Note: this is a work in process (footnotes need fixing).


The History of Cannabis Use as a Medicine


Part 2


Section 3.  Renaissance Medicine


Following the successful growth of Arabia, China and Japan, Europe began to recover from its sedentery period. Although European scientists and doctors of the Middle Ages made few precious contributions, some were successful alchemists, philosophers and inventors such as Friar Roger Bacon, inventor of the magnifying lens.  It was during the early Renasissance that the printing press was invented and as a result the first herbal, Konrad von Megenberg’s Buch der Natur, was published by Hans Bahmler in Augsburg around 1475.  Soon to follow were numerous herbals of European origin, many of which, due to their northern origins, did not include Cannabis.  Either due to a lack of knowledge and experience on behalf of the writers or a lack of vitality on behalf of farmers in northern Europe, the use of Cannabis was limited to serving as a hemp-source.[19]

By the mid-1500s, Cannabis began to appear in Herbals as “Hempe”.  Popular herbals representative of this era such as John Gerard’s Herball or general history of plants and John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum each contained Cannabis and other “Hempe” plants.  In his Herbal John Gerard discussed what he defined as five different kinds of hemp:[20] “Male or Steele Hemp, Cannabis mas,” the “Femenine, or Female Hemp, Cannabis foemina,” “Wild Hempe, Cannabis Spuria,” “Bastard Hemp Cannabis Spuria altera,” and “Small Bastard Hemp, Cannabis Spuria tertia”.  All five were in fact hemp fiber-producers or capable of such, although only the first two were true Cannabis.  “Male or Steele Hemp, Cannabis mas,” and the “Femenine, or Female Hemp, Cannabis foemina,” are the male and female plants of the same species of Cannabis (due to the definitions then in use, Gerard had the sexes of these plants reversed.)  Of which species of Cannabis Gerard is referring to is uncertain although it is more likely that he was familiar with the European species Cannabis sativa.  Around the same time, herbalist John Parkinson published his first major writing, Paradisi in Sole: Paradisus Terrestris, (A Paradise of Flowers,) but it did not include Cannabis.[21]  Cannabis is found in his second work, Theatrum Botanicum, written only a few years later.[22]

Other Renaiisance herbalists to discuss Cannabis during this time included D’Ale Champs in 1587 who like Gerard also recognised the male and female plants–C. mas and C. femina, and Caspar Bauhin who in 1623 recognised C. sativa and C. erratica.  In years to come, Cannabis sativa came to be the best known Cannabis species in Europe due to the cultivation of it for fiber there.

The following century, Herbalist-Astrologer Nicolas Culpeper published his Herbal entitled The Complete Herbal and Physician Enlarged.[23]  This was an attempt to add astrological information to the herbal.  Culpeper’s herbal suffered in that he added little to the earlier writings by Gerard and Parkinson.  Culpeper’s work at times seems to have been copied directly from many of these earlier writings on herbology.  Still, Culpeper added a new dimension to herbals and numerous other medical texts.  He was the first to provide English translations of many traditional medical works for the common Anglican reader to peruse, an act considered revolting to the medical profession who were trained in Latin and considered their professional readings restricted to only the professionals.

In his herbal, Nicolas Culpeper may have been discussing Cannabis in his section entitled “Hemp” although one cannot be certain of this.[24]  He begins by noting its popularity:  “This is so well known to every country, that I shall not need to write any description of it.”  Evidence against the notion that he was dicussing Cannabis is an illustration given in most versions of this herbal that is clearly of a different plant bearing four-petalled flowers, perhaps a member of the mustard family valued for its seed and or fiber.

Culpeper gives instructions for cultivating and harvesting hemp, noting that it should be “sown in the very end of March, or beginning of April, and is ripe in August or September.”  Being an Astrologer, he noted the growth habits of Hemp stating “It is a plant of Saturn, and good for something else, you see, than to make halters only,” referring of course to an over-popularity for its use as a fiber source.  Like Galen and other practitioners, Culpeper felt “Hemp” worked well as a medicine.  Its resinous nature reminded some of mucousy discharge, bleeding and bloody discharge.  This Doctrine of Signatures led many to use Cannabis for treating problems with the gall bladder and liver, which were felt to be ruled by the black and yellow biles, and for treating blood problem.  Many of these findings described by Culpeper match those of Cannabis given by other writers.

Culpeper reiterates the words of Roman physician Galen who stated the most primitive medical virtues of Cannabis related to “the wind”–then defined as a natural force that effected the body’s healthy state.  Culpeper wrote:  “The Seed of Hemp consumes wind, and by too much use thereof disperses it so much, that it dries up the natural seed for procreation.”  Interestingly this corresponds with a side effect noted in some of today’s professional medical literature claiming that smoking Cannabis can produce temporary male stertility.

Since hemp is “drying” it was used to help treat illnesses related to excess moisture (water and phlegm).  Culpeper recommends it for treating a hot, dry cough by taking its seeds and boiling them in hot, dry milk.   He claims its drying ability to be of further benefit to victims of severe diarrhea or flux and recommends it for “the troublesome humours of the bowels.”  To treat biliary disorders associated with the liver and gall bladder, Culpeper refers to the practice of the Dutch who made an emulsion with the seed; he commended this concoction for its ability to “open obstructions of the gall, and cause digestion of the choler.”[25]

Other uses for Hemp noted by Culpeper include the juice, to be applied as drops to “to kill worms…and draw forth earwigs, or other living creatures gotten into them.”   Root decoctions or teas were made to treat headaches, lower back and hip pains, and “to ease (arthritic) pains of the gout” and “the pains and shrinking of sinews,”   For another curative hemp-recipe, Culpeper notes “Some of the leaves being fried, with the blood of them that bleed…and so given them to eat…to stay bleeding at the mouth, nose, or other places.”  Finally, he recommended an ointment made of the juice of Cannabis mixed with oil and butter for the treatment of burns.[26]

Culpeper’s works would become the standards for many apprenticed physicians in England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  As colonies were being established in the Americas, colonists detached from the direct control of their Mother Country and began to learn their skills in apprentice programs.  These programs often took on ideologies that differed from those of their European couterpart.  The apprenticed apothecarian, physician and surgeon for example learned from atypical texts more often than the more scholarly physicians of England trained in actual university settings.  Some of these medical references for colonial docotrs were the lay-person herbals such as that of Nicolas Culpeper.  Thus we see in American Medicine during the eighteenth century, a medical practice that at times seems quite different, if not more primitive than its European coutnerpart.  When Cannabis became an essential part of colonial life, it served not only as a local or private commodity (its seed and its fiber), but also as a valuable herbal medicine.

Section 4.  Colonial Medicine

In colonial medicine, hempseed was an essential item for every doctor.  In 1770, William Lewis published a text entitled The New Dispensatory in which he summarized many of the beliefs regarding herbal and mineral medicines by traditional European physicians; his work represents a summary of the two major medical dispensatories of that time–the London and Edinburgh Dispensatories.  In his New Dispensatory, Lewis gives a brief but opinionated description of Cannabis extracted from the Edinburgh Dispensatory:[27]

  “CANNABIS semen: Cannabis sativae C.B.  Hemp; the seed [E.]

  This plant, when fresh, has a rank narcotic smell: the water in which the stalks are soaked, in order to facilitate the separation of the tough rind for mechanical uses, is said to be violently poisonous, and to produce its effects almost as soon as drank.  The seeds also have some smell of the herb; their taste is unctuous and sweetish; on expression they yield a considerable quantity of insipid oil; hence they are recommended (boiled in milk, or triturated with water into an emulsion) against coughs, heat of urine, and the like.  They are also said to be useful in incontinence of urine, and for restraining venereal appetites; but experience does not warrant their having any virtues of this kind.”

This entry suggests that by the late 1700s, physicians were well aware of the neuroactive property of Cannabis and avoided use of it for this reason.  They chose the hempseed because it lacked the strength of concoctions formed by boiling the stems and leaves.  New York physician Dr. Cornelius Osborn is one example of these Colonial practitioners.  Following the traditional use for hempseed as a medicine, Dr. Osborn added it to his recipe for treating patients with lung conditions.  In his pocketbook of medical recipes, Dr. Osborn included Hempseed in a preparation he designed to treat patients with a severe condition associated with tuberculosis known as “a Decay State.”[28]  To treat such patients in which there is “a Spiting of Blood,” Osborn recommended:[29]

“Take Aloes and Hempseed, of each, Saffron powdered fine, and make all in(to) a mess with Venice Turpentine and Give 4 pills at night & Two in the morning.”

Like other colonial doctors, Dr. Osborn relied upon hempseed for use as an anti-tussive and astringent to dry up moist, mucousy coughs.  The Aloes in his recipe perhaps served as a cleanser of the mucous from the lung (the Doctrine of Signatures) and/or as a laxative.  The Saffron was phytognomonic for bile (one of the four humours); the Venice Turpentine, essentially the pitch of a larch tree (or other suitable evergreen), probably served as a packing agent used to form the mass into pills by rolling them in the hand.)  Another popular use for Hempseed in Colonial medicine was as an infusion to relieve the patient of pain.

The use of Cannabis as a source for medicine during the Colonial Period remained second to its use as a fiber crop until the turn of the century when another species, Cannabis indica, was introduced to medicine.  The health care writers and practitioners then learned of its more vivifying effect as a mood alterative and “nerve tonic.”  The use of Cannabis as a medicine then underwent drastic change and began to resemble the way it which it was used as a medicine and narcotic in Arabia.


  1. For example, of the nine Incunabula Herbals of Germany dated 1400-1500 (representing over 300 medicines) none contained Cannabis, in spite of Germany’s long history prior to these dates of growing hemp for use as a food and/or fiber producer.  See: Frank J. Anderson.  The Illustrated Bartsch.  German Book Illustration through 1500.   Herbals through 1500. (New York: Abaris Books, 1984)
  2. Ibid.  John Gerard.  p. 708-710.
  3. John Parkinson. Paradisi in Sole: Paradisus Terrestris, (A Paradise of Flowers,)  Originally printed in 1629, (London,) n.p.  (Reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1976).
  4. John Parkinson. Theatrum Botanicum, London, 1640.
  5. Nicolas Culpeper.  The Complete Herbal and Physician Enlarged.  (London: Richard Evans, 1814) p. 91.
  6. Ibid. Culpeper. p. 91.  Note: Other  possibilities for “Hemp” exist including those mentioned by Gerard, in particular the Water Hemp (Acnidia sp.).
  7. Ibid. Culpeper
  8. Ibid. Culpeper.
  9. William Lewis.  The New Dispensatory… (London: J. Nourse, 1770). p. 114-115.
  10. In severe or chronic cases of tuberculosis, patients were often in a very bad state of health in which their lung tissue actually decayed or dissolved to form a thick black fluid that was then spit up along with pus and blood; thus the name given to this syndrome–“Decay.”
  11. Dr. Cornelius Osborn.  August 28, 1768    To   James Osborn   For his Prusiel in Physick a Short Scetch on Disorders Insedent to (the) human body…  (Manuscript owned by the Local History Collection of Adriance Memorial Library, Poughkeepsie, New York.)  (Quoted from “Manuscript with Interpretation” prepared by this author, 1991-1993, p. 16 of Manuscript/Interpretation.)