Nature’s Medicine Chest

Perhaps people in general are still a little sceptical about Herbal Medicine, picturing it as something which Monks used to practice in Monasteries, thinking of it as an art belonging in the past – a belief which lasts because it is, of course, partly true. That was when Traditional Remedies were known to everyone, being the only remedies.

And maybe this is why it does not surprise most of us that the Chelsea Physic Garden is only a short distance from The Royal Hospital, originally a hospital intended for the “succour and relief of
veterans broken by age and war”, now better known as the home of the Chelsea Pensioners. But which would you expect to have been established first? If you thought, perhaps, that the Garden was dug there to meet the Hospital’s demands for Medicinal Herbs, you’d be wrong.

The Garden was founded in 1673, as the Apothecaries’ Garden, with the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. Its closeness to the river created a warmer microclimate allowing the survival of many non-native plants, and more importantly, to allow plants to survive harsh British winters. The river was also important as a link to other open spaces such as Putney Heath, which made it easier to move both plants and their collectors.

The Hospital was founded in 1682
by King Charles II and intended for the ‘succour and relief of veterans broken by age and war’. Of course, it gains the same advantages of climate and accessibility, but there are lots of places along the Thames where such things can be found. One of the determining factors was the presence there already of the  Apothecaries’ Garden, with its fresh medicines close by. Herbal Medicine itself was a key, powerful enough to establish one of our great institutions in a particular place. This is how recently the availability of herbs entirely determined the availability of remedies.

And, what is more, the present day section of the Chelsea Physic Garden called The Pharmaceutical Garden is a display of plants which yield therapeutic compounds of proven value in current medicinal practice
and are in world-wide use today. Among its treasures are specimens of Filipendula ulmaria
(Meadowsweet), the plant from which salicylic acid was first made in 1835, leading to the introduction of aspirin in 1899 – a fact by which sceptics of Herbal Medicine are frequently disconcerted, especially if they themselves are
frequent takers of aspirin. Indeed, approximately one in every four of our current pharmaceutical medicines is plant-based, either directly or in theorigins of our knowledge about how things work.

Indeed, when it comes to advancing our knowledge understanding of medical biochemistry, every new species we find brings us new understanding of biochemistry in the natural world, rather than simply in the laboratory. This is true whether the new species are found in Ocean depths or in the heights of Rain Forest canopies – or at mountain altitudes even greater.

And that, of course, is a Western – or ‘developed world’ perspective on it all, for it is still perfectly true even today that the majority of people in the developing world – that is to say, the great majority of people in the world altogether – get their medicine from the wild rather than from a GP.

It seems that traditional, natural medicines lapsed into disuse when pharmaceutical companies took over the business of medicine. This was understandable in as much as pharmaceutical products are more standardised (being mass produced) and therefore more reliable – but where do these pharmaceutical companies obtain the necessary knowledge for any product development or for new cures for previously untreatable conditions? They are now returning to older, more traditional remedies, and finding scientific explanations why they work– which then enables them to add guarantees of consistency and quality to the understanding of experience.

In the sequel to this blog, I will attempt to give specific examples of recently discovered scientific explanations of traditional knowledge.