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Oct 15

The History of Plants and Medicine

The recorded history of plants and medicine can be traced back as far as 2700 BC to Sumeria, and Babylon in 2600 BC and the information obtained from clay tablets.

The first known recorded use of plants obtained from clay tablets in ancient Sumeria.

The first known recorded use of plants from ancient Sumeria.

In ancient Egypt, the first plants, medicines and preparations were recorded on a series of scrolls. The Kahun Papyrus of 2000 BC is the most widely known. However, of most interest is the Ebers Papyrus – twenty two yards long, and twelve inches wide, and believed to be composed about 1552 BC. It is said to have come from the tomb of a mummy excavated in Thebes. In this text, there are more than seven hundred drugs mentioned, including castor oil, myrrh, mastic, frankincense, aloe, opium, peppermint, cassia, fennel, and honey. Besides plant products, a fair number of mineral compounds were in use; iron, lead, magnesia. Animal parts were also utilized for the practice of healing. Semiprecious stones were ground into powders for internal use by making infusions, poultices, gargles, and inhalations. The ancients employed mortars of wood, or stone, and containers of clay or glass.

Writings from ancient Egypt detailing the use and preparation of many plants for use as medicine.

Ebers Papyrus details the use and preparation of many plants for use as medicine. Papyrus is in reference to the type of paper, made from Cyperus papyrus. Eber is the person who possessed the writings after their discovery.

In ancient China, Shen Nung was recording the medical practices of the day in manuscript, known as the Pen Tsao, or Native Herbal. He is referred to as “the father of Chinese Medicine”. Following him, during China’s Ming Dynasty, Li Shih-chen composed the Pen Tsao Kang mu, the “great herbal” aka Materia Medica.

Writings during China's Ming Dynasty detailing the use of medicinal plants, and preparations.

Writings during China’s Ming Dynasty detailing the use of medicinal plants, and preparations.

In ancient Greece, philosophy and spirituality began to play heavily in the treatment of people and the healing arts. The ancient Greeks began to look for natural causes that produced disease, and began recording descriptions of symptoms experienced with different diseases and epidemics. The writings of Hippocrates, known as “the father of modern medicine”, included up to 400 drugs and the methods of carrying out pharmaceutical processes for their uses.

"The Father of Modern Medicine"

“The Father of Modern Medicine”

The Romans continued with the Greeks’ methods. However, the ancient Romans’ greatest contribution to health is considered to be their great ability to construct elaborate aqueducts providing the city with clean, running water.

Elaborate aqueducts created by the ancient Romans brought clean running water to the inhabitants of ancient Rome.

Elaborate aqueducts created by the ancient Romans brought clean running water to the inhabitants of ancient Rome.

In the Middle Ages, medical practice and pharmacy were separated after the German Emperor Frederick II issued and edict. This gave rise to professional pharmacy, and set guidelines for quality and accuracy of “prescriptions”. The word apothecary first appears in France in 1178. About 1250, what is believed to be the first Apothecary shop, was opened in Wexler, Germany. About this time, Arnold of Villanova was creating tinctures; extracting properties from plants with alcohol.

It is believed one of the world's first Apothecaries was opened in Wexler, Germany.

It is believed one of the world’s first Apothecaries was opened in Wexler, Germany.

The Renaissance brought about the printing press, and world travel, bringing an end to the isolation of the different cultures of different locales. It also brought about the discovery of many new botanicals.

Floral Painting from the Renaissance period.

Floral Painting from the Renaissance period.


The Age of Enlightenment brought with it the idea that man, the universe, and nature were all intricately connected. Pharmacopoeias came about. However, the majority of the population could not afford doctors, and relied heavily on apothecaries, chemists, and druggists. Great advances in understanding the human body were made. Mapping of the human body begins.
Leonardo Davinci is perhaps one of the most famous artists known to create some of the first intricate drawings of the human body.

Leonardo Davinci is perhaps one of the most famous artists known to create some of the first intricate drawings of the human body.


In the 15th century, trade in drugs and spices becomes a very lucrative pursuit, and the cause of much conflict. It was a great motivator for the conquest of new lands. The trade at this time was in the hands of the”Guild of Pepperers“. After this the Grocers Company was formed which was a collaborative of the Spicers, the Pepperers, the Cullers, and the Oil Sellers Guild. Trade of medicines and drugs became a part of this country.
Travel by sea, and the discovery of new lands and botanicals created a lucrative trade in spices and plants world wide.

Travel by sea, and the discovery of new lands an botanicals created a lucrative trade in spices and plants.


American settlers relied on the old English ways for medicine. Perhaps, many who were persecuted as witches at this time were really natural healers (?). Few settlers were fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of America’s indigenous people in a manner that allowed the free flow of information between people. The healing arts and practices of the indigenous people, being passed on through oral tradition, is knowledge to a much smaller segment of the population, and until more recently in history, has not often been recorded. It is the same for the indigenous populations of other continents.
In America during the 1600's, many were persecuted, and even sentenced to death for their extensive knowledge of plants and the natural world.

In America during the 1600’s, many were persecuted, and even sentenced to death for their extensive knowledge of plants and the natural world.


The 20th century saw many new changes in medicine and methods for cultivating plants- on a big scale. New pharmaceutical drugs were created, such as antibiotics, and vaccines; some made from the chemicals and compounds isolated and obtained from botanicals, some from animal parts or byproducts, others are completely synthetic and lab made. These new medicines have changed medical practice immensely, and how people and practitioners feel about healthcare. Today, it’s the chemicals and compounds isolated and extracted from these plants that are most often used and talked about, not the plants as a whole. It is creating a disconnect with nature, and fostering a reliance on lab created medicines. The basic medical knowledge that has survived human history until now, is being re-created. A whole new human history in medicine is being recorded in the 21st Century!
Sir Alexander Flemming- biologist, pharmacologist, and botanist- discovered Penicillin from the mould, Penicillium notatum.

Sir Alexander Flemming- biologist, pharmacologist, and botanist- discovered Penicillin from the mould, Penicillium notatum.