How Pharmacology Helped Standardize Natural Medicine

by Gemma Verma


A decade’s long debate has been raging about the safety of complimentary medicines versus the safety of pharmaceutical drugs. With 38% of American adults using alternative medicines in addition to their medical care, the argument has become polarized. Some doctors and members of the public refer to natural healthcare modalities as ‘quack’ medicines and want to have them restricted or banned altogether.

However, natural medicines represent the humble beginnings of pharmacology and were actually the original conventional medicine. In previous centuries, there were no chemical medicinals and the majority of the population could not afford a doctor or even an apothecary (a person who sold remedies from a retail shop – the very first chemist).  The ‘middling sort’ (middle class) would treat their illnesses with herbs available to them in nature and the housewife and mother would have a herb garden in which to grow remedies for her family. For instance, mint could be grown to ease nausea and stomach pain, a popular remedy that is still in use today.

Paracelsus (1493-1541) was the first physician to formulate the idea that chemically based medicines could be made from raw plants and minerals, although much of the science of the time was incorrect and he also believed that if the plant resembled the illness, it must be the right remedy to treat it – the prevailing scientific opinion of the day that is now known to be totally false.  For example, Haselwort looks like liver so doctors thought it could be used to treat liver disease.

Samuel Hahnemann, MD, a German physician, developed the principle of homeopathy in 1794 with the idea that a plant that caused symptoms of a particular disease could be used in attenuated quantities to treat that disease, an idea not dissimilar to vaccination, in which a trace of the disease is introduced to promote immunity. The practice of homeopathy had the advantage that the finished product was so diluted that it couldn’t produce the side-effects associated with herbal medicines.

While some herbal and animal remedy ideas were ridiculous by today’s standards and many were completely ineffective or made the illness worse, there were herbs and plants that really worked in easing symptoms. By the eighteenth century, Willow Bark tea began to be used to treat fever, pain and inflammation.  Salicylic acid – an ingredient of Willow Bark, is the active component of aspirin – today’s widely used headache and anti-coagulant pill.

Despite having some remedies that were efficacious, no one knew how much of the herb you needed in order for it to have a medicinal effect or how much was too much so as a consequence, many people failed to find any relief and there were frequent cases of poisoning.

By the 19th century, druggist establishments similar to the modern high street pharmacy began to appear. They sold largely herbal medicines and natural substances, hence the name drug store, deriving from an old German word, droge, which meant to dry – usually herbs and spices. The name now associated with chemical pharmaceuticals referred to herbalism.  Jesse Boot, the founder of Boots the Chemist in the UK, started his career wandering around fields, collecting herbs in a wheelbarrow that he could then make into remedies and sell in his father’s herbal shop.

The death of his father fueled a desire to provide cheap and safe medicines for anyone who needed them. With his enquiring scientific mind and the birth of mass advertising, he decided to concentrate more on the chemical formulations of medicine and how this could be used to help improve health and he began to stock synthetic medicines  alongside the more traditional remedies.

Getting remedies from the drug store gave the customer some confidence that the amounts had been measured out correctly and the product sold was one of quality. However, there was still a long way to go. With science still in its infancy, lack of knowledge about the causes of illness led to the development of products that simply would not work for the purpose they were sold for, for instance, crushed earth worm paste to cure bruising. Others were dangerous to life, such as face creams and teething powders that contained elemental mercury commonly known as quicksilver.

Household bleach and pest control products like arsenic were freely available and sold in the drug store alongside the traditional herbs and medicines and most came in neutral packaging. This meant that it was possible for the consumer to inadvertently buy bleach instead of their usual medicine or ingest arsenic instead of the pre-cursor to aspirin. Sometimes the chemist himself would get confused and place the wrong product in the wrong bottle, with disastrous consequences. Accidental poisonings were a common occurrence and after life insurance policies began to be issued, even the occasional murder. In the 19th century, arsenic was the most frequently used murder weapon.

It was this that led to a drive to uniform medicines and bring standards and regulation to the practice of medicine. A desire for greater accountability and safety for the consumer, coupled with a desire to create medicines chemically that had the benefits of herbs without some of the disadvantages, brought about regulatory organisations for pharmacists and the first examinations.

Today, up to half of all pharmaceutical preparations are isolated directly from plants or they have chemical structures that mimic a plant. For instance, digitalis is extracted from foxglove flowers and is used to slow the heart rate in cases of tachycardia, as well as lowering blood pressure. In fact, 11% of worldwide medicines come from flowers. Morphine, the strong sedative painkiller that has made surgery painless for many, was isolated from the opium poppy.

The use of plants to formulate treatments is one of the foundations of modern medicine and is not as ‘alternative’ as it seems. Modern chemists use herbs, or synthetic preparations of herbs almost as much as the herbalist does. The distinction between the two modalities is not as far apart as the consumer imagines . The pharmaceutical industry merely helped bring the science of plant medicines into the 20th and 21st centuries by standardising formulations and developing scientific trials of products.

The question now should not be should natural medicine be banned, but what can be done to amass more evidence and make it even safer?



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What Really Works for Kids: The Insider’s Guide to Natural Health for Mums and Dads, New York:  Bantam Press, 2002.

Homeopathic Remedies: Helpful, Harmful or Harmless Hype? Accessed November 14, 2015,



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