A Short History of Medicine

November 18, 2019 Joe Brady

Ancient herbs may be the future of modern medicine.

A short history of medicine began a long , long time ago with someone saying: I have a pain!

  • 2000 BCE: Here, eat this herb.
  • 1000 AD: That herb is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
  • 1850 AD: That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
  • 1940 AD: That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
  • 1985 AD: That pill is ineffective. Here, take this opioid drug.
  • 2011 AD: That opioid drug is killing people. Here, eat this herb.

loosely translated from a very old joke in medicine

The oldest written evidence of the use of herbs in medicine comes from  Sumerian clay tablets and the Chinese medical classic the “Pen T’Sao,” written by Emperor Shen Nung, both written records date from about 2500 BC and mention some 365 herbs and their medicinal value many of which are used today. Considered the Father of Chinese medicine, Shen Nung wrote about marijuana’s healing properties as well as those of two other mainstays of Chinese herbal medicine, ginseng, and ephedra. Also listed in Shen Nung’s classic many alkaloid containing plants such as poppy, henbane, and mandrake, as well as camphor, yellow gentian, ginseng, jimson weed, cinnamon bark, and ephedra.

The Vedas from India mention treatment with herbs such as nutmeg, pepper, clove. Egyptian papyrus and the Bible itself mention some 700 herbs used for therapy such as pomegranate, castor oil plant, aloe, senna, garlic, onion, fig, willow, coriander, juniper, common centaury, frankincense, and myrrh. Sixty-three herbs are mentioned in Homer’s two epics, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”

For more on the history of herbs in medicine see Historical review of medicinal plants’ usage. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3358962/

Modern Science and Ancient Medicine

Increasingly traditional Chinese herbal medicine is becoming accepted in the modern world as more research has been done to provide the evidence base needed for acceptance among western doctors.  Most of the attention has been on acupuncture and Tai Chi but even traditional Chinese herbal medicine is gaining more widespread acceptance in Western medical settings. Traditional Chinese medicine’s herbal knowledge is a treasure trove of potential treatment of various diseases in the modern world. Research is underway on the use of herbs in treating autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers. After TCM was awarded it’s first Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2015 for the development of artemisinin-based malaria treatment, Researchers from many disciplines as well as pharmaceutical companies are mining ancient sources for modern treatments. 

Watch the video from the Wall Street Journal https://youtu.be/GbpbABZE06o

The world-famous Cleveland Clinic opened the first Chinese herbal-therapy clinic associated with a western hospital in 2014. Patients are seen to treat everything from chronic pain, fatigue, poor digestion, infertility and insomnia. “Western medicine may not have all the answers,” says Daniel Neides, the clinic’s medical director.

The legendary emperor of China, Shen Nung “the divine husbandman” is considered to be one of the founders of traditional Chinese medicine. He is also credited with the development of agriculture. According to Chinese legend, he spent his life tasting everything and testing its medicinal value. It is reported that he poisoned himself numerous times, but he did write down everything he learned for future Chinese doctors to build on. Shen-Nung left behind his notes in the Pen Ts’ao Ching (Divine Husbandman’s Materia Medica), the earliest Chinese pharmacopeia that included 365 medicines derived from minerals, plants, and animals. The true authorship of this work is also unknown but it has been added to over the centuries and currently, there are over 11,000 herbs in the pen tsao or Chinese medicine pharmacopeia.

Modern practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine are expected to memorize the uses of hundreds of formulas that have been passed down through the generations as effective for various diseases and disorders.  Some Chinese herbs can be used singly like ginger for nausea, but for herbal formulas it’s best to consult a practitioner.

Below you will find some great resources for learning more about Chinese herbs.

Resources you can use today

Read the article in Time magazine


Download the free Chinese medicine herbal therapy fact sheet from the Cleveland Clinic


Get a Free App on 50+ Herbs from the National Institute for Complementary and Integrative Health

Put an herb database in the palm of your hand. Download HerbList today! Are you looking for trustworthy, research-based information about herbal products used for health purposes, such as aloe, kava, and turmeric?

NCCIH’s HerbList™ provides fast, free access to science-based summaries on more than 50 popular herbs. With HerbList on your phone or tablet, you can easily find out what the science says about the herbs’ effectiveness for health purposes and get the facts about potential safety problems, side effects, and herb-drug interactions.

 The herb info you need in an on-the-go package

HerbList gives you fast, free access to science-based summaries on more than 50 popular herbs, such as aloe, chamomile, ginger, and turmeric. Features include:

  • Information on the herbs’ common names, history, and uses, plus what the science says about their effectiveness for health purposes 
  • Easy-to-find facts on potential safety problems, side effects, and herb-drug interactions
  • A quick way to select your favorites, so that you can talk about them later with your doctor or pharmacist
  • The option to work offline! No Internet connection is required for in-app navigation. 

Find out what the science says about popular herbs

Shopping for herbal products? Take your herb database with you to the supermarket or drugstore. With HerbList on your phone or tablet, you’ll have information on the science and safety of popular herbs at your fingertips when you need it most. 

Get the facts about herbs from a trusted source—the National Institutes of Health. Download HerbList to your phone or tablet.


Genetics, Epigenetics, and Modern Research: Going Back to Roots

 TCM herbal formulas traditionally contain multiple effective ingredients that interact synergistically which gives TCM advantages over western drugs become one of the biggest hurdles in the application of TCM and TCM-based drug discovery, it’s just too complicated. Too many active ingredients, too many potential uses, and even side effects.

Much more data is necessary for the effective incorporation of Chinese herbal medicine into the modern world.To meet the increasing needs for TCM-related data resources, researchers have developed ETCM, an Encyclopedia of Traditional Chinese Medicine. ETCM includes comprehensive and standardized information for the commonly used herbs and formulas of TCM combining data from multiple sources on herbs, herbal formulas, ingredients, as well as the predicted drug targets and predicted target genes of TCM ingredients, herbs, and formulas. ETCM is designed to be a convenient resource for users to obtain thorough information about a herb or a formula. ETCM provides predicted target genes of TCM ingredients, herbs, and formulas, according to the chemical fingerprint similarity between TCM ingredients and known drugs. A systematic analysis function is also developed in ETCM, which allows users to explore for themselves the relationships among TCM herbs. ETCM is freely accessible at http://www.nrc.ac.cn:9090/ETCM/. ETCM has the potential to develop into a major data warehouse for TCM and to promote TCM related research in the future. ETCM is free for academic use and the data can be conveniently exported.

ETCM: an encyclopaedia of traditional Chinese medicine

Hai-Yu Xu,1,2 Yan-Qiong Zhang,1 Zhen-Ming Liu,3 Tong Chen,2 Chuan-Yu Lv,3 Shi-Huan Tang,1 Xiao-Bo Zhang,2 Wei Zhang,1 Zhi-Yong Li,4 Rong-Rong Zhou,4 Hong-Jun Yang,1 Xiu-Jie Wang,5 and Lu-Qi Huang2


Xu HY, Zhang YQ, Liu ZM, Chen T, Lv CY, Tang SH, Zhang XB, Zhang W, Li ZY, Zhou RR, Yang HJ, Wang XJ, Huang LQ. ETCM: an encyclopaedia of traditional Chinese medicine. Nucleic Acids Res. 2018 Oct 26. doi: 10.1093/nar/gky987.