Random House: 1997
$13.00, 434 pp.
Review by Ann Skea
Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)
A number of years and several professional incarnations ago, I drifted from a Saturday-morning job at Boots The Chemist into a Boots apprenticeship, and then into the formal study of Pharmacy. Jessie Boot (the founder of Boots) figures briefly in this book as the first President of the Midland Botanic and Eclectic Association, set up in Great Britain 1870. This group was one more attempt to unite Irregular medical practitioners (especially Eclectics, Coffinists and herbalists) in their centuries-old struggle against the powerful allopathic doctors.
As Barbara Griggs' fascinating and authoritative history of herbal medicine shows, Jessie Boot's progression from Irregular medicine to the more scientifically legitimate practice of Pharmaceutical Chemistry reflected the rapid development of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even in the past ten to fifteen years the changes have been dramatic. The dispensaries which I remember, with their shelves lined with bottles of herbal extracts, tinctures and oils waiting to be made up into various mixtures, emulsions and ointments to fill the local doctors' favourite prescriptions, have vanished. In their place are bottles of proprietary medicine, exhaustively tested and standardised, which the pharmacist most often simply re-labels and hands to the customer. Some of these medicines are still of herbal origin, but many are wholly chemical.
It almost looks as if the old battle between the herbalists and the doctors has been won. But Griggs' is optimistic about the future of herbal medicine, and her detailed and interesting account of its practice in America, Great Britain and Europe, shows that time and again the general public (i.e. the patients) have shown their support of herbal medicine, often to the extent of overturning government legislation designed to restricted it.
If you are of an analytical turn of mind, do not be put off by Griggs' early and confident claim for a 'dowsing instinct' which led our early ancestors to effective herbal cures: most of her historical account is well researched and much less questionable. She describes how chemical medicine began when alchemists began to experiment with mercury and doctors started to use it on their patients. Mercury, in spite of its horrific side effects (blackened teeth being the least of these), has always been a popular medication with doctors and patients, both of whom frequently believe that strong and unpleasant treatment is the only way to effect a cure.
But herbal treatments can be equally rigorous and unpleasant. Griggs' account of Samuel Thompson's very successful methods, patented in America in 1813, describe a regime of herbal emetics and sweatings which seems hardly less 'Heroic' than the Regular doctors' practice of frequent purging with mercury salts and blood-letting.
The history of herbal medicine is also the history of medicine. And the many strange practices which Griggs' describes in this book are not restricted to either camp. Each group has sought to discredit the other but, as New Green Pharmacy shows, the generally wealthy and well organised, college trained, Regular doctors have had clear advantages over the Irregular practitioners of herbal medicine, who have often been isolated individuals (frequently women) who learned their skills in traditional, less formal ways. So, whilst in Britain the so-called 'Quacks' Charter' of Henry VIII's reign has safeguarded herbalists, in other countries they have been less fortunate.
But what this book also shows (unintentionally, I think) is how frequently the battle has been nothing more than a power struggle between men, or groups of men, who are each equally ambitions and equally certain that their own way is best.
New Green Pharmacy was first published in 1981, but it has been brought right up to date by discussions of Phytomedicine in France and Germany; recent European Community legislation in Brussels; the growth of Chinese Traditional Medicine in America; and the initiation of 'Living Pharmacy' schemes in Brazil, which are flourishing against a backdrop of total rain-forest destruction.
Griggs is an intelligent, interesting and articulate advocate for herbal medicine. What a pity, then, that she occasionally cannot resist telling sensational miracle-cure stories, guaranteed to arouse scepticism, and which reference to her source notes often reveal to have originated in self-published books or even hearsay. In this way, she risks losing the interest of those she most wants to convince, or convert. Readers who already value herbal medicine, however, will not need to rely on these claims to support their views, and they will thoroughly enjoy this book.