This section is from the book "Botanic Drugs Their Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics", by Thomas S. Blair. Also available from Amazon: Botanic Drugs, Their Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
Isis, the Queen and afterwards the Goddess, was called the "Mother of Medicine." Indeed, in ancient Egypt, eleven thousand years before Christ, both men and women were skilled in medicine: it was there botanic medication had its origin. Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine," many centuries later, knew less of the remedial actions of vegetable drugs than did the women of the, to him, ancient times.
"Paracelsus states with regard to his famous writings that they were but the compilation of knowledge obtained from the 'Wise Women.' It may be noticed that it is the women and not the men of primitive races, as a rule, who are learned in the healing properties of plants. . . . From the earliest times, women acquired a knowledge of the human body, of science, of natural laws, and of the medicinal properties of herbs."1
Hippocrates left no regular treatise on materia medica, but he made, as did also the Iliad and the Odyssee, frequent references to the work of Poly-dauma, Origenia, and Aspasia - Greek women -who were learned in the making of soothing potions.
Theophrastus developed the botany of materia medica in a scientific manner; but Dioscorides was the first authoritative writer on the therapeutics of plant remedies. His books listed seven hundred of them, but in no classified form. His work stood for long, and the Greeks added but little to it; but the Arabians, more especially Ebn Baithar, added camphor, senna, nux vomica, and other drugs. Aetius finally classified the materia medica.
The seventh century A. D. gave to medicine the works of Paulus Aegineta.2 His writings are a wonderful record, commenting literally upon hundreds of botanic remedies, among which may be noted aconite, aloes, bryonia, belladonna, colchicum, cannabis, colocynth, elaterium, gentian, hyoscyamus, lactucarium, male fern, nux vomica, opium, Pulsatilla, ricinus, rhubarb, squill, senna, triticum, thyme, valerian, and a host of familiar plants, as well as many long since forgotten ones.
But it is of passing interest to note that he described many again brought to notice in the centuries-later writings of Hahnemann, of Homeopathic fame, and of Scudder, the principal writer of the Eclectic School. Among these botanic drugs may be noted boletus, agnus castus, populus nigra, urtica dioica, sambucus, plantago, asclepias, carduus benedictus, helleborus niger, avena, gnaphalium, eupatorium, senecio, eryngium, bursa pastoris, iris, equisetum, juglans, cistus, corallium, allium, conium, corydalis, xanthium, oenanthe, polygonatum, rhus, achillea, solanum, Symphytum, hypericum, cheli-donium, berberis, anacardium, and a host of others. In fact, from Aegineta and the medieval European writers Hahnemann took the greater part of his remedies, accepting their nomenclature and much of their data.
2 "The Seven Books of Paulus Aegineta," translated into English by the Sydenham Society at the hand of Francis Adams, 1847.
In fact, outside of the botanic field, oyster shell, graphite, lachesis, sepia, burnt sponge, and other "peculiar" remedies of sectarian medicine were also described in ancient and medieval books.
Verily, "there is nothing new under the sun." The medieval medical writings in Europe were numerous; but, again, it was a woman, Hildegarde (born 1108), of Bingen on the Rhine, who developed the botanic materia medica of her region and wrote a notable book.3 Other women, somewhat later, whose names figure in botanic materia medica, were Mme. Mouffler, the Countess of Chinchon, and Mme. Chapelle. In medieval and pre-modern times, the men were so busy developing the dogmas of theology and medicine that they considered herbalism as beneath their notice; and the women, who conducted the hospitals of those days and did most of the obstetrical work, developed the useful details, leaving the profound theories for the men to fight over. Nevertheless, some masculine names were associated with materia medica from the chemical side, which does not involve this present study. Then, too, other men, in their writings, included botanic materia medica in the form of compilation from previous literature.
An examination of "The Pharmacopoeia Lon-dinensis, A. D. 1682," revealed a content surprisingly botanical. The celebrated Dr. Thomas Sydenham gave much credit to botanic remedies, and his influence doubtless promoted their use. Writings in that day showed considerable use of indigenous plants, but comparatively little of value was written. Later writers of note in England, such as Headland, while crediting botanic remedies, exploited little that was new. The rage for plant remedies had subsided, largely due to chemical advance in Europe.
Not so in America. There lies before me a quaint and not particularly creditable book, "The Practice of Medicine on Thomsonian Principles," by J. W. Comfort, M.D., and published in Philadelphia, in 1845. In the materia medica section, the first mentioned drug is lobelia inflata, to which is ascribed truly remarkable virtues and concerning which many foolish statements are made. Then follow capsicum, Thomson's composition powder (bayberry root bark, ginger, cayenne, and cloves), black pepper, ginger, bayberry, upland sumac, white pond lily, wild red raspberry, witch hazel, evan root, marsh rosemary, and numerous other American plants, few of which survive to-day as remedies. Nevertheless, some do remain, including lobelia, hydrastis, wild cherry, and some minor ones; so Samuel Thomson did not live in vain. His most creditable successors in the botanic field were Scudder and King of the Eclectic or "American" School, and who, despite a minority following in American medicine, really developed much of true value.
But the dominant wing of the American medical profession were opposed to Thomson, Beach, Scudder, and all of the so-called "Botanies." The works of Trousseau, of France, dominated the thought of our writers on materia medica; and, indeed, this was rather fortunate, for Trousseau was a thoughtful and able man, whose writings were the very opposite in spirit from the vagaries of Thomson.
Then, too, H. C. Wood, Sr., followed up in America the scientific method of Trousseau, and he had an immense influence here.
Probably the last prominent proponent of the botanic remedies in so-called "Regular" practice was Robert Bartholow. A most able man, as he was, yet his was not the scientific method; and there has been no prominent writer since who adhered so closely to the empiric method in the study of materia medica.
Laurence Johnson lists4 upwards of two hundred medicinal plants as indigenous to North America, principally in the United States. He does not pretend to list all of them, and few of those peculiar to Mexico and Central America. This is both an encouragement and a discouragement - an encouragement in that so great a diversity is ours and a discouragement in that we shall be tempted to use too much of it. Even to-day we are making foolish additions to materia medica.
This brief review of the history of botanic medication prepares the way for some considerations quite necessary for us to face if we hope to place plant remedies upon a scientific basis.