History as a tool in identifying "new" old drugs

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2002;505:89-94. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4757-5235-9_8.


To trace the history of a natural product and its use, it is necessary to identify to correct plant among around a half-million species. One must also know how and when harvest the plant and the morphology of location and extraction. Within the same species plant chemistry varies, depending upon climatic and soil conditions, stage of maturity and even diurnal factors. To all of these variations must be added the diagnostic ability of physicians and native healers (to distinguish between Hippocratically-trained Western physicians and whose knowledge is less formally taught). Seldom was a disease identified as we Know it today, but the constellations of symptoms described, when studied carefully within the framework historical setting of the culture, can be related to modern medicine. It is essential to study the historical contemporary usage data in the language in which those accounts were writTen. Translators are often philologists who are not sensitive to medical nuances. Modern readers of translated historical documents often are unaware of the precision the authors delivered in describing medical afflictions and their treatments. Natural product drugs are truly products of human knowledge. Because so many modern pharmaceuticals are manufactured synthetically we forget that once either the compound or its affinity had a home in a natural product. Over 2,500 years ago man first used a drug obtained from white willow bark, which was aspirin or acetylsalicylic acid. Today's scientists continue to be bewildered by just what aspirin's mechanisms of action are, discovering new modes of action, and how they relate to medical diagnostics. Whatever the science of aspirin, an intelligent person today takes it just as our ancestors did fo millennia. Throughout time, explanations continue to vary just as purpose of administration do as well. Nevertheless, aspirin is perceived as being beneficial. Historical in-use data can also be a factor in judging a drug's safety, since the records of its use provide observations made by intelligent persons over generations of employment Many historical "drugs" have crossed the line from drug to food. A number of them are now common items on our tables: coffee, tea, sugar, lemon, chocolate, pepper, to name a few The example of coffee affords useful insight. It was first employed as a drug (like tobacco), its botany and chemistry are well known, it has been in widespread use for centuries with diverse ethnic populations in a variety of preparations and amounts consumed. Still we are unsure about coffee's effect on health, the latest assertion being that the caffeine it contains may delay the onset of Alzheimer's. In contrast, the mercury drugs were in widespread use for a long period of time by many populations and that fact indicates that the toxic tolerance in humans is probably higher than as currently proscribed. The past contains important data for the scientific investigator. Like any field of research, historical investigation requires specialized knowledge, but much of that knowledge is readily accessible and employable. Rediscovery through examination of historical contemporaneous use data can be efficient and relatively easy compared to the travails of original research in pursuit of a discovery only to learn later that our ancestors had already made that discovery through trial and error in human usage. If we had started a search from the clues provided by history, presumably our discoveries would have been earlier, and we would have benefitted. As it is. we learn history but not science or else we learn science, not history. Both taken together the learning can be enhanced.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Drug Therapy / history*
  • Herbal Medicine / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • Phytotherapy / history*