By: Yameng Zhang Edited By: Thomas Luh
What is herbal medicine? According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, Herbal medicine—also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine—refers to using a plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 was awarded to a further application of herbal medicine, “concerning a novel therapy against Malaria.” In more detail, a Chinese scientist YouYou Tu found a highly effective chemical—Artemisinin, an extract from the plant Artemisia annua—which can inactivate Plasmodium falciparum (one of the protozoan parasites that cause malaria) in a complex way (including the inactivation of its mitochondria).
Youyou Tu’s discovery is based on the close study of herbal medicine and guided by a thousand-year-old Chinese herbal medicine study, Zhouhou Jibei Prescription. Another memorable success in medicine history shares a great similarity with Youyou’s—the discovery of aspirin. Aspirin also found its own origin in a herbal medicine, willow. According to the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text, willow was recorded “as an anti-inflammatory or pain reliever for non-specific aches and pains.” In the mid-eighteenth century, scientists succeeded at extracting salicylic acid, the effective ingredients in willow bark, as a pain reliever. A decade later, chemists were able to modify and artificially synthesize this acid. Thus, aspirin was born and put into mass production.
Herbal medicine has a long and solid history. Dating back to the second millennium BC, the Ebers Papyrus of Egypt begins to discuss a large number of herbal medicine, including cannabis, fennel, cassia, senna, thyme, juniper, and aloe. While reading Homer’s Odyssey for my Literature Humanities class, I could find echoes of the Papyrus as well. Egypt was described as a land “where the fertile earth produces the greatest number of medicine.” There is also a specific line stating “she [Helen] cast a medicine of heartease, free of gall, to make one forget all sorrows.” After careful research, I discovered information about Ferula assa-foetida, a common herb in ancient Egypt used to calm hysteria and nervousness, which could be a candidate for the medicine from Helen.
In ancient Rome, herbal medicine played a significant role in medical care, and the systematic analysis of herbal medicine had also formed. Of the two most important medical figures of Rome whose contributions to medicine remained the unparalleled, Dioscorides spent eighty percent of his most significant book De Materia Medica discussing herbal medicine. He analyzed herbal medicine in a categorized way for the first time, and lists the different feature of each herbal medicine orderly. This book became a solid scientific foundation for herbal medicine studies. In the Middle Ages, “the Muslim Empire of Southwest and Central Asia made significant contributions to medicine.” Moreover, thanks to several serious plagues at that time, dozens of herbal medicine study centers were built and herbal medicine education was promoted. During the Renaissance, many ancient classics about herbal medicine were reintroduced into Europe.
However, the application of herbal medicine was not a popular practice in today’s medicine industry, considering the striking effectiveness of antibiotics. When I examined herbal medicine more closely, I was attracted by its long history, and felt such a pity that human beings would just abandon this well-developed medicine, which is a treasure indeed. Although herbal medicine has its own drawbacks, such as difficulties in transportation and preservation, the discovery of aspirin and Artemisinin exemplify a new way we can utilize our knowledge. Considering the high cost and instability of the original extracts from the herbs, scientists could apply chemical modifications to these natural extracts. After artificial modifications, mass production can be achieved easily. Herbal medicine, I believe, could offer numerous enlightenments for modern medicine.