Roots of the CSCH Herbalism Programs

The following is adapted from a talk that CSCH Director Lisa Ganora gave at the 2015 Holiday Faire and Open House. Annotations with expanded information and useful links are also included.


The Unani-Tibb Tradition

There’s a lineage of professional-level herbal medicine that comes up to us today, and that’s one of the roots of our program. This goes back mainly to Egypt, at least 2,000 years BC, then from Egypt up into classical Greece, then from Greece into Rome, from Rome into surrounding areas, and to Persia again, and also through North Africa and up into Spain. From there it spread throughout Europe, all along being informed by local village herbalism. This tradition is still vital today in India and Pakistan, where the term Unani-Tibb comes from. This word generally translates to ‘Medicine of the Greeks.’

The Unani tradition was developed by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish physicians and scholars over the centuries, and is rooted in the Egyptian and Greek concepts of the four humours and their role in health, disease, and balance of the human constitution (temperament).

Nicholas Culpeper

The Greek-Arabic medical tradition was expanded in the Western world by Nicholas Culpeper. He was writing in the 1600’s in England. You open his book – and the first time you see it you’re like, what the heck is this guy talking about? Because he says things such as ‘this herb is under the influence of Venus and is moist in the third degree and warm in the first degree…’ It’s unfamiliar language, but it’s based on observations of the energetics, actions, and relationships of the herbs with the temperaments of the people using them.

Since it was written over 350 years ago, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal has never gone out of print, and is still widely regarded as a great resource.  For a comprehensive Culpeper biography, visit this page: http://www.skyscript.co.uk/culpeper.html

Samuel Thompson

As it evolved, the Greek-Arabic-Culpeper lineage radiated over to North America when European folks came over here, and it mixed in with indigenous North American medicine. Then it came up through a character called Samuel Thompson. Thompson was kind of a renegade. He was the most famous rebel herbalist in the 1700’s in North America. He popularized Cayenne and Lobelia, and he promoted herbal medicine as the people’s medicine. Thompson’s attitude was that you didn’t have to go to the university-trained physicians of the day, with their purgative mercury compounds and blood-letting. He encouraged people to be self-reliant and to engage the wisdom of Nature. We study some of his writings here in the Advanced Herbalism program. Some of them are a little weird, but others are timeless gold.

Some call Samuel Thompson the Father of American Herbalism. The American Herbalists Guild put together a very comprehensive slideshow on Thompson, which can be found here: http://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/sites/default/files/samuel-thomson.pdf

Physiomedicalism

After Thompson, a school of physicians arose in North America, called the Physio-medicalists. The Physio-medicalists were somewhat like naturopathic physicians today, except they were more focused on old-school herbalism and energetics. They were active in this country from the 1840s up through the early 1900s. But they were largely forgotten until recently, when people like Paul Bergner and David Winston starting posting PDFs of their writings. And now we’re reading them again!

Working with the body’s Vital intelligence is a main tenant of Physiomedicalism. As Samuel Thompson maintained, when given the proper support, the Vital force (similar to what we call ‘Chi’ today) is the true healer of illness.

Physiomedicalist Writings for Study Today

At CSCH we read their Materia Medica, their therapeutics books, and some of their case histories – another root of our programs. As a group, the Physio-medicalists were very interested in physiology (hence the name), so they wrote a lot of really interesting stuff about the intersection between herbs and human physiology that you really don’t find anywhere else. You can download some of the PDFs if you go to Paul Bergner’s website and search for William Cook, and also on David Winston’s website. Their language is 19th century, and some of the terms are unfamiliar, so it takes getting in the swing of reading them. But once you do, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is gold.”

Many Phsyio-medicalist writings can be found at MedHerb.com. For example, The Physiomedical Dispensatory by William Cook, 1869. For a comprehensive list of all the articles available on the MedHerb domain about Physiomedicalism, click here.

Another relevant eBook: The Philosophy of Physiomedicalism by J.M. Thurston, M.D. Printed in 1900