The History of Plants and Medicine

By D’arcy Ames

The recorded history of plants and medicine can be traced back as far as 2700 BC to Sumeria, and Babylon in 2600 BC and the information obtained from clay tablets.

In ancient Egypt, the first plants, medicines and preparations were recorded on a series of scrolls. The Kahun Papyrus of 2000 BC is the most widely known. However, of most interest is the Ebers Papyrus – twenty two yards long, and twelve inches wide, and believed to be composed about 1552 BC. It is said to have come from the tomb of a mummy excavated in Thebes. In this text, there are more than seven hundred drugs mentioned, including castor oil, myrrh, mastic, frankincense, aloe, opium, peppermint, cassia, fennel, and honey. Besides plant products, a fair number of mineral compounds were in use; iron, lead, magnesia. Animal parts were also utilized for the practice of healing. Semiprecious stones were ground into powders for internal use by making infusions, poultices, gargles, and inhalations. The ancients employed mortars of wood, or stone, and containers of clay or glass.

In ancient China, Shen Nung was recording the medical practices of the day in manuscript, known as the Pen Tsao, or Native Herbal. He is referred to as “the father of Chinese Medicine”. Following him, during China’s Ming Dynasty, Li Shih-chencomposed the Pen Tsao Kang mu, the “great herbal” aka Materia Medica.

In ancient Greece, philosophy and spirituality began to play heavily in the treatment of people and the healing arts. The ancient Greeks began to look for natural causes that produced disease, and began recording descriptions of symptoms experienced with different diseases and epidemics. The writings of Hippocrates, known as “the father of modern medicine”, included up to 400 drugs and the methods of carrying out pharmaceutical processes for their uses.

The Romans continued with the Greeks’ methods. However, the ancient Romans’ greatest contribution to health is considered to be their great ability to construct elaborate aqueducts providing the city with clean, running water.

In the Middle Ages, medical practice and pharmacy were separated after the German Emperor Frederick II issued and edict. This gave rise to professional pharmacy, and set guidelines for quality and accuracy of “prescriptions”. The word apothecary first appears in France in 1178. About 1250, what is believed to be the first Apothecaryshop, was opened in Wexler, Germany. About this time, Arnold of Villanova was creating tinctures; extracting properties from plants with alcohol.

The Renaissance brought about the printing press, and world travel, bringing an end to the isolation of the different cultures of different locales. It also brought about the discovery of many new botanicals.

The Age of Enlightenment brought with it the idea that man, the universe, and nature were all intricately connected. Pharmacopoeias came about. However, the majority of the population could not afford doctors, and relied heavily on apothecaries, chemists, and druggists. Great advances in understanding the human body were made. Mapping of the human body begins.

In the 15th century, trade in drugs and spices becomes a very lucrative pursuit, and the cause of much conflict. It was a great motivator for the conquest of new lands. The trade at this time was in the hands of the”Guild of Pepperers“. After this the Grocers Company was formed which was a collaborative of the Spicers, the Pepperers, the Cullers, and the Oil Sellers Guild. Trade of medicines and drugs became a part of this country.

American settlers relied on the old English ways for medicine. Perhaps, many who were persecuted as witches at this time were really natural healers (?). Few settlers were fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of America’s indigenous people in a manner that allowed the free flow of information between people. The healing arts and practices of the indigenous people, being passed on through oral tradition, is knowledge to a much smaller segment of the population, and until more recently in history, has not often been recorded. It is the same for the indigenous populations of other continents.

The 20th century saw many new changes in medicine and methods for cultivating plants- on a big scale. New pharmaceutical drugs were created, such as antibiotics, and vaccines; some made from the chemicals and compounds isolated and obtained from botanicals, some from animal parts or byproducts, others are completely synthetic and lab made. These new medicines have changed medical practice immensely, and how people and practitioners feel about healthcare. Today, it’s the chemicals and compounds isolated and extracted from these plants that are most often used and talked about, not the plants as a whole. It is creating a disconnect with nature, and fostering a reliance on lab created medicines. The basic medical knowledge that has survived human history until now, is being re-created. A whole new human history in medicine is being recorded in the 21st Century!

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