GREEN PHARMACY: A History of Herbal Medicine by Barbara Griggs

GREEN PHARMACY: A History of Herbal Medicine

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The reader who'd like to learn about herbal medicine--to understand the effects of foxglove and opium, reserpine and belladonna, on the body and brain--will find that British journalist Griggs wants to convey, rather, how hard it's been for the herbalists to have their say: how often they've been had up on charges, spent hard days in court. And not only do their persecutors turn up on almost every page, from Galen onward; the editorial voice of the author constantly intrudes to drive home the points. ""Doctors have always been anxious to convince the public that medicine, in any of its aspects, is far too complex and perilous a matter to be meddled with by laymen,"" she writes--apropos of ""The fourteenth-century university graduate. . . ."" Or, in the 17th century: ""It is a curious and depressing truth, demonstrated again and again in medical history, that the desire of the average physician to administer powerful and active drugs is only equalled by the desire of the average patient to have powerful and active drugs administered to him."" Or again, in the 19th century: ""No doctor is particularly ready or willing to believe that his treatment might be disastrous for his patient, while from time immemorial, the vast majority of patients themselves have submitted to the ministrations of their doctor, however painful, with a faith as complete as it is astonishing."" By contrast, the merest listing of nature's medicine is tinged with reverence: ""Great numbers of the remedies Wesley suggested, finally, were the simple, effective herbal remedies with which, since time immemorial, primitive and country people have healed their ailments: garlic for coughs and hoarseness, lilies or betony for a headache. . . ."" (The recurrence of ""time immemorial""--within ten pages--is not uncharacteristic either.) All this will alienate any but the most sympathetic reader, and the pity is that Griggs has done an enormous amount of research. There are rich chapters here--with biographical details of the American, English, or Continental herbalists who engendered whole schools of hydrotherapy, homeopathy, and herbalism; who licensed agents, patented drugs, and published home health guides. There are also the more familiar lurid details of the Heroic age of medicine--its bloodlettings, vomitings, and purges. But this is social/medical history as a moral lesson and a cautionary tale, and the preaching merely backfires.

Pub Date: March 12th, 1982
Publisher: Viking