Understanding the Roots of our Tradition: Researching the Origins of Western Herbal Medicine

Guest Blog Shared from the Herbal History Research Network

Herbal History Research Profile: Vicki Pitman                Interviewed by Anne Stobart


Tell us about the main focus of your herbal history research and why it matters?

I felt, back in the 1980s-1990s (and still do), that many herbalists and lay people, including myself, have a poor understanding of the roots of our tradition. For example, ‘the healing power of nature’, or ‘let food be your medicine’ – what are the origins and context for these sayings, who was Hippocrates, and what else is in the earliest documented herbal practice that is retained today? So I began to research the origins of Western herbal medicine in ancient Greece, specifically the Hippocratic Corpus and the concept of ‘holism’ in both theory and practice.

Having also trained in Ayurveda I noted that practitioners of Ayurveda are directly grounded in their historical ancient texts, in contrast to Western herbalists. The reasons for this are complex but the result is that many herbalists are not only quite disconnected, but our understanding has been blurred by layers of misreading and misinterpretation of the ancient period of medicine over the centuries by scholars, commentators and writers – undermining the elucidation on which a reader relies. I thought that comparing and contrasting the early stages of the two traditions could reveal aspects of Greek medicine that had been overlooked or not appreciated by conventional scholarship.

Both of these traditions emerged in the ‘axial age’ of the 6th and 5th centuries BC. My task involved reading and ‘interrogating’ the texts of the Hippocratic Corpus (Hippocrates, 1972–1995) – in translation. Reading around the topic was also crucial: the history and the contemporary context of Greek culture, philosophy, and medical knowledge. I came to feel I was living in the 5th century BC. The same was true of the Ayurvedic side: I studied the ancient Charaka Samhita (Sharma and Dash, 1985) as a comparison text to the Hippocratic Corpus, plus literature of ancient Indian medicine and culture, to understand its context. All of this eventually came together under the idea of holism in the practice of both cultures.


How did you get started in researching herbal history?

I have always had an interest in history, my second subject at university, and in other cultures. In 1970 I went overland to India through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only later did I train to become a herbalist, training initially triggered by the birth of my first daughter in 1975. This revived my childhood experiences of nature and the plant world and I wanted to learn how to use these gifts simply to treat family ailments, later to treat clients. Having experienced Indian culture, when the chance came to study Ayurvedic with doctors teaching here in the west, I trained in this. Simultaneously, by chance I was browsing the shelves of a local library and discovered Ancient Medicine, Selected Papers of Ludwig Edelstein (Edelstein, 1967). Edelstein was a classicist and professor of ancient medicine. Reading his ‘revolutionary discoveries’ as one reviewer put it, I recognised significant similarities in practice and milieu between the Hippocratic physicians and the modern clinical herbalist, along with details of ancient tradition that I wanted to know more about. I could see similarities between Ayurvedic medicine today and this ancient Greek medicine. Signing up for a M.Phil. degree at the University of Exeter Department of Complementary Health Studies (CHS) offered the chance to explore these ideas in depth and allow any findings to stand up to scrutiny and have wider credibility.


What training/experience have you found most helpful?

First, I had wonderful supervisors as guides both in the CHS and Classics Departments at the University of Exeter, and externally with a scholar of ancient Indian medicine. Other scholars were very generous with their time, meeting me in person to help with particular questions. Second, I attended as many seminars as I could when either Greek or Ayurvedic medicine was the topic, travelling to the Wellcome Centre and to other universities. This was an ad hoc education in academic discourse and a chance to ask questions related to my topic – this was in the days when technology was little more than emails, with almost no digitised texts online. Third, I bought books, borrowed books on interlibrary loan and travelled to academic libraries for others. Finally, I visited museums and archaeological sites in Greece to see physical evidence of medical practice (Figures 1–3). And I travelled to India to observe and interview Ayurvedic doctors, observe clinical practices, and investigate whether ancient medical texts were still in current study for training of modern physicians.

Tell us about your most recent/forthcoming publication in herbal history!

By great fortune my dissertation was published as The Nature of the Whole, Holism in Ancient Greek and Indian medicine (Pitman, 2006). Since then I have contributed articles or chapters on ancient Greek medicine in journals and books (Pitman, 2005). Most recently I have been focusing on modern therapeutic practice and updated my aromatherapy text for students (Pitman, 2019).

What advice about writing herbal history would you like to pass on to upcoming researchers?

When exploring any topic in Western herbal medicine, consider its relation to ancient practice, distinct from the layers of medieval and later ‘learned’ medicine. Although some aspects should be left in the past, much is of practical relevance today. Be confident that the holistic philosophy underpinning Hippocratic-Galenic medicine is as inspiring and wise as that of Ayurveda or Chinese medicine. Find and read the primary texts and be alert to latent bias in commentaries and interpretations even into our own time. Some of them have clear vision and understanding but many do not!

What further herbal history question would you like to see answered? 

In the 1990s, ‘traditional Indian medicine’ was beginning to be taken seriously in the West as a healing modality – researchers were lining up to run trials or discover an active ingredient in, or treatment with, an Ayurvedic herb. However, ‘traditional Western medicine’, our own herbal medicine practice (that is clinical practice), was and does still receive comparatively little attention or acceptance as a valid field for study. A part of this ‘rectification’ could be exploring the question ‘How has the language of discourse in Western herbal medicine changed over time, in particular through responses to developments in scientific knowledge, for example about blood circulation or inflammation? ‘. This needs to be documented with influences and adaptations, along with retentions of principles and practice, and appreciated more.

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