The Rise of Aloe and the Resurrection of Herbal Medicine in the United States

As mentioned previously, herbal medicine has been practiced worldwide by humanity for tens of thousands of years. But while the world practiced and continues to practice herbal medicine, here in the United States it’s been  a different story.Around 1900, several factors combined to push natural medicine aside in favor of what we call “modern ” medicine.

Primarily the development of evidence-based science, the mass industrialization of drug production, and the  creation of the modern medical education system all conspired to push herbal medicine into the background.

As science advanced, a tendency to discount folkloric herbal cures in favor of fully researched pharmaceuticals began to set in.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, most scientist saw medicine entering a new era of incredible machines and “miracle”  drugs that would replace common folklore with professional science. Scientists argued that synthetic drugs were more effective, targeted and controlled in their effects than plants from the wild. They discounted the “old wives tales”  surrounding plants and herbs and maintained their form of “modern” medicine and drugs were based on science, not magic or myth.

The irony of the situation is that many of our most successful drugs were based on plants; morphine, one of the most potent pain-killers is extracted from the opium plant; digitalis, used in the treatment of heart disease, is derived from the common foxglove.

Secondly with the dawn of the industrialized age, more and more goods were shifted from individual producers to factories. Likewise drug production moved from the  individual druggist at the local apothecary to big, centralized facilities.

As the factory system in the industrialized world expanded exponentially and it’s efficiencies and scale took hold, it created an environment that heavily favored synthesized products because of assembly line manufacturing techniques and handling costs.

Synthetics were easier to handle and process than harvested plants. Moreover, it would be decades before the advanced preservation, processing and extraction techniques required in the production of modern herbal medicines would become available. As more and more synthetic drugs came on line and as a by-product of this industrialization , herbal medicine and natural preparations came to be looked upon with certain disdain.
The third element leading to the decline of natural medicine in the United States was the establishment of an interlinked science-based medical education  system that ensured doctors received consistent training in the various scientific disciplines necessary to the practice of modern medicine.
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In the United States, the medical training system of 1900 was far different than it is today. While their were certainly exceptions such as Baltimore’s John Hopkins University School of Medicine or Boston’s Harvard, most medical schools in the U.S. at the time were actually small trade schools that evolved as an outgrowth of the apprenticeship system that had been in existence for centuries.

Typically, these schools were unaffiliated with colleges or universities, and run as businesses by part-time local doctors whose training was often minimal.

Unlike the apprenticeship system which placed one or two “students” with a doctor for a period of many years where they gradually acquired medical skills through observation and hands-on practice, the lecture-based trade school model allowed production of many doctors in a short period of time. This appealed to businessmen interested more in profits than medicine.

Abraham FlexnerIn 1908, the American educator Abraham Flexner joined the research staff of the Carnegie Foundation where under the direction of Henry Pritchett, the foundations president, he was asked to study medical education in the United States and Canada.

The result came two years later in 1910 with the publishing of the “Flexner Report, a scathing indictment of the state of American medical education.

Prior to publishing the report (also known as  Carnegie Foundation Bulletin Number Four), Flexner visited all 155 medical schools in North America and found that few were sufficiently endowed with adequate staff, curriculum, labs or even qualified students. Admission standards were extremely lax, and in some cases the key to a students admission and successful completion of training was simply paying the tuition bill.

While there were notable exceptions, some schools might consist of only a rented hall with wooden benches where students would listen to a series of lectures presented by local doctors. Rarely would the student directly observe medical procedures or even more rarely still, take part in the actual treatment of patients. Basic diagnostic tools such as stethoscopes, and microscopes were often unavailable. Generally unregulated by government or professional organizations, standards and proven curriculum were virtually non existent.

As these doctor factories flourished and enriched their owners, the United States experienced a surge in the number of doctors, and the term “Quack “ became popular.

But with the publishing of the “Flexner Report” the stage was set for a revolution in medical education that resulted in reforms leading to the closure of two-thirds of the medical schools in the United States.

Criteria was established that mandated academic admissions standards. Medical training was standardized and increased to at least six and preferably eight years of formal post-secondary education (including at least two years of study in a hospital setting). Medical schools were merged into the overall university systems to keep education costs low and maintain professional standards, Training shifted from lecturing to a scientific method and was foundationally based on human physiology, biochemistry and hands on training.

Over 100 years later, the “Flexner Report” is credited with achieving a complete reshaping of American medicine. And while to day today science has far surpassed the medical knowledge of 1900, the general principles of the report are still valid today.

However, Flexner was not known for his support or acceptance of herbal medicine and believed it quackery. Medical schools that emphasized or offered instruction in disciplines such as eclectic medicine and homeopathy, naturopathy were urged to drop those courses or face loss of accreditation.

Within a few decades, these factors combined to create a large scale decline in the training of practitioners of natural medicine and a shift from reliance on natural plant remedies to more profitable synthetic pharmaceuticals.

But starting in the 1960s with the “flower-power” generation and accelerating into the 70s, 80s, and 90s, herbal and alternative medicine began to experience a resurgence in popular interest and use.
This shift in interest from the conventional medicine and manufactured prescription medication to natural medicine may be in part due to a notorious string of incidents beginning in the 1950s surrounding the safety of some prescription medications.
In 1961, in what was called one of the most tragic drug disasters ever, thalidomide was pulled from the market after it was definitely linked to birth defects. Originally prescribed for treatment of insomnia, coughs, colds and headaches, it was also used to combat morning sickness. Thalidomide is believed responsible for 10,000 birth defects in babies born between 1957 and 1961 when it was removed from sale.

In the 1990s the drug combination fenfluramine and phentermine (later known as fen-phen) was hailed as the “miracle” diet drug by manufacturer American Home Products Corp. Then in July of 1997 the Mayo clinic published a paper documenting the significant heart-valve damage in over 30% of study participants who had taken one or both drugs together. In the end AHP was forced to pay 3.75 billion in compensation to users.

In 1999, the FDA approved Merck’s painkiller Vioxx despite studies alleging serious cardiovascular side effects. Over the next four and a half years, 100 million prescriptions for Vioxx were written, until finally in 2004 the company was forced to recall the drug when it was revealed that it doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke. Merck settled lawsuits for an estimated 4.85 billion.

Collectively, cases like this seem to have led to heightened skepticism of manufactures pharmaceuticals and sparked renewed interest in natural solutions to our health problems.

Natural medicine has been studied and practiced for thousands of years. Long before chemists created the first synthesized drugs, natural medicine practitioners were helping people cope with a variety of health issues using natural plants and herbs grown right in the garden. Instead of turning to expensive pills to solve health issues,  many Americans are looking once again to Mother Nature for help in maintaining health- maybe that’s why more and more windowsills are sporting medicinal aloe plants.

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