The use of foods to heal is as old as the human spirit; it is as natural as breathing. Even today, when we get a cold or flu, we also get a bowl of hot chicken soup. However, the chicken soup we get from a can is hardly related to the chicken soup grandma made from scratch.
Herbs are food. Our medicines of the early 1800s were mostly herbal. What we did not bring from Europe we learned from the Natives, who were far more sophisticated than many give them credit. While surgeons theorized why some patients died of infections and others did not, our natives were very familiar with the role of pathogens in infection (sepsis) and created salves to clean wounds and kill off the pathogens that could cause infections.
The two great names in the early American herbal movement were, Samuel Thomson and Constantine Rafinesque. Rafinesque came to America as a young man, studied botany and herbalism and became a professor of botany. Around 1830 Rafinesque published his book, Medical Flora of the United States, which became the chief reference for herbalists of that period. In his book he described in detail the healing properties of a New World herb, goldenseal. For its immune stimulating properties, the goldenseal was highly prized, and the European communities were soon cultivating seeds they’d received from America. Nothing in the pharmacopoeia could compete with goldenseal, that is until the Natives introduced us to echinacea, the purple coneflower.
Thomson, on the other hand, was not a scholar. He created nothing new, but to his credit, he brought herbal and Native medicines to the common people. He was attacked by the regulars, even found himself facing murder charges for losing a few patients, but was acquitted and went on to publish his New Guide to Health. He is even, according to Ingrid Naiman’s book, Cancer Salves, “credited with the development of a cancer plaster made from red clover blossoms.” Most likely, he learned this too from the Natives, though he was the first to get this procedure on paper. Herbalists today still use this and many other preparations Thomson passed onto us.
At the time of his death, in 1843, his followers numbered around three million. The latter part of his life was spent deflecting criticism from the regulars, though many a regular physician adopted much of Thomsonian medicine as they did Hahnemann’s homeopathy. One constant in history is that when something works, the more liberal minded have a tendency to examine it and eventually incorporate it.
Mixing “pharmaceuticals,” as noted already, is dangerous. However, herbalists, on the other hand, mixed many herbs together, since herbal medicines, for the most part, did not contradict each other, and worked in harmony. Herbs are food. Together, many herbs act to potentiate [make stronger, better] each other. For instance, adding cayenne pepper to any herbal medicine makes the action of the preparation stronger and faster acting. This is just one example of synergy, where the answer to 2 + 2 is actually greater than four.
Image 1: Constantine Rafinesque
Image 2: Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818