The plant world is an immense store of active chemical compounds. Nearly half = the medicines we use today are herbal in origin, and a quarter contains plant extracts or active chemicals taken directly from plants. Many more are yet to be discovered, recorded and researched; only a few thousand have been studied. Across the globe, the hunt will always be on to find species that could form the bases of new medicines. Humans have always used plants to ease their pains. They imbued them with magical powers and then gradually learnt to identify their properties. We can now enjoy the benefits of herbal medicines because, over thousands of years, our ancestors discovered which plants were medicinally beneficial and which were highly toxic.
Thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians discovered simple ways to extract and use the active ingredients within plants. Egyptian papyrus manuscripts from 2000 B.C. record the use of perfumes and fine oils, and aromatic oils and gums in the embalming process.
In ancient Greece in the 5th and the 4th centuries BC, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was already recommending asparagus and garlic for their diuretic qualities, poppy as a way of inducing sleep and willow leaves to relieve pain and fever. In the 1st century AD, another Greek doctor, Dioscorides, established the first collection of medicinal plants. His treatise on the subject was translated into Arabic and Persian. Centuries later, his work was also used by the Muslim scholars who influenced great universities of the period, particularly at Montpellier, Europe’s most famous centre for the study of botany.
As a result of trade with Africa and Asia, the Western world’s store of herbal medicines was enriched by the inclusion of camphor, cinnamon, ginger, ginseng, nutmeg, sandalwood, turmeric and henna. For a long time, however, the use of both local plants and those with more distant origins was based on more or less fanciful beliefs. Throughout the Middle Ages herbal medicine consisted of a mixture of magic, superstition and empirical observation. From the Renaissance onwards, scientists and their scientific studies, discoveries and inventions came to the fore, rejecting alchemists’ elixirs and other magical remedies. Local plants were carefully collected and widely used to make infusions, decoctions and ointments. These plants make up the major part of the traditional cures that we have inherited.
History behind Nature’s Medicines:
In the late 1700s, Carl Wilheim Scheele, a gifted Swedish chemist, obtained tartaric acid from grapes, citric acid from lemons and malic acid from apples. The techniques that he and his contemporaries used led to the isolation of the first purified compounds from plants that could be used as drugs. First came the isolation of morphine from the opium poppy in 1803, then caffeine from coffee beans in 1819, quinine from cinchona bark and colchicines from meadow saffron both in 1820 and atropine from deadly nightshade in 1835.
One tree that generated considerable interest among scientists was the willow. In the early 1800s, chemists from Germany, Italy and France began the search for the compounds responsible for the acclaimed pain-relieving effects of its bark. In 1828, the German pharmacist, Johann Buchner, was the first to obtain salicin, the major compound in a pure form. In 1838, the Italian chemist, Raffaele Piria also obtained salicylic acid from the bark by various chemical processes. But these early compounds caused blisters in the mouth, and stomach upsets when ingested. In 1853, a French chemist, Charles Frederic Gerhardt, synthesised a modified form of salicylic acid-acetylsalicylic acid. But still it wasn’t further modified form developed for more than 40 years until a German chemist, Felix Hoffman, working for Bayer, rediscovered Gerhardt’s compound. Hoffman gave it to his father who suffered from arthritis and reported the beneficial effects.
Bayer decided to market the acetylsalicylic acid as a new drug for pain relief and patented the compound acetylsalicylic acid in 1899. At last from the willow, the first modern drug was born and, with 12000 tons of aspirin sold every year throughout the world, it has kept its number one position.
From the 1930s onwards, advances in chemistry have made it much easier to reproduce the active ingredients in plants. But plants will continue to have a medicinal importance in their own right. Their active constituents may be slightly modified to improve their efficiency or to reduce their undesirable effects, but they are still vital for the treatment of disorders such as cancers and heart diseases or as a means of combating malaria. And they remain the essence of herbal medicine-an area that has still not been fully understood and explored.