Indian Reservations. The reservations are sovereign nations and U.S. law does not apply there.

The Future of Herbal Medicine

Currently, there is an ongoing dispute between certified medical professionals and herbalists. Some people believe that herbal medicine is outdated and those who practice it should be shut down. Other people believe that perhaps a return to more natural products may be healthier than synthetic drugs.

In either case, there are people trying to meet the two camps in the middle - the doctors of naturopathy. Hopefully there will be a meeting of the minds on the usefulness of herbs in the treatment program of patients who don't respond well to traditional medical procedures. After all, many drugs used by respected members of the medical community are created from plants.

For the time being, companies selling herbal supplements are experiencing a boom in sales. People are trying to live healthier lives and eliminating chemicals from their diet. The only question is whether or not herbalists will finally be treated as respected members of their community or forced out of business by conventional medical practitioners.

History of Herbal Medicine