History of Herbal Medicine

The use of plants as medicine was practised before written records began. Evidence of using herbs has been found in burial chambers from the Stone Age, and texts surviving from ancient cultures of Egypt, India and Mesopotamia all describe the use of many medicinal plants.


The first Chinese herbal medicine book "Pen Ts'ao" by Shen Nung dates back to around 2800 BC and listed around 300 herbs, many of which are still used today. Traditionally the Chinese used to pay their doctor for good health, thus promoting well-being and avoiding disease.


Ayurveda is an ancient Indian philosophy dating back some 7000 years. It is a holistic system that aims to enhance well-being and increase longevity, focusing on herbal remedies, food, lifestyle, massage and yoga.

Greeks and Romans

The Greeks and Romans derived much of their herbal knowledge from India and China. The foundation of modern medicine; prescribing a treatment, recording what that treatment was and what its impact was came from Ancient Greece. Hippocrates, the Greek physician (460 - 377 BC) after whom the Hippocratic Oath is written is often referred to as the 'Father of Modern Medicine'. He was an herbalist and probably a naturopath; as well as using herbal medicine he used hydrotherapy and natural cures in promoting the idea of prevention and healthy living.

The Romans employed many Greek physicians and gained much knowledge of plants from them which they then spread throughout their empire. The first recorded history of herbs in the UK is from around 50 AD when the Romans invaded Britain. The Roman soldiers brought with them many herbs that were used to treat ailments.

Dioscorides a physician in the Roman army wrote De Materia Medica, which described plants collected first hand from Italy, Spain, Greece, and Germany. This was a major work in pharmacology for the next thousand years.

Galen (130-200 AD), a Greek physician and philosopher wrote the first classification system pairing common illnesses with their herbal remedy. Galen believed strongly in the Humoral system of medicine and developed it further. He classified all diseases and all plants into these four categories and recommended the use of opposites to counterbalance.


Meanwhile in Wales many physicians visited Myddfai and a local man with his sons made a collection of medical remedies known as "Recipes of the Physicians of Myddfai". This collection shows that Welsh medicine was at the time far advanced to most European medicine, and their teachings carried on for hundreds of years.

With the Crusades herbal knowledge spread especially with the trade in herbs and spices.

After the collapse of the Roman empire came the Dark Ages and it's not clear what herbal knowledge was gained or lost. The monks in the Middle Ages preserved the use of herbs by studying them and growing them in their physic gardens. Monks also translated the Arabic works on herbalism thus developing the knowledge of medicinal plants even more.

King Henry VIII was a great advocate of herbal medicine and his Charter of 1543 protected the practice of herbalism. This was a very significant step forward in herbal medicine being accepted and recognised as providing an essential service to the public. However, in his reign the King unfortunately destroyed many of the monasteries and their physic gardens that promoted the use of herbs.

From around 1500 many 'herbals' started to appear in print including works by Gerard and Culpeper.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries Witch hunts were rife and many "wise women" were killed as witches and with their passing also went their knowledge of herbal medicine. Any written texts on herbs were burnt so a huge amount of information was lost.


When Europeans landed in America they found that the Native Indians had a wealth of knowledge of medicinal plants and their uses, which the European settlers relied heavily upon.

Modern Herbalism

In both World War I and World War II herbs were widely used to treat burns victims and various injuries. In 1941 the British Government appealed to the public to help grow and harvest wild craft herbs for the war effort.

The desire for herbal medicine in Britain continued to grow after the World Wars and in 1968 the Government passed the Medicines Act allowing herbal medicine to be practiced.

Since then there has been pressure on the Government to reform the regulation of herbal medicine including the reform of Regulation 3 of the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 (formerly Section 12(1) of the Medicines Act 1968). This Regulation is commonly referred to as the "herbalist exemption". It permits unlicensed remedies to be made up and supplied by a practitioner to meet the needs of an individual patient following a one-to-one consultation. For further information on regulation visit MHRA (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency).