Got questions?
Ask Sara!

Send email to


The Chinese, the Egyptians, and Indian Ayurvedic Medicine
The Greeks
The East and the West
The Physiomedicalists and the Eclectics
The Lore
Astrological Botany

The Physiomedicalists and the Eclectics
Samuel Thomson, born in New Hampshire in 1769, was the force behind the Physiomedicalists. His early experience with orthodox medicine turned him against the practice of bleeding and mineral-based medicine. He believed medicine should help the body heal itself. He used hot baths to induce sweating and herbal regimens to purge the body and promote healing. He used native herbs, such as black cohosh, blue cohosh, and Indian tobacco. This brought him into opposition with the medical establishment of the day. To protect his therapies, he patented "Thomson's Improved System of Botanic Practice in Medicine". He then sold, for $20.00, rights to the therapies along with some instruction. It is likely that Thomson did not foresee the evils this would bring about. Obtaining a patent on a medicine allowed an unscrupulous entrepreneur to confer some legitimacy on the compound to "make a fast buck." Alcohol, opium, cocaine, and marijuana were sometimes added to the quack medicines.

The Eclectics (Eclecticism began in 1830 and was the brain-child of Dr. Wooster Beech) also combined Native American healing practices and herbal remedies. They differed from the Physiomedicalists in combining these with more orthodox techniques in the analysis of disease. This movement was squelched when Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller gave financial support solely to orthodox medical schools.

Thomsonian Physiomedicalism was brought to England in 1838 by Dr. Albert Coffin who set up a similar system of patent remedies and do-it-yourself guides to diagnosis. Then came Wooster Beech's preaching the Eclectic message, which caught on in the 1850's. In 1864, the various groups merged to form the National Association of Medical Herbalists, which continues to thrive to this day as the National Institute of Medical Herbalists-the oldest formalized body of specialist herbal practitioners in Europe.

Modern Medicine
Traditional herb practice has always combined herbs, viewing the whole as greater than the parts. The movement to identify active ingredients and to isolate them and recreate them synthetically began in the 18th century. But these chemicals display quite different properties from the original herb in its whole form. In the transition from the use of plants to clinical pills, modern medicine has lost the art of combining herbs to modify toxicity. Also, modern medicine does not use whole plants, which contain other ingredients that help reduce the risk of bad side effects and work together with the active chemical to heal.

At first, drugs could only be obtained from the plant, but later the chemical structures of the substances were identified, isolated, and made synthetically. One of the first modern drugs to be isolated was morphine. White crystals were extracted from the crude opium poppy. Similar techniques were used to produce aconitine from monkshood, atropine from deadly nightshade, and quinine from Peruvian bark. These are very powerful alkaloids. In 1852, salicin, the active ingredient in willow bark, was artificially made for the first time. Later it was changed to reduce severe effects on the stomach, and in 1899, Bayer launched the first aspirin.

In less than 100 years extracts have filled the shelves of pharmacists. These extracted chemicals can be extremely potent and cause side effects that could never be dreamed of when the whole plant was used. Indian snakeroot, Rauwolfia serpentina, has been used for centuries for snakebite, anxiety, and fevers. In the West, it was used as a tranquilizer, for high blood pressure, and in the treatment of schizophrenia and psychosis. In 1947, reserpine, an alkaloid from snakeroot was marketed as a cure for hypertension under the name Serpasil. It had side effects that included severe depression and abnormal slowing of the heartbeat. In the '50s, a new drug was developed from the herb. It is restricted to prescription-only in the US, but in Europe and Asia, the whole plant is still taken as a soothing tranquilizer.

The above trend in medicine is the norm today. Few of us remember another time. It hasn't taken long for most herbal knowledge to have fallen by the wayside. It would be nice to think that the revival in interest in herbs today is because people have come to realize the importance of herbs in healing. Unfortunately, that is not the case for most of us. Except for some lucky souls whose knowledge of herbs and their uses has been passed down form generation to generation, we will need to hit the books and learn from the plants all over again. It is in part the insurance companies that have begun funding alternative medicine who have been an impetus in this movement. And the media and marketers are also in part responsible for this rebirth in herbal knowledge. Now that the interest has been rekindled, it is important that those interested in using herbs educate themselves so they won't be swept up in the marketing blitz that sometimes distorts the way herbs work. It seems we've come full circle!

Read about Herbal Lore