In painstaking work, PhD student Sandra Clair is unlocking the large, 400-year-old Materia Medica, a book of collected knowledge about medicinal plants that have influenced western herbal medicine.
The sixteenth-century book, which was written over 36 years at the peak of European plant-based medicine, is the most comprehensive German-language encyclopaedia on plant medicine in the early modern era.
It reflects a quantified approach to epidemiology and experimentally gained medical knowledge by German pharmacist, physician and botanist, Theodorus Jacobus Tabernaemontanus.
3,000 medicinal plants and their preparations
“The author systematically recorded the scholarship of physicians and local healers from antiquity to the early modern era,” said Clair.
“He describes more than 3,000 medicinal plants and their preparations, which represents a much larger therapeutic repertoire than in today’s official international list of medicinal drugs.”
The book’s scientific approach and systematic arrangement of plant monographs, as well as its comprehensive register of herbal therapeutics and ailments in 10 languages, allows a logical way to navigate the complex information, she added.
Wisdom from the book has inspired a number of medical herbalism and modern drug developments, such as pain-relieving morphine and honey wound dressings.
“I have identified a promising Renaissance recipe to treat open injuries. It contains antimicrobial and nerve regenerating ingredients and warrants further investigation. We are not exactly sure yet why the ancient potion is so effective,” said Clair.
An under-researched discipline
According to the student, plant medicine has been a neglected area of medical research, even in spite of the longevity of plant medicine since the dawn of mankind, high rates of self care by patients and the World Health Organisation’s traditional medicine strategy into the effectiveness of traditional plant applications.
“Professionally trained herbal experts are necessary for an interdisciplinary investigation of pre-modern medical text books so that they can be understood for their clinical relevance,” said Clair.
“My research will contribute to new insights and a platform for testing old recipes. It will highlight historic indications of selected plants over several centuries and further compare them with the latest biomedical research in order to validate the rational of traditional practice.”