As I mentioned before, both my grandparents on my mother’s side were pharmacists. Now that they are both gone, I am so glad I spent a lot of time with them and learned so much from them. You see, they were pharmacists in the true tradition and this is not to put down today’s pharmacists who just adapted to the system. I was part of this acclamation myself and that is why I looked for a better way to increase my knowledge and use it.
The fact is that my grandparents worked very hard in the pharmacy that was part of their house in a small French village where there was only one physician. They opened it before WWII and already had two and a half kids—my mother being on its way—when the war started. To explain what they went through would be a whole different topic. Although somewhat related, I could tell you how they made their own soap and how they learned to survive and not get sick with very little resources since almost everything was confiscated by the German army. Anyway, my grandfather was taking care of so many things, even eye glasses, in the village, sometimes having to “fill in” for the doctor or for the vet. His wife, in addition to having seven children, ran the laboratory. So you can imagine they had to be competent in such a variety of subjects such as sorting good and bad mushrooms and preparing rat poison for the farmers. They shared some of this knowledge with me. In my teen years I was particularly interested in botany, which is what led me to pharmacy school. I botanized with them, collecting plants and then drawing them. The last period of her life, my grandmother was spending more and more time studying the flowers she loved so much, especially in the Alps where they had a home. I often wondered why, and now I think it is because plants do not lie and you know that what was true about them yesterday will stay this way. For instance a dandelion has a yellow flower and becomes like a little white cloud when it pollinates and you can make an excellent salad out of it leaves. It is comforting.
I recently came across one of my grandparents’ botany books on medicinal plants (Les Plantes Medicinales by Emile Perrot). I read the introduction and I found so well written that I wanted to summarize and translate it here:
“Herbal medicine was born with man as it is to his profit or at his expense that man learned the benefits or the dangers of plants surrounding him. Plants have been used several millenniums before our era, in China, Egypt, India and Mesopotamiamia. Closer to us, the Greeks acquired the knowledge from ancient oriental civilizations through the Persians. The famous “Materia Medica” by Dioscoride that listed 500 drugs (minerals, plants, animals)
spread to the Romans and the Arabs and was influential in the Middle Ages. Pline the elder reported the benefits of herbs in his “Natural History.” After the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe fell into obscurantism, the knowledge was somewhat preserved by the monks who cultivated medicinal plants. Charlemagne, King of the Franks (in 768) orders the growing of 100 plants in the imperial farms. From the 6th to the 13th century, the physicians of the Arabic School and the Salerne school prescribed many herbal drugs that are still used now days. In France, starting in the 12th century, the preparation and the sale of drugs became the prerogative of the apothecaries. The crusades and the big maritime travels brought back to Europe new plants and spices. The knowledge of the chemical composition of plants was greatly delayed by the Alchemy and its quest for gold and the philosophical stone. It is only at the beginning of the 19th century that active chemicals were extracted (such as strychnine from the poison nut, morphine from Opium and quinine from the cinchona tree).
From there our study and knowledge has grown tremendously. Although we are now able to synthesize so many artificial chemical drugs, chemotherapy as not overthrown phytotherapy and here are the reasons why [this part particularly interested me]:
- The plant kingdom offers countless resources. (There are many plants we still do not know.)
- The natural drugs originating from plants are often better tolerated.
- Many plants simply cannot be replaced.
There are many ways to use plants, either as is, or as concentrates or as extracted active substances. Many of these active substances can be synthesized but we still favor the plants as it is far less expensive to extract them. (A good example is quinine is still extracted from the Cinchona tree, morphine from poppies, etc.) From plants you can also extract vitamins, enzymes, gums, starch, tannins, resins, essential oils. Plant extracts can also be used as the nucleus (that is otherwise difficult to duplicate) for the synthesis of another drug after several modifications. (You can then obtain vitamins, cortisone and hormones). This is known as hemi-synthesis.
And to conclude, remember that many medicinal plants grow naturally in specific regions and that others are cultivated.”