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Herbal Clinic - Dispensary 9A Brief History of Herbal Medicine

Herbal Medicine, sometimes referred to as Phytotherapy, Botanotherapy or Botanical Medicine is the use of plants for their medicinal value and has a long and respected history, it is the oldest form of health care known to mankind.

A herb is a plant valued for it medicinal, aromatic or savoury qualities. Herbalists use the leaves, stems, flowers, roots, bark and berries of a vast variety of plants to prevent and treat illness.

Herbalism dates back to the dawn of time when man evolved due to the existence of plants, relying on plant material for food, clothing and shelter as well as medicine. It is impossible to know exactly when we first started using herbs for medicinal purposes but archaeological remains from early civilisations show that plants were used in burials and other rituals. Much of the use of plants appears to have been developed through observing animals and trial and error.

Marshmallow root and yarrow have been found carefully placed around the bones of a Stone Age man in Iraq – these herbs continue to be used widely today. The entire Middle East has a rich history of herbal healing. Texts survive from ancient cultures in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Egyptian hieroglyphs show physicians in the first and second centuries AD treating constipation with senna pods and using caraway and peppermint to relieve digestive problems.

Herbal lore was passed down from generation to generation and gradually information was methodically collected from native peoples and compiled in herbal pharmarcopoeias. One of the first written records of herbal medicines was Chinese, in around 2800BC in the ‘Pen Ts’ao’ by Shen Nung. Later, around 1800BC the records of King Hammurabi of Babylon include instructions for the use of medicinal plants.



Throughout the Middle Ages botanicals were the only medicines available and households would have small herb gardens; also the village herbalist would train an apprentice.

During Tudor times Henry VIII appears to have been touched by the plight of the poor and their inability to afford doctors. He produced his now famous ‘Charter of King Henry VIII’, which enabled many poor people of the time to obtain treatment from a herbalist. The Charter also protected the rights of the Herbalists themselves and provides a safeguard for the continuation of herbal healing today.

By the 17th century knowledge of herbal medicine was widely spread throughout Europe and in 1649 Nicholas Culpeper wrote his famous pharmacopoeia which was one of the first medical manuals intended for the use of the lay person, and is still widely quoted from today. Culpeper studied at Cambridge University to become a doctor; instead he chose to apprentice to an apothecary and eventually set up his own shop, serving the poor of London.

Until the 18th century there was a certain amount of confusion as a plant could be given many names and similarly the same name could be give to many plants. Early in the century a Swedish botanist name Carl von Linné (better known as Linnaeus) developed a naming system giving a unique Latin name to every known species. This classification became very useful to botanists and herbalists alike.

During the 19th century pharmaceuticals started to appear but during the First World War the lack of availability of drugs increased the use of herbal medicines. After the war pharmaceutical production increased and penicillin was discovered. Herbal practitioners had their rights to dispense their medications taken away and then reinstated. By the 1950s people began to express the concern over the large number of side effects and the environmental impact of drugs.

Rather than using a whole plant, pharmacologists identify, isolate, extract and synthesize individual components, thus capturing the active properties. However, this can create problems. In addition to active constituents, plants contain many other substances – minerals, vitamins, volatile oils, glycosides, alkaloids etc, which are important in supporting a particular herb’s medicinal properties. These elements also provide an important natural safeguard as isolated active compounds can become toxic in relatively small doses; it usually takes a much greater amount of a whole herb, with all of its components to reach a toxic level. Thus herbalists consider that the power of a plant lies in the interaction of all its ingredients.


2800BC First written record of herbal medicines by Shen Nung in China – the ‘Pen Ts’ao’
c400BC Hippocrates developed principles of happiness, diet and exercise. The first Greek herbal was written.
c100BC First illustrated Greek Herbal written.
c50AD The Roman Empire spreads herbal medicine and plant commerce.
c200AD Herbalist, Galen created a classification system for illnesses and remedies.
c500AD Physicians of Myddfai practiced Hippocrates’ principles
c800AD Monks pioneered herbal medicine with infirmaries and physic gardens at every monastery.
1100sAD Physician Avicenna wrote the Canon of Medicine. The Arab world was a major influence on medicine and healing.
1200sAD The Black Death spread across Europe – apothecaries who bled, purged and prescribed mercury and arsenic had no more success than herbalists in stemming the plague.
1500sAD Henry VIII promoted herbal medicine. Various Acts of Parliament passed to regulate medical practices including protection for ‘simple herbalists’ to practice without fear of prosecution.
1600sAD Society sees the first two-tier health system emerge: herbs for the poor and exotics (plant, animal or mineral extracts) or ‘drugs’ for the rich.Nicholas Culpeper wrote his famous herbal: ‘The English Physician’ simplifying the explanation of the practice of herbal medicine.
1800sAD Herbal medicines started to be overwhelmed by mineral based drug treatments. Powerful drugs such as mercury and laudanum were available over the counter and serious side-effects started to be reported. Rapidly growing pharmaceuticals industry put herbal medicine out of fashion, seeming ‘outdated’.
1900sAD Post World War I saw a massive expansion of the international pharmaceutical industry and the discovery of penicillin. Just a handful of herbalists keep the tradition alive. Pharmacy and Medicines Act 1941 withdrew herbal practitioners’ rights to supply patients with medicines. Public outcry ensures the Act is never enforced
2000AD European legislation advocates that all herbal medicines should be subject to compulsory clinical testing comparable to that undertaken for conventional drugs. Thus all herbal medicines would be licensed. UK government still considering the possible impact and public perception of this legislation.

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