Reformers of Plant Medicine


Reformers of Plant Medicine

by Alan Hopking

(NB. This is taken from Alan’s article that was published in Tthe Beacon over two issues, called THE REFORMERS OF PLANT MEDICINE – FOUNDATIONS AND OBJECTIVES: FORERUNNERS)

The use of herbs or plants in the treatment of human dis-ease down the ages has been world wide. Even today herbal medicine can be found in constant use in every country. There is probably nobody in the world who at some time has not taken a herbal remedy in some form. In China, India, Vietnam, Kampuchea, Laos, and many other countries, the use of traditional herbal therapy is part of the standard medical and surgical treatment.

Strangely enough, the modern scientific use of plants or herbs as medicines in England stems from an American tradition. The most influential English herbalists were John Gerard (1597), John Parkinson (1629), Nicholas Culpeper (1649), and later John Skelton. But it was an American called Dr Coffin who brought this reformed herbal approach to England in 1838. Coffin and Skelton gathered all the trained herbalists together into an Association in 1851, and in 1864 it became known as the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. It synthesised the Thomsonian (American) tradition and the English (European) tradition. Today this Institute is the largest and oldest professional organisation of herbal practitioners in existence. In North America, as a result of a synthesis of English and American-Indian traditions plus personal intuition and scientific insight the best remembered herbalists are Samuel Thomson, Wooster Beach, WH Cook, J Thurston, JT Lyle and JH Greer. These are the names which revolutionised the symptomatic approach that medicine had moved into. These names spanned 150 years from about 1750. The technical name of this herbal reformation became known as Physiomedicalism. It based its whole therapeutic science on the understanding of the vital force in the human organism. This was pioneer work which produced no end of conflict for it was the time when materialism was at its zenith. What these intuitive scientists wrote and spoke about concerning the vital force (the etheric energy as we now know it) corroborates exactly with the Vedic teaching and the modern esoteric explanations of Blavatsky, Bailey and others.

Vital Force, Herbs and Man

Let us see very briefly what physiomedical herbalism is all about. Its prime attribute is to understand the human being as a functioning physiological whole. To do this there was a need to comprehend what they called the Vital Force. This has been recently named by science as a body of bio-energetic fields. It underlies the physical and is the medium for life functions in the physiological activities: movement, assimilation and excretion, procreative activity, sense perception, it builds, repairs and maintains the body, it preserves the body from deterioration, and so on.
The next aspect physiomedicalism sought to understand was the action of medicinal herbs – that is to say how herbs affected the vital body of man; this involved understanding the vital-energy accumulation of every herb used. Luckily, centuries of use by herbalists of some hundreds of common medicinal plants which has made this the most comprehensive and complete clinical trial of any medicinal substance, succeeded in making this task very simple.

Physiomedical Vitalism

Right, what does the etheric body, the vehicle for vitality or pranic energy, do from a physiomedical standpoint? The basic action of the vital body is to pulsate; it transmits the power of life. And if we could get to that stage which is moments before pulsation, we’d find that impulse or urge to move. In physiomedical herbalism this is called stimulation, it is the primary action – then comes pulsation. Pulsation in physiomedicalism is the rhythm of contraction and relaxation. You will note here an echo from the Vedic science, which states that all life is threefold (I refer to the 3 gunas; these three gunas in western occultism have been known as Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, and which in Christian terms are recognised as Father, Son and Holy Spirit): Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic. Sattva is the impulse towards rhythm, to stimulation. Tamas is the impulse to inertia, relaxation. Rajas is the impulse towards activity, contraction or astringency. ‘

These three have reference in esoteric herbalism to the three parts of a plant, and the threefold man, viz.

Salt (tamas, matter, Holy Spirit)….. Roots…. CNS… Thinking
Mercury (rajas, love, soul, Son)…… Leaves… CVS… Feeling
Sulphur (sattva, spirit, Father)…… Fruit…. GIT… Willing

This simple formula: RELAX – STIMULATE – ASTRINGE according to T J Lyle ‘represents the three principles of influence pervading the entire science of medicine.’ Herbalists draw this as follows:

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indicating that stimulation (Sattva) is primary whence we can either contract or relax the tissue. (Note. Stimulation may be defined: when the incoming vital energy is strong it stimulates; when it is weak it sedates.)

The objective in therapeutics is to apply a set of principles to the tissue or functional state of the organism in an effort to restore equilibrium throughout the body’s systems between contraction (hypertonia) and relaxation (hypotonia).

Disease – Result of Energy Imbalance

We all know that health is entirely dependant on the what so often is glibly called “energy balance”, what in medical science is called homeostasis. In other words, to maintain the state of health the input of rajasic energy must be offset or balanced by the tamasic energy, with the result of sattvic control – as wonderfully exemplified by the beat of the heart in its systolic and diastolic rhythm. When, however, this rhythmic balance, this pendulum swing, is disturbed for a sufficiently long time or in degree, then the oscillation becomes distorted and illness or disease results. Here we can note that disease is not some insidious entity, an animal that attacks us, but simply a rhythmic malfunction in our organism, an expression of the Vital Force towards corrective adjustment so that health can be restored. Cook stated that, ‘The earliest departure of the tissues from under the full control of the Vital Force will be in the lack of ability either to relax or to contract some of the tissues as readily as in the healthy state.’ Then we get into the situation where the vital energy is flowing too quickly through the centres or too slowly:


Where there is deficient energy flow what do we see in the symptoms presented?
Muscle laxity, flaccidity, atony, constipation, accumulation of urine and inability to void it properly, incontinence, loss of foetus in pregnancy (miscarriage), inadequate labour contractions at birth, overweight, etc.

And if there is superfluous energy, an over-abundance of vital force flowing through the patient, we’ll find:
The loss of the ability to relax muscles at will, muscular rigidity, spasmodic action, colic, dysentery, diarrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, increased production of bile, over-production of urine, more perspiration on the skin, pulse more rigid and excited, elevated sensibility, irritability, at point of tears at all times, etc.

Thus to summarise this physiomedical approach to illness, a person deviates from a healthy constitution as soon as one of two things happen:
1. Energy is permitted (for karmic reasons or due to ignorance – if they’re different) to enter the etheric (from subtler levels) too openly causing over-stimulation (or, as the old herbalists used to call it, the patient was of an astringent constitution).

2.The flow of energy is restricted from entering the organism with sufficient force, causing over-relaxation, and hence a ‘loose etheric’.

Any substance or influence that will pervert or damage the normal vital standard of functional potency in the living matter of cells, must secondarily and proportionally pervert the functional integrity and harmony of the organised tissues and structures. For the vital force itself always and without exception makes the best of depraved conditions of its media – bioplasm. The Vital Force we are to remember is always integrative, resistive and reconstructive…it maintains its integrity of purpose even in diseased conditions. Health is the proper balance and distribution of the four elements of matter: earth/water – the solid part of the body, and air/fire (ethers) – the cause of life and motion in the body. Whereas disease is always as a result of their disarrangement and malalignment. For all disease is caused by obstruction, said the founder of the physiomedical system of herbalism, Samuel Thomson.

And so physiomedical herbalism shows that diagnosis in terms of the primary changes (contraction/relaxation) is immediately pertinent in the selection of appropriate plant medicines.

Disease in Reality

Let us here emphasise what physiomedicalism is saying about disease, I’ll quote from Wooster Beach: “What is termed disease appears in reality to be nothing more than an inherent principle in the system to restore healthy action, or to resist offending causes.” Read this carefully.

“Disease arises from the imperfect application of the conditions which determine health; the effect of that imperfect application is a diminution of the forces upon which life depends” – that was a quote from the English herbalist John Skelton.

As was always reiterated by this group of reformers, the physiomedical herbalist must work holistically and therefore base his treatment around the physiological determinants which will return a patient to normal health – and if this requires him (and it does) to look into the patient’s diet, exercise, emotional and mental life and other factors, as well as a physical examination, as well as involve the patient in his own responsibility towards his health and fitness, before prescribing a herbal remedy tailored for his condition, then this process must be pursued at the first consultation. In this way treatment takes into consideration the whole person.

The prime requisite directing all prescriptions of herbal medicine is that the functional balance and trophic state is restored. Then having assessed as accurately as possible the whole condition of a patient (and at times this can be extremely complex!) the herbal practitioner must formulate a prescription that best suits that person. For just as we clothe ourselves with different garments, some large, others small, some thick, others thin, some decorative to make us feel good, and so on, in the same manner the herbalist makes a remedy. The taste, surprisingly perhaps, is even taken into consideration – especially when treating children and sensitive patients.


But the alignment between the plant as a distinctive force within the human force body and the desired condition must ever guide the practitioner. For this, much training and still more practise was and still is seen to be imperative. Often symptomatic use of herbs brings relief. But when the condition is chronic or systemically acute symptomatic knowledge simply does not suffice.

Medicinal plants are the most evolutionary advanced in the vegetable kingdom. And those in this class which bear beauty and perfume are the aspirants, disciples and initiates of that kingdom. They (the devas who are the plants) enjoy being used by us for the purpose of healing. In the first part of this paper I described how this was achieved. In the latter part I have outlined the method by which the modern herbal practitioner comes to the decision when he selects particular plants to remedy the condition of the consulting patient. In this very act of will, which in fact is spiritual recognition of the highest purpose of a particular plant, the plant species transforms this positive energy of ours into spiritual growth, just as they use our appreciation of them, as when for instance we walk around our garden admiring them, to strengthen their life forces.

I hope that by this explanation of the basis of modern herbal treatment the furtherance of a right orientation towards health is gained.

Studies in Physiomedicalism – by A W Priest
Herbal Medication – by A W Priest & L R Priest
British Herbal Pharmacopoeia