A Dose of Herbalism: Evidence and Efficacy in North American Medical History

Charis Boke

Charis Boke is the 2021-2022 Keith S. Thompson Research Fellow and Lecturer at Dartmouth College.

During my time as the Keith S. Thomson Research Fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, I had the opportunity to visit 3 archives: The Othmer Library at the Science History Institute; the F.C. Wood Historical Medical Library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia; and the Wellcome Collection.


My explorations at each of these archives were in service to my manuscript in progress, Poison, Power, and Possibility: Building Relations with Medicinal Plants. This book attends to sensory practices of relationship with plants and ecologies and to the ways that practitioners of herbalism in North America are both conditioned by, and seek to resist, white supremacy culture and “settler common sense” (Okun 1999; Rifkin 2014).[1] I describe and engage with herbalists’ poetics, politics, and practices through ethnographic research, botanical histories, and biographies.


The goal of this book project is to examine what it takes to create remedies for what ails us—a broad “us” which understands humanism to be necessarily situated athwart and amidst multispecies concerns. I situate this multispecies humanist approach in anthropological, historiographical, and political ecological methods, and speak directly to how plants move and shape history, culture, and power. Through this work, I contribute to a vibrant, growing academic conversation in plant humanities—one which straddles disciplinary boundaries to reconsider human-environment relations now and over time.


Poison, Power, and Possibility draws on my ethnographic work with herbalists and those seeking herbal remedies. It also draws on my archival work related to recipes and practitioner educational materials (primarily c19), and documentation of the travel of particular medicinal plants across the planet (c17-19 broadly). It is this archival work that the Consortium has kindly supported. For my time as Keith S. Thomson Research Fellow, I was interested in tracing the movement of several key medicinal plants: withania somnifera (ashwagandha) and eupatoria perfoliatum (boneset) in particular. Overall, the material from these archives has enabled me to begin constructing a timeline for botanists’, colonists’, and practitioners’ citational practices with plants. These parallel but do not map exactly onto botanical identification practices—that is, how a plant is named in any text maps only loosely onto what might be understood as “the real” name of the plant at that historical moment.


A common problem in ethnobotanical and herbal medical texts, whether in translation or in their original language, lies in the relation between multiple common names for plants, and the moving target of “officinal” classificatory types of plants. Linnean nomenclature was in practice (and evolving) during most of the periods of the texts I examined, but overlap and confusion between local common names, subspecies differentiation, and Linnean nomenclature means that the timeline of naming and locating ashwagandha, for instance, is patchy. This is what is interesting to me. In attempting to construct a timeline for how knowledge about, and practice with, ashwagandha came into what is now called “western herbalism,” it has been necessary to look at how the plant has been represented, and how it has made itself present as a medicine in different moments. The texts that offer the material for this timeline include “herbals,” “materia medica,” and “recipe books” from a variety of eras (c17-c19).


Along these lines, at the Othmer I examined Dr. Friedrich Flückiger’s 1887 text, “The principles of pharmacognosy; an introduction to the study of the crude substances of the vegetable kingdom,”  (Othmer Monograph Collection RS164 .F83 1887). Dr. Fluckiger (MD/Ph.D.), then a professor in the University of Strassburg, wrote this text with Dr. Alexander Tschirch, (Ph.D.), who was a lecturer on botany and pharmacognosy in the University of Berlin. In it, they discuss the way that common naming has led to plants having multiple descriptors, and the ways that that obscures pathways to knowledge about them. They use cinchona (quinine bark, Peruvian bark) as their main example—and appropriately so, for its central importance in dealing with malaria. They also mention other plants which have retained less widespread recognition in western herbalist and medical circles, such as kamala (ibid. p9-10). They describe a lack of knowledge about the “Mother plant” of some substances, asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida) among them. That is to say, in the process of trying to document in writing knowledges about plants from around the globe, the particulars of species/subspecies, use, and location were in his estimation not well defined. He cites the importance of the search for accurate geographical locations of plants, and names De Candolle and Grisebach as key scholars in that work.


This text also references as key the “illustrative representation of the distribution of officinal plants throughout the world” in Barber’s “ The Pharmaceutical or Medico-botanical map of the world” London 1868. This map is of course of interest to me, as I try to construct a sense of how ashwagandha has moved—or, perhaps more to the point, how people who came to have power like Fluckiger narrated the motion and location of particular plants. Fluckiger’s Principles” also highlights Fristedt’s Pharmakognostick charta ofver jorden (Upsala 1870):


“The map projected by Schelenz, in Archiv der Pharm, Band 208 (1876) suffers from being on altogether too small a scale, although it considers only the plants of the Pharmacopoea Germanica This fault is avoided by Oudemans in his “Handleleiding tot de Pharmacognosie,” Amsterdam 1880, since he dedicates a special map to each of the five distributions of the earth. If it is desired to go still further, then the distribution of each individual plant must be brought upon a special map. This has, for instance, already been accomplished by Lloyd for Hydrastis candensis in his “Drugs and Mediciens of North America,” Vol 1, No 3, p 82. Also in the Pharm Rundschau, New York, p237.”


It is always true that historical research involves tracing citational practices of particular actors, and thinking critically about them. The archive-febrile conversations that have captured my attention the most powerfully trace well-established lines of discourse about different communities. For instance, in Dymock, Warden, and Hooper’s “Pharmacographia of India: A history of principle drugs of vegetal origin,” (1891, vol 2, p 566-569, examined in Kew Gardens Economic Botany Collection), the authors index a plant as “asgandh,” and provide a series of references and descriptions of the references’ descriptions, in order to offer a literature review, in effect, on the plant.[2] They write:


“Indian mahometan writers merely repeat what the Hindus say about this drug, and do not recognize in it the kaknaj-el-manoum of the Arabs, which is supposed to represent the [two Greek script words] of the Greeks, the description of which by Theophrastus agrees tolerably well with W. somnifera.


Rheede calls it Pevetti, and states that a vulnerary ointment is prepared from the leaves. Prosper Alpinus (i. cap 33) describes and figures it under the name of Solanum somniferum antiquurum. Roxburgh states that the Telinga physicians reckon the roots alexipharmic.


Ainslie (ii.14) says ‘The root is found in the medicine bazars, is of a pale colour, an in external appearance not unlike our gentian; but it has little sensible taste or smell, though the Tamool Vytians suppose it to have deobstruent and diuretic qualities, given in decoction to the quantity of about half a teacupful twice daily;…’


The plant is very common along the shores of the Mediterranean, where it has always been reported to be hypnotic… P.L. Simmonds (Amer. Journ. Pharm, Feb 1891) states that the plant is employed at the civil hospital, Alger, as a sedative and hypnotic.” (p11)


This is drawn from one footnote in a materia medica document written in late c19 by several British doctors. It is therefore unsurprising that the authors take a condescending attitude towards “mahometans,” framing the work of Muslim physicians and scholars as merely derivative of Hindu practitioners’ knowledge. Dymock et al also share that they “suspect the Greeks have always known” about asgandh:  given the extent of citations offered for each plant entry in the book, to see a “suspicion” listed here is telling. It is these sorts of textual moments that I am highlighting, examining how cultural climates and forces of empire emerge in the narration of plant-work across the globe in different moments.


It seems somewhat banal to talk about how the origin points of some knowledges are erased through deliberate or unconscious citational favoring of particular people/places/modes. Cori Hayden has argued this succinctly in her discussion of historical and ongoing practices of biopiracy in Mexico (see also Ellen and Harris, Ahmed, etc). Paralleling Jean Langford’s description of how Ayurveda becomes codified into a set of documentary strategies legible to western modes of medical education, how and where does western herbalism fall into the patterns of erasing some kinds of knowledge and upholding or foregrounding others?


In the months since my trips to Consortium supported archive visits (June 2022 and December 2022, respectively), I have been working to collate materials and draw out the threads of story that emerge from them. In academic year 2023-2024, I will be continuing this work, with attention to how to make it accessible broadly. As a seasoned educator in both public and scholarly settings I am interested in writing a book that people can engage in multiple ways. I will use the tools of digital humanities to craft a public facing website where people beyond academic circles can access the results of my research. Digital humanist tools are more relevant than ever for making plants’ stories available and legible to an interested public, and I hope to draw on them to open spaces where people might imagine, think, and practice life differently, on this increasingly unpredictable planet.

[1] Okun, Tema. The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture; Rifkin, Settler Common Sense.


[2] Fig. Jacy. Eel.tt 22,23; Sibth Fl Graec. T. 233; Wight I, t.853; Rheede, Hort. Mal. Iv. T.55. Moorenkappen (Dutch)