Visiting Scholar Examines Decline and Rise of Herbal Medicine

Photos by Emanuela Appetiti
Alain Touwaide, PhD, reading a botanical text at his office.

As long as humans have walked the Earth, we have relied on plants not only as a necessary food source, but also as a medicine to treat everything from backaches and soreness to cancer and depression. Yet in just a century, herbal medicine nearly saw its end with the mass production of pharmaceuticals.

Between 1912 and 2012, the use of herbal remedies took a nosedive as the Western world embraced pharmaco-therapy as the cure-all for aches, pains, diseases and other disorders. But with the rise of new diseases along with the return of some believed to be eradicated, many are now returning to their roots with a new focus on complementary, integrative and alternative care (CAM).

“From the end of the 20th century on people started to discover that pharmaco-therapy wasn’t the ‘magic bullet,’” says Alain Touwaide, PhD, an internationally recognized herbal medicine expert. He will address the topic during his talk "1912-2012: The Decline and Rise of Herbal Medicine,” at 6:30 p.m. May 17, in the Bastyr University Auditorium.

Dr. Touwaide, who is Bastyr University's first visiting scholar through the William A. Mitchell, Jr., ND, Memorial Fund for Botanical Medicine, notes that in a “happy coincidence” the time period he will discuss coincides with the centennial celebration of the birth of the University’s namesake, Dr. John Bastyr.

“People were using all of these chemicals that seemed to be the miracle,” Dr. Touwaide says. “We saw the birth and decline of pharmaco-therapy, but also a full cycle of the decline and rise of medical plants in that time.”

The Ancient History of Herbal Medicine

In his work, Dr. Touwaide has seen plenty of changes with the way different cultures use herbal medicine. Through the nonprofit Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, he travels around the globe in search of ancient manuscripts about herbal remedies with his wife and colleague, cultural anthropologist Emanuela Appetiti.

“What we do is very compatible with the mission of Bastyr,” Dr. Touwaide says.

Their work also is compatible with the career of Bastyr University co-founder Dr. Mitchell, whose writings and teachings about botanical medicine built a bridge between ancient herbal lore and modern medicine. Dr. Mitchell died in 2007, after dedicating 30 years to the Bastyr community and to naturopathic medicine, which led to the creation of the William A. Mitchell, Jr., ND, Memorial Fund for Botanical Medicine.

“We are honored to be awarded this scholarship,” Dr. Touwaide says of his weeklong visit at the University with Appetiti. “We hope that exposing Bastyr students and faculty to the plant and medical information we have gathered will lead to a permanent scientific collaboration. This could be the basis for new applied research possibilities, even including clinical science.

“If we can do that, we will really bridge the past, present and future.”

Manuscripts at Your Fingertips

Dr. Touwaide notes that their material is accessible to the public, including a collection of more than 15,000 books chronicling the history of herbal medicine worldwide and 70,000 images of early printed books that have been digitized in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Dr. Touwaide and his collaborators have also transcribed many ancient texts on the uses of plants, which can be viewed on their Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions website.

After 35 years, their collection includes copies of manuscripts from major libraries around the world, including the Vatican Library, to far-flung locales such as small monasteries in the Greek islands. But often the books are so old and in such fragile conditions that digitizing them is the only way to preserve them.

“Very often they fall apart, so by digitizing them we make it possible to keep a record of this important piece of cultural history,” Dr. Touwaide says.

In addition to the study of herbal medicine, their research also helps anthropologists and scientists  better understand the genetic makeup of the different populations in the Mediterranean area based on their reactions to herbal remedies.

“I’d like to see how we can provide opportunities for the Bastyr community to take advantage of this rich source of information,” Dr. Touwaide says.

In addition to his May 17 talk, the public also is invited to his brownbag discussion on "A Future for the Past? Traditions and Today's Practice," from noon to 1 p.m. May 18 in the Bastyr Auditorium.