Guest Blogger: Eleanor Sullivan: Herbalism: Scientific or Sorcery?

29 Jul

Ever wonder what people used to cure old-fashioned ills? Before penicillin?

Plants, that’s what.




Recently, I had the opportunity to meet a practicing herbalist in Minneapolis, a young woman with a quick smile and quicker wit. Lise Wolff opened my eyes to a different health care world. (For those who don’t know, I’m a nurse turned author.)

From pre-historic times to today, herbal remedies have been used to treat human ills. Often they were the only treatments available. Our existence is testament to their effectiveness. Scoffed at by medical men (yes, they were all men), herbalists and their close cousins, homeopaths, nevertheless persisted. What was known as mainstream medicine at that time, however, would be unrecognizable by today’s practitioners. Purging, puking, and bleeding as well as dosing with heavy metals, such as mercury, harmed more often than cured, their unwary patients. (See Medical Care in the 19th Century-Part One and Part Two for more on this era’s archaic practices.)




Herbal Remedies

Herbs can be collected in the wild or cultivated in gardens. Most remedies are derived from the leaves that are harvested at the peak of their effectiveness, but sometimes the stems, roots, or early shoots prove more useful. Leaves may be dried and used in teas or combined with starch or lard for poultices. Plant parts may be soaked in water or oil, and the solutions used in tinctures, decoctions, essential oils, salves, or ointments. I watched Lise melt beeswax and combine it with St. John’s wort solution that she poured into metal cups, left to solidify and use as an ointment to treat burns, sores, and cracked lips.

In the 19th century women, often midwives, treated ill family members and neighbors with herbs, a practice passed down through generations. Realism meets fiction as Adelaide, the protagonist in my Singular Village Mystery series, works as both a midwife and herbalist in 1830s Zoar, Ohio.

Doctrine of Signatures

After famously burning classic medical texts, 16th century German physician Paracelsus declared that plants resembling human body parts could cure ails in that organ, a concept that became known as the doctrine of signatures. Thus, “like treats like.” For example, St. John’s wort doelike shape renders it perfect for treating skin wounds.


Similarly, Samuel Hahneman, a 19th century German physician, agreed that like treated like but took treatments one step further, diluting substances over and over until it appeared that nothing of the original substance remained. These dilute substances, however, proved remarkably effective. The practice became known as homeopathy.

In fact, homeopathy was practiced in 19th century Zoar. Here’s a photo of a medicine box of homeopathic remedies found in Zoar’s historic artifacts.

The medical community today would argue that neither herbal remedies nor homeopathy are scientifically proven to be effective. Regardless, patients dissatisfied with mainstream medicine, often turn to alternative practitioners, such as herbalists. Medical practice is continually evolving as new remedies and treatments emerge and others decline. Might chemotherapy be deemed archaic 200 years from now?

Eleanor Sullivan:

Watch as Adelaide confronts problem illnesses and birthings (along with solving a murder!) in the next Singular Village Mystery: Graven Images, due September 1st!


Graven Images cover.indd


15 responses to “Guest Blogger: Eleanor Sullivan: Herbalism: Scientific or Sorcery?

  1. Sarah Waldock

    July 29, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Hebalism works very well, though I raise an eyebrow at homeopathy. The drawback of herbalism is that unless you [a] know what you are doing and [b] are very careful, it’s very easy to kill someone. As with any drug, conventional or herbal, and even with some food, the lethal dose is in the degree… and it’s very easy for someone not that great at botany to mistake foxglove leaves for comfrey [a neat murder method actually too, as comfrey used to be eaten in salad].

    What astonishes me actually is how often the doctrine of signatures actually turns out to pick the right plant for the job – like pulmonaria, lungwort, so called for the supposed resemblance of the leaves to lungs, which has been shown to be efficacious in lung complaints. It makes one wonder if the effects were known first, and the resemblance to the body part was then sought….


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 29, 2013 at 6:17 pm

      True. The problem with herbs and spices from health food stores, etc. is that they are not scientifically evaluated or approved by anyone–such as the FDA. This means these products can be mixed up in a cat box in someone’s garage and the customer is none the wiser. And you get fiascos like MA Huang every now and then. Stick to tested and approved drugs.


      • Sarah Waldock

        July 29, 2013 at 11:38 pm

        Dr Lyle, that’s not the case in the UK where we have quite rigorous laws. I prefer to grow and prepare what I use in any case.


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        July 30, 2013 at 6:26 am

        My advice–be knowledgeable and be careful.


      • Sarah Waldock

        July 30, 2013 at 6:35 am

        EXCELLENT advice – I’d rather always err on the side of caution.


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        July 30, 2013 at 6:45 am

        Good. There is an old medical adage that says: you get 90% of the effect from 50% of the dose. Much truth in that.


      • Sarah Waldock

        July 30, 2013 at 7:01 am

        … it’s true. My great grandma was given some remedies by gypsies who had used them for generations and they have passed down the family. And I don’t despise the ease of acetate of salycilic acid over the bother of mucking about with willow bark… [I’m allergic to the supposedly safe paracetomol… ] and snacking on honey daily may reduce the histamine response in tree pollen season but no reason to turn down an antihisatmine pill to reduce the misery. Everything in moderation… That reminds me, I need to write to Twinings Tea to tick them off for not putting a warning on their Fennel Tea. Fennel is potentially abortifacient.


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        July 30, 2013 at 7:04 am

        Gypsy remedies—there’s a story there.


      • Sarah Waldock

        July 30, 2013 at 7:17 am

        My great grandfather was the master baker and he and my great gran used to give bread to the gypsies at the end of the day. The one I most recall being dosed with as a child – which I hated – was onion boiled with brown sugar for a cough, which I claim is a remedy you get well from out of self defence. Half a baked onion on earache or to draw poison, honey for any wound, comfrey for wounds, sprains, and to mash up to bind on a break under padding and a splint, things like that, everyday country lore really, sage for a sore throat, or haw and blackcurrent jelly


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        July 30, 2013 at 7:26 am

        Perfect. My Mom would give us a mixture of honey, lemon juice, and paregoric when we got a cold. A teaspoon of that and you’d sleep all night. Paregoric–tincture of opium–will do that.


      • Sarah Waldock

        July 30, 2013 at 7:45 am

        I use sage, lemon, lemon balm and if I feel in need of it a dash of whisky… with oregano or violet leaves for a cough [not being one of the unfortunates who get the runs with violet leaves]. Like I prefer dandelion wine to get rid of fluid retention over dandelion tea… the country name for dandelion is piss-a-beds, well it is an excellent diuretic and if taking if for a water infection as well to keep drinking too to avoid dehydration [and yes, I know the skin elasticity test! that’s an old Gypsy one too, to pinch the back of the hand and see how fast it returns]


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        July 30, 2013 at 7:55 am

        Anything with whiskey has to work. Good stuff. Thanks.


  2. Pat Marinelli

    July 29, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I’m not a medical person but I do know that penicillin came from mold originally and my Mom put tea on my sunburn when I was a kid and it helped take the pain away and heal my skin, so I don’t have anything against herbal remedies. I wonder too what will seem insane 200 years from now, but then I won’t know because I doubt I’ll be there then. Interesting blog today.


  3. Fran Stewart

    July 29, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Homeopathy is well-respected in Great Britain, and has been for years. In the U.S., though, our healthcare practitioners are not that practice (nor do they receive something as basic as a good basis in nutritional training). I wonder if this is because the pharmaceutical industry has such a presence in medical schools.


  4. eleanorsullivan

    August 1, 2013 at 6:57 am

    Very interesting discussion from everyone this week, and I appreciate learning more about the interweaving of herbs and medicine as well as the practices. I didn’t mention this in the post, but my fourth great grandfather was a homeopathic physician in early 1800s Ohio. He’d trained with Hahnemann in Germany before emigrating to the US. The medicine box photo in the post belonged to one of his successors in Zoar, Ohio. One tiny bottle of even more tiny tablets is labeled “opium” about all available to acute pain then, I imagine.
    Thanks for participating!



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