Monday, February 2, 2009

How to Become a Master Herbalist in Thirty Years or More

For those of you who are not subscribed to any of the email herb lists or who have not seen this excerpt yet-

Here is an excerpt from an upcoming article from one of my favorite herbalists Paul Bergner (posted with permission)

How to Become a Master Herbalist in Thirty Years or More
by Paul Bergner

I am convinced that Western medical herbalism is dying in North
America and Britain. If we stop congratulating ourselves for a moment
on the growing numbers of herbalists, or of schools, or of accredited
degrees, or of more interest by scientists in herbs, and look
honestly, we will see it is dying. If we look to a hundred years ago,
the number of herbs in use, and the knowledge of those herbs, by
professional herbalists, they greatly exceeded what we use today. Our
medical herbal forebears mastered more herbs than we do today, and
also knew more about each of them. If, say, an herbalist today, truly
understands about a hundred herbs, and knows 2-3 clinical things about
each of them, we can call that 250 data bits. If our ancestors learned
365 herbs (more on this below), and knew 6-8 things about each, then
that is more than 2500 data bits, and 90% of our herbal knowledge has
gone down the drain.
Much of this loss of knowledge in North America is because the the
collapse of medical level herbal education early in the 20th century.
The loss of direct clinical education has been most devastating.
Another cause is the abandonment by herbalists of their own traditions
in the later 20th century in favor of "scientific" herbalism, as the
trend by herbalists to become defensive and "prove that herbs work"
came to dominate the psychology of the herbal faculties. Herbal
practice has become dominated by The Book rather than by Direct
Clinical Observation, or even by Tasting. A scientific trial of an
herb is like a serial killer. We have, for instance, a wonderful
diffusive and diaphoretic, reliable emmenagogue, mucous membrane
remedy for the stomach and lungs, and occasional remedy for certain
kinds of headaches, in the herb feverfew. These properties can
readily be experienced and confirmed by simply taking some of the herb
and paying attention. But once a clinical trial establishes that
feverfew is "good for migraines" it becomes The Migraine Remedy. Never
mind that feverfew is not all that effective for migraines (it reduced
episodes on average by about 25% in one trial, and for one segment
provided no relief at all), in the absence of direct experience, or of
clinically experienced faculty who know the herb from first hand use,
or even an authenic clinically based text book, the trial "murders"
all the other uses of the herb, and they fall away, lost to posterity
with no one even to mourn at their grave. Now the proud student
adminsters standardized extracts of feverfew to the patient with a
migraine, ignoring such factors as the hot or cold or deficient state
of the patient, or her menstrual patterns, and tells them to take it
every day forever to reduce migraine. Now the weak and exhausted
patient with a red face sweats profusely and her dehydration is
aggravated. The women with normal menses suddenly is flooding, not to
mention the patient with menorrhagia. Because of the scientific trial,
and the devaluation of traditional experience and hands-on experience,
the student is for practically purposes disabled for clinical
practice. The "expert faculty" has become the one who knows all the
clinical trials and plant constituents instead of the one who has
decades of experience taking the herb personally and seeing its
effects directly in clients and students. The epitaph on the tombstone
of medical herbalism will read:

European Phytotherapy
finally was the death of me.
I had three-hundred-

they cut me down to twenty-five.

About those 365 herbs: I have a copy of Physio-Medical Therapeutics,
Materia Medica and Pharmacy by T.J.Lyle. This book was used as the
materia medica text at the Chicago Physiomedical College after its
publication in 1897 until the college closed in 1913. (You can
download an electronic version of this book at David Winston's web
site). The book later formed the basis for sections of the Dominion
Herbal College course written by Dr Herbert Nowell in 1926 and still
available today.. My copy of the book is a reprint from 1932 by the
the National Association of Medical Herbalists in Britain; the copy
appears to have belonged to a student sometime mid-century when it was
used as a text in a pre-clinical therapeutics course at school there.
The student underlined, very carefully, with a fountain pen and a
ruler, the material from the lectures for which he or she would be
responsible on examination. The markings fairly well ruin the resale
value of the book on the rare book market, but offer very valuable
insight into mid-century British herbal education and entry level
knowledge into the profession at that time. The book contains
listings for about 430 herbs in the materia medica section, and about
85% of these are underlined. That comes to 365 herbs this student was
required to learn. (This is, by the way, the same number of herbs in
the oldest Chinese classical materia medica) The underlining itself is
telling, because the student was not responsible for all the material
in the book, but most often for the uses of the herb and the tissues
it affects. And the fingerprints of the teacher in this class are also
evident, because not all the uses were emphasized. It is the mark of
an experienced clinician and experienced clinical educator to be able
emphasize those things that will be most important clinically,
according to his or her experience, from the larger amount that
inevitably appears in books and can overwhelm the entry-level clinical
student. And we also have the fingerprints there of Lyle, who was the
protégé of Physiomedicalist master William Cook for decades, and who
also interviewed many of his contemporary colleagues before completing
his text; and of Cook himself, who practiced and taught diligently for
more than fifty years. Which brings me to the topic of this article.
Drs. Cook, Lyle, Nowell, and the unnamed faculty of the student who
did the underlining in my book were all masters of herbalism. All
studied and practiced with a diligence and rigor and a focus on
hands-on experience which is for the most part lost from contemporary
North American herbal education and practice. they all studied under
masters of herbalism, either directly or indirectly. And without the
reemergence of that level of rigor in study and practice, and that
level of mastery, I think our profession will die.

Paul Bergner
North American Institute of Medical Herbalism
Medical Herbalism Journal


Living A Whole Life said...

I totally agree. I'm relatively new to herbal medicine, but find so many road blocks along the way.

I was a little put off to find that the alternative medicine clinic at the hospital where I work was doing a study on the effectiveness of chamomile by using chamomile tablets. Why not use the whole herb? It's like studying the effectiveness of vegetables by using vegetable crisps.

Anyway, I'm off my soap box. I hope that we can return to where our forefathers were.

Kiva Rose said...

I certainly agree with Paul that more rigor and depth and actual experience is needed in order to avoid losing massive amount of herbal knowledge.

It's kind of ridiculous to me that any actively practicing herbalist would include a plant in their materia medica and only know 2-3 things about/uses of said plant. That's crazy, if they only know that much, they shouldn't be handing it out to other people.

I don't necessarily agree that we need such a huge materia medicas though, I think we often sacrifice intimacy in order to have a broader selection.... and usually by the time you're working with that many plants you're importing them from all over the place. That's not always true, some tribal peoples did have very large materia medicas, depending on their bioregion.

This makes me want to sit down and make a database of every plant I use and what I know about each of those plants.... my primary materia medica has about 50 plants and I probably know ~at least~ a couple dozen things about each of those, but I do wonder how far it extends, hmm. Sounds like a fun diversion :)

Thanks for posting this Angie, sorry about the long rant, I do get a bit wordy at times.

LisaZ said...

Do you know the work of Matthew Wood and Lise Wolff here in Minnesota? They are both working on this issue! Both have websites with their Master's Theses published. Google them...

Mark J said...

Thank you, an interesting article.

I am currently in my third and last year of a Herbal Medicine degree course in England (accredited by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists) and I certainly feel my knowledge of herbs is very limited in the sense that I don't really know the 'personality' of the herbs. I know properties of herbs, such as them being diaphoretic, relaxing nervines etc., but picking which relaxing nervine or diaphoretic to use is quite arbitrary as I don't know the herbs in enough detail. This will be fine to get me through the exams, but I realise I have so much to learn to become any good!

The tutors do give us their experience of using herbs in practice, so it is not as bad as having to base all our undertanding on clinic trials.

One final point though - we couldn't actually learn more in these three years! The majority of the people on the course are struggling with what is. Maybe we are wasting our energy in areas of little worth however.


Kiva Rose said...

I do think that if herbalists were taught energetics as a matter of course, then understanding the plants' personalities and the matchmaking process between plant and person would be every so much easier and more obvious. Much more could be taught and understood in a short time... one would not have to be taught plant by plant, one could learn directly from the plant as needed in many cases.

Mark J said...

I could not agree with you more!

We did have a few classes on herb energetics and a couple of classes on Goethian plant studies. A couple of times we did taste studies on plants too. But that is nowhere near enough!

It would have really helped everything else to hang together better with more direct experience

Growing in the Green said...

What is even worse is the lack of unity and support we should have for each other.

I have heard countless reports of herbal events that did not promote love or community.

This should not be! It makes my heart sad.

But on a happier note, YOU HAD YOUR BABY! congratulations Angie.
I have not had much time to peruse my friends blogs lately.
Thought I'd pop over and say hi and send love and well wishes!

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

Thank you everyone for all of your informative replies! Welcome to the blog Mark! I have some students that are from England (distant learning basic course) they are always asking me about programs and regulations there, I am not sure what direction to point them in- because I am from the US. I agree it takes many years working directly with the plants to really 'know' them!
Kiva, always eloquent and informative! I bet if you did sit down you would have more plants in your data base than you realize! An absolute wealth of knowledge and an inspiration to us all!
Lisa- M wood one of my favorites!
I agree Living! I am not big on capsules- great analogy!
Kristena- thank you so much! I have had little time these days as well! Spring is coming, I am so excited! I am hoping to post more when the plants start to show themselves. I am not sure how much time I will have for reading though- the kids do keep me busy! Thank you so much for stopping by! I always send all of my students over to your blog- they love it!

Mark J said...

Thank you Angie! If you do have questions about programs and regulations here feel free to ask me and I'll see if I know the answers or can find out where the information is.

Alternative Medicine said...

It was really a great post & is very informative for those who'd like to become a herbalist.
Really a great post.

Herbmonk said...

I can agree with Paul, as I am completely convinced that the old Apprentice system is more sufficient to produce good Herbalists than any theoretical Training. Almost all renowned Herbalists in Europe have been Charismatic Healers with no formal Training in Herbalism but taught by Elder Herbalists.

Vanessa said...


I'm currently studying towards a Doctorate Degree in Chiropractic, which believes in the whole health of a person. I have been looking around the internet for some guidance in the area of herbs, as I too, feel strongly that this information is being lost, or not fully understood. I realize this is a lifelong learning process, but would love advice on where to get started. Would you have some reading materials/programs you could suggest?

Thank you in advance.

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

Hi Vanessa, why not start with Paul's classes?
I also have a basic Herbalist 101 course that is on sale now (check my link in the sidebar) said...

Dr. Herbert Knowell was my great great grandfather. My mom still has his original book he wrote with all of his changes in his original handwriting.

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

Amazing, thank you for sharing!