History of Herbalism


According to the to the World Health Organization, herbal medicine is “the use of crude plant material such as leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds, stems, wood, bark, roots, rhizomes or other plant parts, which may be entire, fragmented or powdered.” (Light, 2012, p. 24). The history of Herbalism is deeply embedded in the development of human cultures, so is shaped by culture and historical context. Since the time of Galen, a famous Turkish physician whose teachings dominated the practice of medicine in Europe for 1500 years, there has been a divide between the professional and the lay practitioner of medicine (Hamilton, 2001). This divide persists today. The main practice of herbalism has been and continues to be a vernacular medicine of the people for the people. Even though the use of herbs as possible preventatives and therapeutics is extremely popular today and represents a large source of revenue ($249,664,836.00 in 2009[1]) for purveyors of natural and health food products there is still only a limited number of professional herbalists.

My colleague, Rowan Hamilton, a British-trained herbalist acknowledges the multitude of herbal healers who came before us:

I would also like to acknowledge and honor those who left no written word behind. These healers, ordinary and extraordinary, knowledgeable, wise and compassionate just got on with the business of healing the sick. They are the silent majority here. From the hills of Wales to the villages of Greece, from the lodges of British Columbia to the cities of Persia; they are the grandmothers and grandfathers who have always cared. They often know more of nature and life itself than the grand physician or philosopher. For them an injured lamb or a child in fever calls all their attention. They are still there and care for us in need if we only know how to find them and listen. (Hamilton, 2001)

We humans have a long history of using herbs. There is evidence that by 1500 BC there was a thriving trade in herbs.  The materia medicas (a system of classifying medicinal herbs giving detailed descriptions of the plants and their uses) of ancient cultures like India, Egypt, and Babylon reflect that trade in their similarities (Hamilton, 2001). Plaques illustrating herbs have been discovered in Persia (modern Iran), that when carbon-dated were found to be over 60,000 years old[2].  As Alexander the Great engaged in the conquest of  the known world in the third century B.C. his physicians recorded all the medicinal herbs they came upon ranging from present day herbs like flaxseed to garlic and cannabis (Hamilton, 2001).

It seems probable that the rhizotomaki or root gatherers in ancient Greece created the first materia medica.  The earliest written record is from Diocles, a pupil of Aristotle in the fourth century (Hamilton, 2001). The biggest leap in the development of the modern materia medica was made by the armies of Rome as they recruited and maintained the best doctors and surgeons (Hamilton, 2001). For example, Yarrow, a powerful styptic (used to stop bleeding) was applied by Roman physicians on the battlefields.  Yarrow was also one of the plants pictured on the pre-historic Persian plaques.  It is also thought to be the plant used to bathe Achilles when he was a baby to make him invulnerable. Unfortunately, Achilles mother, who had been told by the Gods to bathe her son in a bath containing the extract of Yarrow, had to hold onto the baby by one foot while she dipped him in the bath. The place where she held him was the heel of one foot, which was not covered in the solution of Yarrow. Hence, Achilles was not protected at that one point—his heel, so he was killed by an arrow which struck him in the heel (Achilles’ heel is still in use in our language today). 

The great materia medicas were developed through a combination of trade and warfare among ancient peoples. It was with the advent of the first herbals (medicas written for the lay person), that herbal knowledge really began to spread. Herbals were among the first books printed in China and Europe.  In 1653, at around the time that the first moveable type printing press was developed in the west, Culpepper published the Complete Herbal[3]. Women, who were the primary caregivers of the family and the community, were the most frequent users of his herbal. 

Today women are still important family caregivers and female students comprise 90% of my face-to-face classes.  Furthermore, my teaching is still focused on medicine for the people by the people—practical herbalism.  Herbals were, and are, currently available for self-education and guidance on safe self-medication, as in the case of Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine (1995).

Given the widespread sale and use of herbs today, there is more than ever a need for good herbals, herbal education, and wise healers (women and men). Modern allopathic medicine does not encourage self-medication, although large numbers of synthetic patent medicines are available over the counter at any western drug store and sales of patent medicines (non-prescription medicines) represent a major and highly profitable business. The division of opinion and practice between conventional medical practice and herbalism is still very much alive and well.

To complement and enhance a student’s study of Herbalism I have added some very basic introductions to the major studies of Ayurveda, Process Oriented Psychology, and Shamanism.

The oldest existing therapeutic systems used by humanity for health and well-being are called Traditional Medicine or Complementary and Alternative Medicine (TM/CAM).    Increasingly, TM/CAM is being formally used within existing health-care systems. When practiced correctly, TM/CAM can help protect and improve citizens’ health and well-being. The appropriate use of TM/CAM therapies and products, however, requires consideration of issues of safety, efficacy and quality. This is the basis of consumer protection and is no different, in principle, from what underpins modern medical practice. Upholding basic requirements for the modern practice of TM/CAM therapies can support national health authorities in the establishment of adequate laws, rules, and licensing practices (World Health Organization, 2010, p. vii).


[1] http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue86/article3530.html

[2] http://www.greenbush.net/historyofherbs.html

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Culpeper