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History of medicinal plants

The first doctors, or healers, were probably those members of
society that possessed an extensive knowledge of their local flora
(i.e. all plants growing in a particular region).

Today we call these people medicine men or shamans

- Bomoh = medicine man/healer/faith healer
- Dukun = healer/spiritual expert/shaman
Jampi/mantra =
word/phrase capable of
transformation / spiritual
- Pawang = endowed with magic power
or diviner
- Mak bidan = midwife (maternity/child birth)
- Ahli nujum = astrologist
- Ali ugama = religious men/women (ustaz/ustazah) Al-Quran / Hadis
Evidence that these people were our first doctors comes from research by
ethnobotanists working with indigenous groups. e.g. the late Richard
Evans Schultes and his student, Mark Plotkin

Ancient History oldest known documentation of medicinal

plants comes from the Ancient Sumerians, although involved in
mathematics and sciences, they attribute human illness to
supernatural sources; recorded plant remedies on a clay tablet
dated at ~2500 B.C.

The Code of Hammurabi, written under the direction of the

King of Babylon also mentions use medicinal plants like
henbane and licorice.
Hyoscyamus nigeralso known
asstinking nightshadeorblack
Medicinal alkaloids - atropine,
hyoscyamine, and scopolamine - that
can be purified for use in
Licorice - Glycyrrhiza glabra
Also known as "sweet root"
Contains a compound glycyrrhizin,
which is 50 times sweeter than sugar
To treat a variety of illnesses, ranging
from the common cold to liver disease

Pen Tsao a pharmacopoeia, or book containing an official list

of medicines, is complied under the direction of Emperor
Shen-nung of China ~ 2500 B.C. Desribes use of 365 medicinal
plants including opium, ephedra, hemp, and chaulmoogra.

Papaver somniferum

Ephedra sinica

Hemp - varieties of

Hydnocarpus wightiana
The oil from its seeds has been widely
used in Indian medicine and Chinese
traditional medicine for the treatment
of leprosy

Ebers Papyrus dated ~ 1500 B.C. from Egypt documents

preparation of 700 remedies made from such plants as
mandrake, aloe, castor, and hemp

TheEbers Papyrus, also known

asPapyrus Ebers, is an Egyptian
medical papyrus of herbal knowledge.
Cyperus papyrus
Mandragora officinarum -mandrake
Aloe vera
Ricinus communis -castor oil plant

Rig Veda earliest Hindu text from Ancient India, dated ~

1500 B.C. (at latest), verses include mention of numerous
medicinal plants including snakeroot (Rauwolfia serpentina).
Text provides foundation of Ayurveda, an Indian system of
healing that includes at least 1500 plant-derived medicines in
its pharmacopoeia
Rauvolfia serpentina, orIndian

Western Tradition of Medicinal Plants and the Roots of

Pharmacology (i.e. the science of drugs)
Hippocrates (460-377 B.C) considered the Father of Medicine
(modern-day physicians take Hippocratic oath), breaks with earlier
tradition in his belief that human illnesses have natural sources;
particularly in his notion that illness is caused by an imbalance of the
four bodily humors
Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.) student of Plato And Aristotle,
considered the Father of Botany, wrote Historia Plantarum that
included directions for the collection, preparation, and use of 600
medicinal plant species

Dioscorides (1st century A.D.) Greek physician who works with

Roman (Neros) army writes De Materia Medica, a 5- volume
pharmacopoeia, that includes 1000 simple remedies prepared from
600 different plant species.
Although, it includes a lot of false information, it does document the
use of willow bark to relieve pain associated with gout.

Medieval Europe European Christianity discourages

practice of medicine based on rational science, replaces it with
dogmatic explanations of medical phenomena.
De Materia Medica remains standard medical text until
In other parts of world, however, progress in medicine is made.
e.g .Chinese update Pen Tsao
Arabs translate Greek texts and build hospitals in Baghdad
Avicenna (980-1037), Persian physician writes Canon of

Renaissance with overall renewal of intellectual activity in

Europe in 15th century and invention of the printing press, Age
of Herbals begins.
Herbals are books that include illustrations of useful plants.
Authors of these herbals were predominantly German botanists
who had spent some time in monasteries:
Otto Brunfels (1464-1534), Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554).
Leonard Fuchs (1501-1566), and Valerius Cordus (1515-1544).

Pararcelsus (1493-1541) proponent of the Doctrine of

Medicinal use recognized by distinct "signatures" visible on the plant
which corresponded to human anatomy
- Red juice of bloodwort to treat blood disorders

- Lobed appearance of liverworts to aid the liver

Belief in this concept developed independently among different


17th and 18th centuries waning use of herbals coincides

with advance of scientific method for testing hypotheses.
This led to a better understanding of the human physiology and
therefore the mechanisms by which medicines acted on the
human body.
e.g William Withering English physician publishes his work on
the treatment of dropsy with foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) in
Dropsy is the retention of fluid in lungs, gut, and extremities
caused by congestive heart failure.
Congestive heart failure is caused by reduced force of heart
contractions, which causes stagnation of blood through veins,
which, in turn, causes accumulation of fluid. It is the active
components in foxglove strengthen the force of heart
contractions by slowing contraction rates.

19th Century advancements in chemistry lead to isolation

and extraction of active components of medicinal plants.
e.g. salicin isolated from willow (Salix spp.) in1828 leads to
development of acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin, a related
compound with less side-effects, by Felix Hoffman of the Bayer
Company in 1898.

20th Century further scientific advancement leads to

increased use of synthetic drugs and decreased use of
medicines derived from plants. e.g. development of drugs by the
rational drug design model.
25% of all prescription medicines contain plant chemicals and an
even greater proportion contains synthetic analogues of plant
75% of the worlds human population depends on folk and herbal
remedies as medicine.