• Clare Gardner Nieto

A Very Brief History of Western Herbalism

Updated: May 3, 2018



We Learned from Animals

The use of plants as medicine originates from human observation of the plants that animals ate when they were ill. We followed their example and, after much trial, error and sharing of information, we developed a compilation of knowledge around medicinal plants and their usages.


Plants Have Been Used as Medicine for a Long Time

Throughout thousands of years, plant medicine was the main way people around the world addressed disease. The local village healers, using herbs and folk medicine, were the first “doctors” in that everyone went to them for cures. From Hippocrates to Galen to Culpepper to Thompson, the compendium of Western herbalism grew as the world grew and new diseases were introduced to the population. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1800s that Western Herbalism and medical practice were considered separate disciplines.


The Rise of Modern Medicine

In the 1800s, three main medical sects developed: Regulars, Eclectics and Homeopaths. They all disagreed fundamentally on how to treat disease.

  • Homeopaths, the newcomers to the scene and the biggest threat to Regular dominance, based their work on the tenet that a substance which can produce a set of symptoms in a healthy individual can treat a sick individual who is manifesting a similar set of symptoms (e.g. quinine causes symptoms typical of malaria in a healthy person, but is conversely used for treating malaria in a sick person). They used pills or liquids that contained a highly diluted version of the substance for the treatment of disease.

  • Regulars, the largest and most tightly-knit group, were devoted to the principles of Science, but didn’t get much of anywhere until later in the 1800s due to their lack of understanding of germs, viruses, bacteria, and human physiology. Their devotion to mercury, leeches, blood-letting, and not washing their hands or instruments before surgery probably didn’t help much either.

  • The Eclectics were a loose group of dissident Regulars, herbalists, and medical reformers took borrowed what they liked from many traditions. Each practiced medicine as they saw fit without any type of consistent doctrine except for “use what works.” They were a disorganized and discordant bunch. Perhaps the only thing they truly agreed on was their dislike of regulation.

And boy, did they turn out to be right!


Big Business & Government Step In

The AMA (American Medical Association) was formed by the Regulars in the mid-1800s. By the 1900s, germ theory had become a thing and both anesthesia and antibiotics were in use, so the Regulars were a bit more successful in their treatments and had thus gained a bit of popularity. (I can’t imagine surgery without anesthesia. Boggles the mind.)


As a group, they had become highly politically active. In 1908, the Carnegie Foundation agreed to fund a review of all of the medical schools in the nation. Publicly, the AMA’s goal was to enact higher admission and graduation standards, but other underlying goals showed clearly in the aftermath.


Consequences of the Flexner Report:

Yes, the medical schools needed reform at that time. There were some serious hacks with very little background in physiology who were practicing surgery. The consequences weren’t all bad. And, yet it completely changed the face of medicine.


The Flexner Report established the biomedical model as the gold standard of medical training and subsequently decimated the Regulars’ competition. Flexner’s report recommended the following:(1)

  • Reduce the number of medical schools (from 155 to 31) and poorly trained physicians;

  • Increase the prerequisites to enter medical training;

  • Train physicians to practice in a scientific manner and engage medical faculty in research;

  • Give medical schools control of clinical instruction in hospitals

  • Strengthen state regulation of medical licensure

Flexner was grading schools based on modern biomedical equipment and research methods and that’s just not what Homeopaths and Eclectics used in their craft. Additionally, according to Flexner, there were too many medical schools as well as too many doctors being trained.


Consequently, nearly half of all medical schools were closed, including all but two African American schools. (Of course, the decision to close the African American schools wasn’t based on the standards at all, but solely on Flexner’s racism.(2)) With the severe reduction of available spots, the universities reverted to male-only admittance in order to cut down on the admission pool. Additionally, the AMA focused on drawing from the society of upper class, educated students.(3)


Welcome to the world of white, male, upper-class medicine!


Underground but Growing Back

The Flexner Report disgraced homeopaths and herbalists; putting many out of business, jailing some and driving the rest underground. From 1907 until the 1970s, alternative medicine slept. Then, in the late 1950s, the drug Thalidomide came on the market and created a crack in the foundation of the pharmaceutical world. The public no longer had absolute faith in the medical community and some began to shift their gazes back towards Traditional Medicine.


Out of this rise in popularity, a grassroots revival of herbalists occurred in the 1970s including epic names like Rosemary Gladstar, William LeSassier, David Katz & Patricia Kaminski and David Hoffman.


Like dandelions and witches, you can try burning us to the ground,

but Herbalists will always grow back.


All joking aside, I feel that it is immensely important for all of us—clients and practitioners alike (regardless of the modality)—to maintain a strong and united front for the protection of all Alternative Medicine practices. If we learn anything from history, it needs to be that discord and division do not serve any of us in the long run.


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End Note: I’m always looking to connect with other Health Practitioners, both alternative and modern. If you or someone you know would be interested in sharing information and collaborating for the benefit of the clients, please reach out to me!


(1) Barzansky, Barbara; Gevitz, Norman (1992). Beyond Flexner: Medical Education in the Twentieth Century (1. publ. ed.). New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0313259845.

(3) Brown, E. Richard (1979). Rockefeller Medicine Men: Medicine and Capitalism in America. United States of America: The Regents of the University of California. p. 150. ISBN 0-520-04269-7.

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