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A Modern History of Herbal Medicine by Stephen Church


This is a personal history, written quickly, relying in part on distant memories, anecdote and hearsay. Some of the myths and legends are impossible to substantiate, though their existence is often more telling than fact. It is anyway offered by way of a discussion document – I’m more than willing to stand corrected and, hopefully, learn more.

Some readers may need to be informed of the context – I have practised Herbal Medicine in partnership with my wife, Carol, at our home in Surrey for over 25 years. During most of this we were members of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH), at times serving on its Council and various committees. If I seem over-concentrated on the NIMH, it is partly because it represents the lion’s share of my own experience, but equally because in most matters concerning the regulation of herbal medicine, it has lead where others have followed. Since 2002 Carol & I have practised independently, which surely in turn will colour how I organise my thoughts on the subject. Organising my own thoughts was the main motivation for undertaking this task, trying to make sense of all the tangled threads that draw us all, for better or for worse, towards a new era in Herbal Medicine.

I refer constantly to “Herbal Medicine” and “Herbalists.” Once upon a time we just had watches, until digital timepieces came along and we had to learn a new term, analogue watches, in order to differentiate. For most of my working life I was just a herbalist. Then the foreign invasions of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine arrived on our shores, so now I gather I’m to be known as a Traditional Western Herbal Medicine practitioner. This doesn’t sit well with me as it gives no hint that I’m part of the indigenous and unique healing system of the British Peoples, a folk tradition, which like all folk traditions only survives if it adapts and remains relevant. Like all folk traditions, it borrows from and lends to perceptions and resources from the known world of each era. It’s learnt from empirical knowledge and illuminated by anecdote. It is neither complementary nor alternative. It’s just always been there. It’s Herbal Medicine, and I’m a Herbalist!

Part of the uniqueness of British herbal medicine resides in the uniqueness of the experience of being British: if, like a good wine, we have travelled well, we have also always formed the vessel for an extraordinary admixture of races and cultures. My own working life has coincided with an era of rapid adaptation, where the “known world” has become the whole world, and in which sudden and perplexing changes in patterns of health and illness have required great consideration and invention. The tradition is, I believe, alive and well, and never more relevant. But despite this good and healing work, the custodians of the living tradition find themselves beleaguered and concerned for their future. The mainstream of Herbal Medicine is once again clamouring for recognition and status, once again in a legislative environment that is overbearing and hostile. This time, it seems, it’s prepared to sacrifice all sense of itself, to become science-orientated, doctor-like in the radically new way that doctors themselves have become, and using phytopharmaceuticals in which any sense of nature, botanical or human, is submerged. Proponents of this brave new experiment even deny that a indigenous tradition exists.

Anyone interested in the history of herbal medicine should read Barbara Griggs’ “Green Pharmacy.” It’s a history of eight centuries of “penury & persecution”. The last two centuries mark the growth of what we would recognise as “professional” herbal medicine – this in particular is a history of near-constant battles over regulation, of rivalling paradigms, of alliances and splinter-groups, of vainglorious enterprises and missed opportunities. Much of what went wrong arises from the poverty of herbalists, who on the basis that money is power, have so often found themselves powerless. Much of what went right was down to sheer bloody-mindedness. Much the same as now, in fact.

Why has herbal medicine had such an unsettled history? Partly because its own child, allopathic medicine, now in its rather naughty adolescence, has proved something of a bully. Partly because of the ebb and flow of fashion and competition. Partly because herbalists as collectives, despite the pomp and the fine words, are a bit of a rabble. But mostly one returns again and again to the same dichotomy. On the one hand, professional herbalists have yearned for official recognition and status. On the other, they are fiercely resistant to interference and control. If it’s worth listening to history, it’s to avoid making the same mistakes incessantly, and to seek new solutions to old problems.

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