Friday 29 August 2014

Book Review: The Herbalist's Bible

The Herbalist's Bible
Photo © Debs Cook

The latest book by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal entitled The Herbalist’s Bible: John Parkinson’s Lost Classic Rediscovered falls into the last category and will be read, used and treasured constantly from this day forward. I think it’s also becoming obvious that I’m very interested in herbal history and heritage,and these days most of the articles I write have historical inclusions; be that in the form of facts, quotes, old recipes or references to herbal practices that took place in the past.

I’m rather interested in the way herbal medicine developed and how it was used and viewed during the 16th - 20th centuries but I confess to having a rather soft spot for the 17th century, so much so I can happily pick up a book or transcript written in 17th century English and understand the F for S and other idiosyncrasies of the language of the time and read it with ease. Of the 17th century herbalists the ones most often quoted are Nicholas Culpeper and John Gerard, in part I think, due to the fact that their herbals were easily accessible to the public and are still published in one form or another today.

John Parkinson (1567 – 1650) however is seldom quoted or mentioned these days, which is rather sad, considering that of the three writers of herbals of the 17th century, Parkinson is the one that should stand out. His knowledge and understanding of herbs and their uses far surpassed his contemporaries, and unlike Culpeper and Gerard, Parkinson was an original thinker who ventured forth his own ideas as well as quoting those that came before him.

Given what I’ve just said above, you can imagine how much I squealed with joy when I first learnt that this book on Parkinson was being written, and how thrilled I was when Julie and Matthew asked me to proof read some of the chapters earlier in the year, from the proof-reading I already knew I was going to love the book even before I saw it in its entirety, then my review copy arrived...

John Parkinson’s Lost Classic Rediscovered

Parkinson is known for 2 books the ‘Paradisi in Sole’ and the ‘Theatrum Botanicum’, the Paradisi has been reprinted in the past but the Theatrum has never before been reprinted since it was first published in 1640, not even in a condensed form and condensed this version is. Don’t buy this book expecting to see all of the 1,788 pages of the Theatrum - the biggest herbal ever to be published in English- which looked at over 3,800 plants. Any book that sets out to decrypt and comment on the entirety of the Theatrum, offering modern uses for the herbs Parkinson wrote about and compare how he used the herb with the way we use it today would be double if not triple the size and therefore costly.

What Julie and Matthew decided to do was select 75 chapters from the original book and look at almost 100 plant entries of Parkinson’s. Their choices and outline for the book are explained in the note to the reader on page 22, which outlines what they chose to put in the book and how they decided which herbs to include, using the following criteria:-

1) Herbs that were well known to Parkinson that we still use today like Hawthorn and Saint John’s Wort, although as the authors explain not all the herbs used in Parkinson’s day were used the same way we use them today.

2) Herbs used in the 17th century that would have been very familiar to Parkinson, but are no longer used today, these they dub the ‘lost herbs’ and include Figwort and Sanicle.

3) Herbs selected that were new to Parkinson like Cocoa, Sassafras and Tobacco, herbs he was enthusiastic about getting to know, adding ‘unordered tribe’ and ‘exotic’ chapters to his book to include the herbs from the new world and share his discoveries of those new herbs.

The book begins with a lot of well researched information on the life of John Parkinson, his work as an apothecary, gardener, botanist and author, and paints a pretty clear picture of a well-respected man, dedicated to his craft who was so respected by the higher echelons that he was appointed as “King’s Herbalist” to Charles’s I, unlike Gerard and L’Obel who laid claim to the title but were never officially recognised by the royal court. What we have in The Herbalist’s Bible is an informed and inspired selection of herbs from Parkinson’s Theatrum.

Laid out in a ‘past/future’ kind of way, one side of the book shows Parkinson’s original entry which includes all the ‘Olde English’ spellings, Latin names that Parkinson knew the herbs by, their virtues, uses and the woodcuts used originally by Parkinson. With the addition that under each woodcut there are explanations of terms used by Parkinson and his contemporaries to help you understand your agues from your vulneraries.

On the facing page each herb is named in both English and Latin as it’s known today and its uses in the modern world are described and compared, the way Parkinson used some herbs differs to the way we use those herbs today, for me it was interesting to discover that 17th century herbalists like Parkinson used St John’s Wort as a wound herb and wasn’t familiar with its anti-depressant uses, today we are more familiar with using St John’s Wort for depression than as a styptic. Likewise, today herbalists often prescribed hawthorn as a tonic for the heart, but Parkinson was more familiar with its uses for easing kidney stones and dropsy.

As someone who advocates using those herbs available locally and those that were once used but are now long forgotten, I’m pleased to see that herbs such as the Archangels and members of the Deadnettle family are included, despite the fact that they no longer pay an important part in herbal medicine, they are still used by herbalists for treating many of the same ailments as did Parkinson. Scarlet Pimpernel was once used to treat plague and fevers, but today is viewed as simply a wildflower, Pellitory of the Wall an old remedy for gravel in the kidneys and urinary problems that was still being used in the early 20th century by the likes of Mary Thorne-Quelch who described it as “one of the old remedies which have not been surpassed” and which W.T. Fernie described as “a favourite Herbal Simple in many rural districts” exploring its use for treating dropsy, stubborn coughs and even for bringing relief from toothache. Weld is another herb no longer used medicinal today consigned only to the dyer’s herb garden, yet Parkinson was familiar with its use for bruising, breaking phlegm and as a remedy for the plague, old uses now long forgotten, so it’s wonderful to see them reclaimed for these herbs.

What this book isn’t is a recipe book, if you’re expecting it to be like Hedgerow Medicine with lots of remedies to make at home you’ll be disappointed. That doesn’t mean there are no recipes, within the book you’ll find Parkinson’s take on Aqua-Vitae, the water of life with a modern day version from Matthew and Julie. There’s recipes for Sloe Syrup, Chilli Bread and Jasmine Leaf Oil – which Parkinson recommends for warming the body and for easing pains and cramps, and which Julie uses to make an ointment which she says helps to lighten freckles and liver spots. I’ve made the ointment myself and I’m seeing a definite fading of the liver spots on my hands.

Jasmine Leaf Ointment
Photo © Debs Cook

Parkinson was fond of using distilled waters of herbs and many of these like Comfrey, Honeysuckle and Ladies Mantle and their uses and virtues are included, there may not be many actual recipes, but there are lots of ideas for making infused oils, wines and ointments alongside insights for the reader to explore, and herbs to rediscover that will aid them to create remedies à la Parkinson for their own use and get a better understanding of how 17th century herb users used those herbs and remedies.

The appendix of the book for me is a minefield of useful information from and historical point of view, from the explanation of how Parkinson put together his plant ‘Tribes’, to the amounts that he would have paid for his herbs circa 1640. During the late 19th to the early 20th centuries there was a Parkinson revival and in 1884 a Parkinson Society emerged and this is discussed in the appendix, sadly by 1890 it had been absorbed into the Selborne Society an organisation set up in 1885 to commemorate the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White, although the Parkinson information absorbed seems to have been long forgotten. The appendix also gives a timeline for Parkinson from 1564, just before his birth in 1567 to his death in 1650 which highlights of events that happened throughout Parkinson’s life.

There is also a list of what Julie and Matthew refer to as Parkinson’s ‘Firsts’ which is a list of herbs first described by Parkinson in any British Flora, the appendix concludes with brief biographies of the botanists and herbalists that would have been familiar references to 16th and 17th century readers of herbals, listing their roles in herbal medicine, books and discoveries.

For me this book is a beautiful insight in to a man that I’ve respected from afar for a number of years, what Julie and Matthew have done is bring John Parkinson back to life, his book was and is a classic and deserves to be rediscovered be it in part of entirety. The book is visually stunning, highly informative and useful to people like myself who like to learn from our herbal ancestors. I raise my glass of tonic wine to the authors and hope that in the not too distant future they will bring us more of Parkinson’s tribes and thank them for making this great herbal accessible to all once again.

If you can’t wait to get your hands on a copy then the book is available from Amazon (UK) or direct from Julie and Matthew.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Composition Powder Recipes

I've been reading many old books recently that are full of herbal formula's that have faded into the past, not all of them deserve to be revived but some do. As well as medicinal recipes, there are cosmetic and household items that I want to try making and see how good they are. To this end I've started a new category on my blog to gather them all together and this is the very first post, over time I'll blog about interesting formula's, the people who promoted them, and I'll be trying a variety of the recipes out and posting the results.

To begin with I thought I'd start with Composition Powder,  a remedy I've mentioned before in relation to George Slack. It was used for conditions specific to the upper respiratory tract, and was especially good for treating mucous producing colds and flu. It has however been used to cure a variety of ailments over the years here's half a dozen found on the internet.

1) As a daily constitutional tonic
2) For fighting colds, flu, fevers, sore throat, and inflamed tonsils
3) To alleviate indigestion and stomach catarrh
4) To address diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, and colitis
5) To help heal canker sores and boils
6) For easing lumbar pain and menstrual cramps

There are sites on the web that claim that Jethro Kloss made this remedy famous via his book "Back To Eden" which was first published in 1939, but he reinvented the wheel  herbally speaking, I'm afraid. Below is an image of Kloss's formula, it's almost the same as William Fox's formula (see below) save for the fact that Kloss used White Pine (Pinus strobus) and not Canada Pine like Fox did.

Kloss's Composition Powder Formula
Earlier examples of Composition Powder can be found in many of the old herb books, as yet I haven't found a mention before 1846, if I do I'll update this post. The 1846 date I came across refers to Benjamin Colby and his book "A Guide To Health" where he gave his version of

Composition Powder

Take of Bayberry (Myrica) 
2 lbs. Ginger (Zingiber) 
1 lb. Cayenne 
2 oz. Cinnamon
2 oz. Prickly ash (Zanthoxylum) 2 oz.

All to be finely pulverized, and sifted through a fine sieve, and well mixed.

- One teaspoonful in two thirds of a cupful of hot water, sweetened; milk or cream may be added to make it more agreeable. This compound, being stimulant, astringent, and tonic, is an invaluable family medicine, being adapted to all forms of disease, in connection with laxatives, if costiveness be a prominent symptom, or relaxants in cases of constriction.

It may be possible that Kloss brought the remedy back into the public eye and made it 'famous' again, but there are many other examples throughout the decades which means that other people before Kloss expounded the virtues of this remedy, for example... In 1907 William Fox, as already mentioned above, in his "Model Botanic Guide To Health" gave the following formula:

Fox's  Composition Powder

Bayberry 2ozs.
Ginger 1oz.
Pinus Canadensis [Canada Pitch] ½oz.
Cloves 1 dram
Cayenne Pepper 1 dram

All finely powdered, and mixed through a fine sieve.

George Slack's recipe from his book "Slacks Herbal: A Treatise on the Pathology of Disease" can be found in a previous post of mine. Slack's book was first printed in 1878 and had many reprints, the version quoted in my post on Slack is from my 1932 issue.

In R L Hool's "Common Plants and their Uses in Medicine", 1922, we find John Skelton's formula. Dr Skelton lived in Leeds and published a Herbalism Periodical between May 1852 and August 1855, it consisted of 40 weekly issues, each containing 16 pages, costing a penny each. It was by all accounts a lively periodical, not only pushing medical herbalism for the masses, but examining and promoting medical reform and other social issues. Dr Skelton was at one point a friend and follower of Dr Coffin, but he later became disillusioned with Coffin's methods and narrow-mindedness and spoke out against him.

Dr.Skelton's Composition Powder

Poplar Bark 4ozs.
Bayberry Bark 8ozs.
Ginger 4ozs.
Cloves 1oz.
Cinnamon 1oz.
Cayenne 1/4 oz.
All in powdered form.

In my recently acquired copy of Peter MacEwan's Pharmaceutical Formulas: the Chemist and Druggist's' Book of Useful Recipes for the Drug Trade, P.755, there is a formula given for Composition powder which contains just 4 ingredients, namely Bayberry Root Bark, Ginger, Capsicum and Cloves, all in powdered form, and on P.614 a formula is given for Composition Essence which is made up of the composition powder, proof spirit, glycerine and water. Alfred Hall and Arthur Barker edited the 1932 edition of the National Botanic Pharmacopoeia, contained within was a formula for composition powder that contained 1oz of powdered bayberry and ½oz of  powdered Ginger, Spruce Fir, Cayenne, Cinnamon and Prickly Ash. There are countless others as well, they all have Bayberry Root Bark, Ginger and Cayenne in common, the herbalists amongst us would be able to give a better opinion of the different formula's and maybe present a Composition Powder for today? I've made Slack's formula up and didn't much like it, I think it was the bitter turmeric that didn't sit right with me.

My thanks go to Kevin Brown for supplying the formula's from Dr's Fox and Skelton and for supplying the information and formula from Hall & Barker.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Old Proprietary Remedies and Curatives: Introduction

By the late-19th to early 20th century, manufactured, patented, brand-named or trademarked remedies began to replace the herbs and 'traditional' remedies in the apothecary shops as those same apothecary shops began to evolve into pharmaceutical chemist's, but that's a whole other post in itself. These over the counter remedies were known in the trade as 'proprietaries' and were accepted by the general public as medicine.

19th century newspapers and magazines were filled with adverts for so many remedies and cures for just about every known ill of man, woman and child including "Curic Wafers" and "Bell's Fairy Cure" which were used to treat headaches, toothache and neuralgia, "Keating's Cough Lozenges" and "Beecham's Cough Pills" for coughs and colds, and "Congreve's Balsamic Elixir" and "Tuberculozyne" which were used for treating consumption.

If a person was suffering from lethargy, had tired blood or any other blood related problems, they would have seen adverts telling them that remedies such as ‘Hood's Compound Extract of Sarsaparilla’ or ‘Harvey's Blood Pills’ would soon have them feeling better. There were countless remedies for “curing” gout and rheumatism such as ‘Gower's Green Pills’, ‘Dr Collie's Ointment’ and the curiously named ‘Genoform Tablets’ which contained nothing more than salicyl-ethylene-glycol and starch which would, when used externally, have provided some pain relief but very little else to cure gout.

People with kidney complaints could choose from such remedies as ‘Warner's 'Safe' Cure’, ‘Veno's Seaweed Tonic’ and a wide variety of kidney pills and tonics like ‘Dr. Var’s American Kidney Pills’ which were soft capsules made from henbane and dandelion extract mixed with wheat flour, powdered squill root (Urginea scilla), a little potassium nitrate and oils of peppermint and juniper.

Even the overweight could find a cure to help them slim down, remedies for fatness included ‘Antipon’ and ‘XL Reducing Pills and Reducing Lotion’ which promised "safe, speedy and efficacious" results. The most curious of this miracle slimming products was a remedy called "Marmola" which ran its advertising campaign with the question "Is Fatness a Social Offence?", the product contained amongst its ingredients powdered thyroid gland, although as yet I haven't been able to discover the source of the thyroid used.

There were patented remedies for baldness, cancer, haemorrhoids, nervousness and “women's complaints”. Those people who suffered from bouts of epilepsy also known as 'the falling sickness' could purchase such remedies as "Ozerine" which was described as "an unfailing remedy for epilepsy", and "Osborne's Mixture", Ozerine turned out to contain potassium bromide which was used as an anticonvulsant, and ammonium carbonate which was a compound added to smelling salts and also used to treat bronchitis and as an emetic, added to those ingredients water of chloroform and the mixture was sweetened with burnt sugar, YUK!

Cures were available for children to, which contained some alarming ingredients ‘Pritchard's Teething and Fever Powders’ for example contained antimony oxide, a chemical used today to prevent textiles and plastics from catching fire, calomel aka mercury chloride which was used to treat yellow fever in the late 18th century and also as a purgative, all mixed together with sugar of milk (Saccharum lactis) used as a carrier for the other ingredients. ‘Fenning's Children's Cooling Powders’ were slightly lighter in ingredients, the worst one was potassium chlorate which if handled incorrectly can spontaneously ignite or explode, which should have been a worry to 20th century mothers as Fenning's powders contained 70% potassium chlorate! Children were also given 'soothing syrups' laden with cocaine, opium or morphine.

If you weren't sure what was wrong with you, then there were the 'elixirs of life' or 'cure alls' such as ‘Dr Martin's Miraclettes’ and ‘Therapion’ which was described as "the most efficacious remedy" for "all discharges". Therapion came in 3 variants No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 and was touted as a liquid remedy which was used in French hospitals to “great success” and was claimed to cure “chronic weakness, lost vigour and vim, kidney and bladder disease, blood poisoning and piles”. The No. 3 variant of this cure all was made from water with glycerine added with traces of alkaloids and calcium glycerophosphate used in the treatment of hypocalcaemia. Herbally speaking this product did actually contain some herbs chiefly powdered liquorice which would have added some sweetness and flavour to counteract the bitterness from the gentian and damiana extracts, the mixture also included camphor, so would have been highly aromatic.

The list could and will go on, as I said above, over time I intend to look at some of the remedies mentioned above more closely as well as a few others, share what they contained and make a comparison with herbal remedies that were available at the time. Although some of these proprietary products are not herbal, from a historical and sociological point of view their stories make interesting reading and can be show us a lot when old herbal remedies are but alongside for comparison, so watch this space as I venture back in time to look at remedies that would have cured and those that would have done no more than make rich men richer.