Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A Brief History of Plant Use in Medicine

Photo by vickholius nugroho on Unsplash

Thomas Brutnell, PhD, is co-founder of the agricultural biotech company Benson Hill Biosystems and consults with various major seed companies. Passionate about the use of plants in medicine, Thomas Brutnell is the vice president of Gateway Biotechnology, a company that is developing hearing loss treatments using natural, plant products.

Plants have been a rich source of remedies for humans for millennia. Evidence exists proving that ancient civilizations used plant-based products to treat diseases. The oldest record of medicinal plant usage dates back approximately 5,000 years and is a collection of about a dozen drug preparation recipes written on Sumerian clay tablets. Other records, dating back 2,600 years, are attributed to the Mesopotamians and were also written on clay tablets.

Ancient Chinese, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian civilizations also had long histories of using herbs as medicine. This knowledge was inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets and passed from generation to generation. The Egyptians recorded their medicinal recipes on tombs and on papyrus. The Ebers Papyrus, for example, is one of the oldest of these recordings. It contains more than 600 plant-based prescription drugs and was studied by, among others, Greek medical writer Hippocrates, considered by many as the father of medicine.

Through his writings, which included more than 200 medicinal plants, Hippocrates paved the way for other European medics like Celsus (25BC – 50AD) and Dioscorides who penned the famous De Matteria Medica in 77 AD. The book contained more than 900 drugs, most of which were based from plants. The book was translated into several languages and its prescriptions used for over a millennium. Along the way, more medicinal plants were discovered and written about by European and American medical researchers.