The First New World Discoveries

The New World

Defining the first discovery of a New World medicine really depends upon the cultural viewpoint taken to define this method of interpreting American history.  Traditionally, the emphasis has often been on the “initial discovery” of the “New World” by Colon (Christopher Columbus).  However, considerable amounts of historical documents and studies of American history demonstrate earlier discoveries of the American continents, based on historical writings.  The most popular of these histories are the discovery of North America by the Vikings, and the settlement of the eastern edge of Canada and Greenland by 14th century Russian explorers.

Of course, there are earlier periods in American history to which one or more important medical discoveries might be attributed.  But the evidence for these periods in American herbal medicine history are difficult to define as completely as we can the colonial history of the same.  One of the links between this period of non-documented history and the period of documented discovery and history is the oral history of plant medicine in the New World.  In just a few cases, we can actually make some sort of conclusion about New World medical plant migrations and discoveries, the products of New World oral and written history.



Viking Medicine

14th Century Russian Emigrants

Sir Christofer Colon

If we accept for the moment the notion the Christopher Columbus’s voyages were some of the first to result in the documentation of American plant medicines, there are a few plants we can relate to these New World explorations during the late 15th century.  The first natural products discovery is perhaps that of annato, a plant which really did not become much of a medicine, although it had some of the makings for such a use.  A deep to dark red dye is extracted from the annato, noted to be used by natives to color the faces.  Although this annato was brought back to the Old World, it never took on a very important role economically, either as a colorant reminiscent of the alchemical uses of colorful compounds to make medicines, or as an actual herbal medicine to be employed according to its color-defined humoural signature (blood).  It is also possible that, for the time, there was limited need for any new deep red or sanguine herbal medicines due to the ample amounts of other such medicines already available.  The Sanguis Dracaena (Dragon’s blood), found in at least two forms, is a red resin now highly popular that already served the role of sanguinous drugs in many of the proprietary medicine and traditional herbal medicine recipes.   It is not a surprise therefore that for whatever reason, annato along with many other potential plant medicine discovered in and around the Carribean would not be re-discovered and used for at least another century following the early post-Columbus period in New World history.

Further evidence of the limited attention paid to many of the first discovered New World medicines pertain mostly to the history of Central and South American voyages and discoveries.  Occuring a little before the Mid-Atlantic voyages responsible for the settlement of the original 14 colonies (of we include the British-claimed Nova Scotia in this count), these New Spain and on occasion New Portugal and New France voyages managed to document many discoveries, but mostly of foods,  decorative woods, and numerous edible and non-edible botanical curiosities.  Some of the best coverage of these New World medicine appears in a book writting during the latter half of the sixteenth century by Nicolas Monardes.  This book is devoted totally to medicines.

Nicolas Monardes.  As a result of the numerous American voyages partaken by the Spanish during the 15th and 16th centuries, physician Monardes Medico de Seuille was able to develop a series of writings documenting the values of these New World discoveries.  Monardes published his first editions in 1569 and 1571 , followed by a lengthier version published with its woodcut illustrations in 1574, his primary tome on this subject entitled The Newe Founde Worlde.  Primera Y Segunda Y tercera Partes de la Historia  Medicinal de las Cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que siruen en Medicina. . .  A few years later, this book was translated into English by John Frampton; the Anglican Title: Joyfulle Newes out of the Newfounde Worlde . . . .

The contents of Joyfulle Newes . . .   contains descriptions of only about 70 to 75 plants and their medicinal products and parts.   These products included not only New World plants, but also some which early Spanish settlers found in other parts fo the world such as the Ginger of India and the Rhubarb from China.  There was also a descripti0n of a spice comparable to the traditional cinnamon bark of the Old World, and a number of plants of high value to the apothecary and physician, such as Coca leaf, Sarsaparilla bark, Tobacco, Lignum Vitae (“Tree of life”), “an Hearbe of the Sunne” (Sunflower), various types of Peppers,”a fruite which groweth under the ground” (peanut), the “evil tree Guaicon,” Balsam Peruviana, anime, copal, tacamahac, a liquid “ambur”, a source for the “dragon’s blood”, and ambergris.  Over the next few decades, a number of these plants became highly popular, in particualr the coca leaf, tobacco, linum vitae, sarsaparilla, guaiac, balsam peru,  liquidambur, and deep red dragon’s blood resin.

The single most important discovery for an herbal medicine during the 16th century, in terms of its value during the 17th century and its impact on North American and New York history was perhaps the Sassafras (Sassafras albidum).   This plant became one of the most important medicines to the Old World by the end of the 16th century.  According to Monardes, this tree “brought from the Florida” was an Indian medicine first introduced to the French settlers of the area, and communicated from them to the Spanish and finally the English.  One of the more unusual features of this tree is the fact that it bore three types of leaves.  To French Jesuits, this “signature” of the plant was interpreted as a sign of the ‘Fleur de Lis’ used by English Royalty due to its three-lobed leaf, and as a sign of the trinity due to its leaves found in two other forms.    As if this religious interpretation of the plant were not enough, this tree also had numerous medical uses, but mostly as a “beer”  made from its roots, a panacea for all sorts of illnesses.   Over the next century, the importance and benefits of its healing qualities reach a peak both philosophically and economically.   Royalty paved the way for Sassafras to become a “miracle cure.”

It took the recommendations of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603, served as Queen of England and Queen of Ireland 1558-1603) to use Sassafras to treat syphilis that turned this plant into a highly popular and prized American-grown medicine.  Evidence for these strong public desires for the royal cure for syphilis came soon after Columbus returned to Europe in 1493, when he apparently introduced what was then called “the venereal disease” (syphilis) to Europe.   This New World history of syphilis is noted in the writings of Thomas Sydenham, in a letter dayed approximately 1680, and later published as a part of his works edited by John Swan, MD. (The Entire Works of Dr. Thomas Sydenham . . . . London: Printed for E. Cave, at St. John’s Gate, 1753).  In this book  in a letter Sydenham wrote to Dr. Paman, M.D. of St. John’s College in Cambridge in which he stated: “The venereal disease was first brought from the West-Indies into Europe, in the year 1493, for before that time the very name of it, as far as we can collect, was unknown amongst us; whence this disease is generally reputed to be emdemic in those parts of America where we first planted out colonies.”    [In a footnote attached to Sydenham’s comment, Swan note: “it was imported to Naples by the Spanish soldiers, who served under Christopher Columbus, from the West Indies.” (p. 335)].

Explorer and merchant for the Queen, Bartholomew Gosnold, made numerous trips to the Massachusetts area about 1601 to 1603, during which time his primary goal was to find new sources for this valuable medicine more commonly found on New Spain and New France soils.  Several other travellers and entrepreneurs followed suit or accompanied Gosnold in these pursuits during the first years or the 17th century.  It is possible these early merchants even overharvested this plant to some extent, even though it is an adventitious plant commonly found growing in places as a weed in fairly young forests rather than as a part of the local ecology in later years.

New World Products of the 17th Century

One of the most important herbal medicines found in the Central and South American settings was the Peruvian bark popularized by the Countess of Chinchon, vicereine of Peru, in Lima, Peru, during the 1620s,  made popular for its use as a treatment of the unique fever common to this locale (Malaria).  In 1625, another plant known as ipecaya (Ipecac), found on New Portuguese land claims by a friar, drew public attention due to its mention in writing for the first time in Purchas’s Pilgrims.  This early introduction of these two plants had an effect on the discovery and marketing of other herbs in other parts of North America.  Like the spice trade, much of which was under Dutch Control, medicines with special powers and sold by specific countries were often unseen and therefore unidentifiable in their natural form in the wild by explorers from other countries.   It is possible that this is what led to the identification of several North American equivalents the Dutch Spice Industry trade.  The White Cinnamon (Canella winterana) of the Neotropics near Mexico and the Carribean is one such example.  The discovery and popularization of several forms of Dragon’s Blood from several families no less is another example.

Early American Physicians and Local Remedies

Monsieur Pierre Pomet.  A compilation of the histories, folktales and uses for many medicinal plants 0f the 17th century was produced by French author Pierre Pomet in his book A Compleat History of Drugges . .  . (Title Translated from French, 1ed. published 1694). This book in its earliest form contained just the stories of the plants and other natural medicines including Unicorn Horn (actually a Narwhale tusk), cornus cervi (deer antlers), spermaceti, isinglass, squid ink. the oil or scent of a civet cat and the like, as these were best known by Pomet.  A few editions later, this book was increased in size as each of the explanations for each “drugg” increased in length.  This was primarily due to the inclusions of notes and writings made by two other authors popular in the local apothecary and botany writings: Msr. Tournefort and Lemery.  The new title for this book was: A Compleat History of Druggs … to Which is Added What is Further Observable on the Same Subject, from Messrs. Lemery, and Tournefort, Divided into Three Classes, Vegetable, Animal and Mineral; with Their Use in Physick, Chymistry, Pharmacy…. 2 vols. in 1.  (London: R. Bonwicke, etc., 1712).   Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) was an experienced botanist, Nicolas Lemery (1645-1715) an apothecary or early chemist.

Pre-Revolutionary War Medicines

Financially speaking, the single most important North American herb before the Revolutionary War was American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium).  Even though North American and Chinese herbalism does not treat the American species as honorably as each did during the Colonial years, both plants managed to have a significant enough impact to result in their overharvesting well before the Revolutionary War began.   The same was true to some extent for the North American equivalent of the South American Sarsaparilla (Aralia sp. substituted for Smilax officinalis).  During the pre-Revolution years, American substitutes for the South American Ipecac and Quinine were discovered, with one fairly efffective (Euphorbia and Gleditsia for Cephaelis) and the other not at all (Cornus for Cinchona).   The most unique plant medicines North America had to offer the world were of course the legendary Seneca Snakeroot (Polygala senega) and the cardioactive Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa).

Post-Revolutionary War Medicines

American Mandrake or Mayapple (Podophyllin peltatum) is an unknown treasure introduced to American herbal medicine some time around 1800s.  I say unknown treasure because of its very toxic and medically important neolignan called podophyllin.  This compound was unlike any of the lignans or neolignans produced by another other species then in use at the time.  This plant came to be popular for another reason, the tendency for its toxicity to result in the formation of light brown to yellow stools, a result of increase bile release from the gall bladder.  This in turn was interpreted as a medicinal impact upon the liver, leading it to later become a liver tonic, a century before its value as a cancer drug  could be discovered, sometime during the 1920s approximately.

Post-War Native Remedies.  We also find evidence of several Native American or Indian herbal remedies introduced into medicine quite early in Colonial history, making their way finally into the North American Materia Medica during the post-revolution depression years.  During this period in Ameican history, the value of the local cure over the import was its highly expensive nature.  This along with the growing philosophy on health and disease for the time led many patients to begin to develop their own philosophies of disease and how to treat them.  Whereas we often hear about number domestic medical guides so important during this period of time to the average household setting, the most important developments in medicine during these same years had to deal mostly with the various types of efforts both regular and “regular” took on behalf of plant medicines.  It was differences in philosophy that propelled certain professions forward materially and economically when it came to producing medicines.  Regular medicines felt ‘why use a large amount of herbs when just a few grains of a mineral remedy could od the same thing?’  Herbalists countered this with ‘why use a strongly toxic chemical when the medicines of plants were less toxic and equally effective?’

Native American Herbalism.  Defining the first most influential and economically important North American herbal medicine is difficult, if not impossible. There is evidence that even as the Revolutionary war took place, other European nationals not involved in this territorial dispute were already well involved in the exploration of the New World for new medicines. No doubt, certain economic trades continued in spite of the war with the Colonies, such as the fur trade activities in Canada and the attempts being made to explore the west coast and undiscovered parts of the Subarctic regions. In addition, even though Americans were by partaking in their war with the British, some American communities in the former colonies still interacted with Native American groups and communities, some now residing in government defined communal settings.

There are numerous herbs already documented as potential medicines prior to the Revolution. During this war, Thacher added just two important local plants to his list of remedies, a nut-bearing tree with an exceptionally caustic bark (Butternut) and one or more of the local Oak trees with their strongly astringent bark. Immediately following the war, it is possible that any herbs becoming popular before the War were once again popularized and reviewed as potential medicines. The main problems physicians had to deal with during thie post-war time were the significant differences that existed between the Native American philosophy, used to define how Native American plant medicines were used, and the very opposing philosophies believed in by Euro-american physicians. For this reason, there was a brief period of medical thinking in United States medical history that is referred to by some classic medical historians as the “Heroic Period,” during which time, physicians tried to retrace any previous steps taken to determine the efficacy of a local plant medicine and define what theories were valid when it cae to defining how and why these medicines worked.  This review of the local herbs was also engaged in to identify how a particular plant was best to be used, such as in the form of a compress due to its highly toxic irritating nature, as a decoction boiled down along with other plant medicines to form the best medicinal brew, or taken and treated a specific way through distillation, fermentation, or some other form of leftover alchemical practices still being performed by apothecaries and physicians.

It was most important during these earliest years in United States plant medicine history that physicians who planned to use the herbs determine what theories were not valid, which were in need of updating or change, and what theories needed simply to be thrown out and forgotten for the most part.  It was a combination of past Euro-american knowledge and interpretation, and Native American philosophy as its was philosophized to be in European terms, that ultimately led to many of the uses first made of the local plants in the United States, by United States physicians.  Some of the theories or stories we read about in the colonial and early post-colonial writings were very much romanticised, and not always true.  Knowing which of these stories of how a plant medicine was discovered or uncovered  remains an almost impossible goal to reach when reviewing the history of the medicinal plants in the colonies or United States.  Whatever way they discovered the plant, physicians and other discoverers still had to put the potential plant medicine through a flurry of tests with patients.  The hopes were to either find a new cure thereby making them famous, or prove a  particular claims already made was still true in accordance with new traditions.  Either way, the discoverer or reinventor of an herbal medicine in early post-colonial history had the advantage of fitting in with the new scientific, philosophical reasoning. Either way, these discoverer became famous, at least locally, the stories of which can be found in early 19th century physicians’s recounts on these experiences, or as a consequence of the retelling of these stories by local medical leaders and historians.

The First Local Discoveries

The difference between the discovery of a plant and the discovery of its use as a medicine is sometimes hard to distinguish.  In part this is due to the fine line between finding and announcing such a “finding” and defining just when that new plant becomes an actual medicine.  Of course, in most cases the plant is already a medicine or at least of some important use in Native American tradition.  In fact many or most plants documented by New World explorers were ultimately found to have some sort of use, medicine or not, Native American in origins or not.   Adding to this difficulty of defining the dates for discovery and use pertain to prior uses of the same plant or a close relative in other Colonial Euro-american cultural settings.   Taking the use a Snakeroot as an example (primarily Aristolochia spp., found growing in all fo the Americas), the first documentation of this plant use was made during the 16th century South American voyages, but were immediately found to be nearly identical with similar rediscoveries being made of the same plant, different species, seen growing in distinctly different parts of the New World.  For this reason, the early 1700s “discovery” or first mention of Virginia Snakeroot may more properly be interpreted as a continuation of discoveries taking place in some sort of ongoing sub-plot being composed in American plant medicine history.

Putting these prior discoveries aside, there are some North American New World discoveries worth mentioning that do not have a preceding history already documented by earlier voyagers and scribes.  One of the more helpful series of writings to help define these North American-Colonial plant medicine discoveries are the writings published from about 1585 on, when Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyages made the first attempts to make claim to lands in the Mid-Atlantic region.  Preceding the Dutch colonization of the New Netherlands by just a few years, Raleigh’s travels include reports on several plants that were highly important in an economic sense.

Sir Walter Raleigh

The First Post-War Discoveries

During the 1780s and 1790s, there were few American published books or pamphlets on local herbal remedies. By then distinguishing between some of the herbs and their European counterparts or initial sources also made it difficult to determine whether or not a purported local cure was actually local, or simply an escape from past gardens. By now, the plantain and dandelion, and some lilies and irises, were of European origin, a history forgotten by some herbalists using them as remedies. Likewise, the destruction of many east coast wilderness settings since original habitation by the Europeans during the mid 1600s onward, led to changes in many local ecosystems, thereby replacing the Pine forest with the more common deciduous settings with various shrubs prevailing, and the once open-floored forest settings with pastoral fields, many now abandoned for their use if growing hemp, grains and corn.