Plants: The Original Medicine, Part I

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What do malaria drugs, aspirin and morphine have in common? They were among the first pharmaceutical drugs made. Did you know that most pharmaceutical drugs originally came from plants?

We have the bark of the White Willow and Meadowsweet root to thank for Aspirin, and the Opium Poppy to thank for morphine.

Until recently in human history, herbal or plant medicine was a dominant medicine. When did “medication” come to mean pharmaceuticals instead of herbal medicines?

Let’s take a look at the role that medicinal plants have played in human history, how the pharmaceutical industry took hold, and what modern scientific research is saying about ancient herbs.

How Plants Set Humans Up for Success

If plants hadn’t successfully colonized land around 425 million years ago, none of the animal life that we know today (including us) would be here. The establishment of plant life on land has been described as one of the most significant evolutionary episodes in Earth history.

How did plants pave the way for an Earth-wide revolution?

When plants conquered the land, photosynthesis really took off. The Earth was transformed from a blue, low-oxygen planet to a lush, green planet with oxygen aplenty. Oxygen levels exploded, creating the perfect conditions for new oxygen-loving species to evolve and share the land.

The first land plants are still around today — ferns, mosses and the valuable medicinal herb Horsetail.

Humans and Herbal Medicine: An Ancient Relationship

As humans and plants continued to evolve together, humans discovered that some plants had medicinal properties. Ancient people had a strong connection to nature. They lived off the land. They observed how animals used plants as medicine. They used intuition to tune-in to plants’ therapeutic possibilities.

Over the centuries, knowledge was passed down and refined through first-hand trial and error.

Fossil records tell us that humans have used herbal medicine for at least 60,000 years all over the world. In China, herbs such as Astragalus root and Reishi mushroom were used to support overall health and immunity, while herbs such as Licorice and Ashwagandha were used in India. But we didn’t stop at using individual herbs. Over time we learned how to combine them and use them as part of a formalized healing system.

Indian Ayurvedic Medicine is a complex healing system that has been around since the 2nd century BC. The four Vedas (ancient Indian texts) describe over 440 medicinal plants. A 5,000-year-old Sumerian clay slab from India (the oldest written evidence of herbal medicine use) contains 12 herbal formulations.

The in-depth Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system has a 5,000-year-old history. The ancient literature is full of data on the most medicinal parts of each plant, how to prepare herbal remedies and how to find the best dosage. In 2500 BC, Chinese Emperor Shen Nung wrote a book on medicinal roots and grasses including 365 herbs.

The Ebers Papyrus, written circa 1550 BC, is the most extensive written record of the ancient Egyptian medical system. This 68-foot-long Papyrus contains over 800 herbal formulas.

The Rise of the Pharmaceutical Industry

Did you know that the pharmaceutical industry has only been around for 200 years? Let’s look at the global changes that revolutionized what we think of as medicine.

German apothecary assistant Friedrich Sertürner was the first to use specific plant compounds to create medicines. He isolated and extracted morphine crystals from the juice of poppy seeds. Merck was the first company to produce Morphine on a large scale in 1826.

Soon apothecaries learned how to create synthetic versions of natural plant compounds. Salicylic acid from White Willow was the first natural compound reproduced by chemical synthesis. Bayer introduced the world’s first 100% chemical drug in 1899: Aspirin.

A Merger of Two Industries

The pharmaceutical industry was created by the merger of two surprising industries. Apothecaries teamed up with dye and chemical companies who had research labs. This gave apothecaries access to new manufacturing technologies that could produce these medicines cheaper and faster than ever before.

Wartime and Public Health Research Priorities

World War I started a chain of events that would result in pharmaceuticals becoming the prevalent form of medicine in North America and Europe. Wartime meant the drive to develop drugs to support the health of the troops. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were being lost to illness, and countries were keen to maintain a competitive advantage. The United States started by developing anti-malaria drugs and cortisone (thought to permit aviators to fly higher without blacking out).

In addition, towards the end of World War I in 1918, the Spanish Flu epidemic took hold. Exhausted troops operating in crowded, unsanitary conditions were at high risk of infection. Troops were deployed all over the world, playing a major role in the global spread of this disease. With a death toll of over 50 million people worldwide, the hunt for antibiotics was on.

Antibiotic progress was slow due to the post World War I recovery. It wasn’t for another 10 years that Penicillin (the first true antibiotic) was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming in the UK. Due to problems with growing and transport, it was not until World War II that true mass production and global distribution became possible. The turning point came in 1943 when the United States War Production Board was tasked with ramping up production. Penicillin production jumped from 21 billion units in 1943, to an astonishing 6.8 trillion units in 1945.

This one drug positioned the United States as a global pharmaceutical powerhouse. By the late 1940s, the U.S. was making over half of the world's pharmaceuticals and accounted for one-third of international trade in medicines.

The Move from Natural to Chemical Medicines

Wartime challenged pharma companies to produce huge quantities of drugs at the lowest cost that could be safely distributed globally.

Drug companies discovered that live plants weren’t easy to work with on a large scale — especially in wartime. Plants were hard to obtain, expensive to manufacture into herbal medicines, and difficult to transport worldwide.

Technology to make synthetic copies of plant compounds had come a long way since the introduction of Aspirin. Chemists isolated the top one or two medicinal ingredients in plants and made chemical copies. This method was cheap, easy and applicable to all plants. The ability to patent drugs (you can’t patent herbs) significantly increased pharma company profits. Firms soon shifted their research focus from natural products to synthetic chemical products. This represented the final move from natural, plant medicine, to purely synthetic medicine.

For more see Plants: The Original Medicine: Part II


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