Herbal Philosophers
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Carol Woolley
Posted on: July 23, 2001

Am looking for the name of a herbal philosophist to study - hoping to obtain info on the internet.

Would you be able to help at all with a name I could do an intensive biography study on?

Herbs have been used for medicine for thousands of years. The Sumerians 7000 years ago are known to have used herbs, and the first known herbal was written by the Chinese in 2700 B.C. From those early beginnings until now there have been many herbalists who have not only catalogued and explained the practice, science and art of herbalism but also gave commentary on its philosophical groundings.

Probably among the more influential eurocentric herbalists from the earliest times were the ancient Greeks and Romans. Their medical practices are preserved in the writings of Hippocrates who promoted the use of a few herbs along with proper diet, rest and fresh air. Modern medicine’s hippocratic oath is a nod to his legacy. Other important early writers Galen and Dioscorides.

The advent of the printing press brought a flurry of European herbals in the 16th and 17th centuries. Still reprinted today are John Gerard’s "The Herball" of 1597 (available from Richters) and Nicholas Culpeper’s "The English Physician" of 1653. According to modern herbalist John Lust, writing in his "The Herb Book", Gerard’s work was largely "pirated" from a work by the Belgian herbalist, Dodoens.

With the ascendency of modern medicine and its increasing reliance on pharmaceutical drugs over recent centuries, herbalism has taken a varied path in Europe and North America, becoming more of an underground alternative to the mainstream. Some of the more interesting works came from the Eclectics of the 19th and early 20th century America. Many prominent American herbalists today owe their inspiration to Eclectics Dr. John King, John Uri Lloyd, John Scudder, Finley Ellingwood and Harvey Wickes Felter.

Even today there are herbalists who are contributing to a philosophy of herbalism. Perhaps because of the divide between modern allopathic medicine and traditional herbalism, there is a need to explain the difference between the two, which leads to the philosophical underpinnings of the divide. In addition, modern herbalists have access to the herbs and practices of herbal medical systems from around the world and are finding rich opportunities to synthesize a global herbalism. Herbalists and writers such as American Michael Tierra (e.g. "Planetary Herbal") have developed herbal "energetics" thinking along these lines.

It would be hard to choose one herbalist-philosopher from among the many for a biographical study. If I had to choose, I would probably focus on the early European herbalists such as Galen who had a lasting effect on European herbalism. Galen was an early advocate of using concentrated herbal drugs for medicine which required a deep understanding of the herbs themselves and how they could be prepared and administered. In truth, the herbal thinkers of India and China are perhaps more deserving of study – if only because theirs are unbroken herbal lineages going back over 5000 years – but their works are less accessible to English readers than those of the early European herbalists.

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