Natural Medicines – Medicines of Nature

“Natural” Medicine


“Natural”. The word has a good feel to it. Safe.  Peaceful.  Healthy. However, I had a rude awakening recently in learning that “natural” has no legal meaning. Try determining what’s natural about “natural” flavoring and “natural” colorings. Recently, the FDA insisted that a natural product have only 20 % natural material in order to be labeled “natural”. Today even that standard has been relaxed. Like the regulation that says honey can be heated to 160 degrees and still be called “raw”. Hmmm.

What is more natural than vitamin C? Rose hips, bioflavanoids and other additives are important, but buyers should know that 90% of all vitamin C today is supplied by one drug company: Hoffman Laroche. They make it from a chemical industrial reaction with glucose. No matter how you slice it…

Raw versus pasteurized. Whole versus purified. Patent versus non-patented. These are more meaningful definitions than natural. I suggest you buy accordingly.

 More than 95% of all drugs currently used today in America come from derivatives of natural products. Penicillin, Coumadin, Nystatin, Interferon, Steroids… the list is immense. Only 5% of today’s domestic drugs are synthetics. The history of pharmacology is full of wondrous detective tales where scientists follow nature’s clues and are rewarded with a valuable new remedy. On the other hand, tobacco and alcohol are “natural” products too.

According to the FDA and a recent study from Tufts University, today it takes an average of 7 years and $230 million dollars to bring a new drug to market. Imagine that. Small wonder that drug companies need to select not necessarily the best drug, but the most profitable drug in order to recapture the tremendous up”‘front expenditure. They are operating in a market economy and need to make a profit in order to exist.

How does a natural remedy make it to market? Let’s review the case of William Withering, M.D. who plucked a folk remedy out of the meadow and transplanted it onto the druggist’s shelf where it remains today some two hundred years later. The drug is digitalis extracted from digoxin, a toxin from the foxglove plant. This plant-based cardiac medicine is used in the treatment of congestive heart failure (CHF) as well as other cardiac problems. 

Prior to Dr. Withering “discovering” it, digitalis, universally considered “without question the most valuable cardiac drug ever discovered and one of the most valuable drugs in the entire pharmacopoeia” had been used in its herbal form for years by an “old wicca” or witch in the south of England. She used it to cure dropsy in the 1700’s. [Ed. note: “dropsy” is an old term for congestive heart failure because people “dropped” with this heart problem]. Then one day William Withering, visited the old lady, curious to learn her remedy. He writes about the event in his book, An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses  written in 1785. Let’s take a peak at his thought process:

 “In the year 1775, my opinion was asked concerning a family receipt [think: “old wives’ tale”] for the cure of the dropsy. I was told that it had long been kept a secret by an old woman in Shropshire, who had sometimes made cures after the more regular practitioners had failed.”

Dr. Withering goes on do clinical trials with extract of foxglove and become the “midwife” who is credited with “discovering” this supremely important medicine. Not surprisingly, in the process he incurred the scorn and professional jealousy of one Dr. John Coakley Lettsom “who enjoyed the largest and most renumerative cardiac practice in London“. Dr. Withering wrote: “The foxglove extract merits more attention than modern practice has bestowed upon it”. But he eventually prevailed. Today Dr. Withering is credited with introducing digitalis to the practice of medicine and for this progressive act, which has stood the test of time, he was elected as the youngest fellow to the Royal Society. (Apparently those fellows did not want a “witch” in their august company and unfairly, no one gave credit to the old woman who shared her secret with Dr. Withering). But because of his open”‘mindedness and courage to be curious despite the threats upon him by Dr. Lettsom and the medical establishment, untold subsequent lives were saved, human suffering was greatly diminished and the practice of medicine became safer.

So here’s to Dr. Withering who beat the bushes for anything that might prove to be useful. He was curious and made perhaps the most important “house call” in the history of modern medicine when he went to visit the “witch” to see if she could teach him anything.


     Other countries have a much greater respect and curiosity regarding natural products and their populace thereby benefits from less toxic medicines. We lost most of our natural medicinal heritage when we destroyed our indigenous Native American Indian cultures. England, by contrast, has maintained a grand tradition of herbalism (not just in their malt and rye preparations!) and exploration of natural remedies. Perhaps this is because they still listen to their great bard, William Shakespeare, who sets the “natural remedy” tone throughout many of his writings but nowhere so eloquently as in Scene Three of Romeo and Juliet. Let’s listen in on Friar Laurence who is out gathering medicinal plants and musing about their qualities:


The grey”‘eyed morn smiles on the frowning night, 

Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light,

And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels,

From forth the day’s path and Titan’s firey wheels.

Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye,   

The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry,

I must up”‘fill this osier cage of ours      

With baleful weeds and precious juiced flowers.                                

The earth that’s Nature’s mother is her tomb,  

What is her burying grave, that is her womb.

And from her womb, children of diverse kind    

We sucking on her natural bosom find.          

Many for many virtues excellent;   

None but  for some, and yet all different.

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies     

In herbs, plants, stones and their true qualities;

For nought so vile that on the earth does live     

But to the earth some special good doth give.

For nought so good but strained from that  fair use,    

Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.

Virtue, itself, turns to vice being misapplied         

And vice sometimes by action dignified.

Within the infant rind of this small flower     

Poison hath residence and medicine power.

For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part.    

Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.

Two such opposed kings encamp them still.  

In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will

And where the worse is predominant,    

Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

With spring in the air, why not take a stroll during lunch hour and see for yourself what “children of diverse kind” you find suckling on Mother Earth?

 To your “natural” Health,

Bradford S. Weeks, M.D. © 1993

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