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The use of herbs as medicines

Text of talk by Surgeon Commodore Jim Sykes Royal Navy, Medical Officer in Charge, Institute of Naval Medicine, at the opening of the 300th anniversary border on Sunday 4 May 2008. The border marks the 300th anniversary of the building of the Porter's Lodge in 1708.


The use of herbs as medicines dates back to pre-history and was well documented in artefacts from Persian and Egyptian cultures as well as those of China and India.

More recently herbs were used extensively by the ancient Greeks and Romans in their medical practice.

The medieval monasteries of the Middle Ages had monks specialising in the cultivation of plants and herbs for medicinal as well as culinary purposes as readers of Cadfael and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose will know.  And of course folklore and country practices meant that most people had knowledge of herbs and their medicinal properties and used them for domestic remedies.

However when the Porters Lodge was built in 1708 the medicinal use of herbs had been managed under the auspices of Trade Guilds since at least 1180 initially by the Guild of Pepperers.  The Grocers Company was derived from this Guild in 1428 and in1617 the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries was established.  In addition to training apprentices in the art of their trade the Apothecaries had a flourishing retail business selling medicines from their Hall in London until as recently as 1922.  They established the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1673.  It was then conveyed to the Society by Sir Hans Sloan in 1722.  It purpose was for the instruction of apprentices and also the supply of raw materials for the Society’s Elaboratory which had been built to produce medicines for wholesale and public sale, supplying the Navy from 1703 and later the Army, East India Company and Crown Colonies.

At the time the Porters Lodge was established Surgeons were trained as apprentices under the regulation of the Worshipful Company of Barbers and as part of their training were required to receive instruction from an Apothecary.  Following an order of Henry VIII in 1626 all naval surgeons had to be examined by the Worshipful Company before the Admiralty would employ them.  This remained the case until 1800 when the Royal College of Surgeons was founded.

However it was the outcome of the round the world voyage of Admiral George Anson from 1740-44 that exposed the poor state of naval health.  While his voyage was successful in relieving the Spanish of vast treasures Anson lost three quarters of his men to disease, mainly dysentery and scurvy.  This led to a national outcry and a call to improve naval health.  In 1744 the Navy Board petitioned the King for naval hospitals in Portsmouth , Plymouth and Chatham.  This was successful and building at Haslar began in 1746 with the first patients being admitted in 1754.  The first Superintendent of the hospital was James Lind whose seminal work eventually persuaded the Admiralty that scurvy could be prevented by daily doses of lemon juice.  The virtual elimination of scurvy effectively doubled the fighting strength of the navy while its total numbers remained the same.

Returning to the plant theme it is worth noting that it was about this time that the medicinal properties of new plants and plant derivatives were being introduced - such as cinchona bark for the prophylaxis of malaria, and nearer home the use of foxglove for patients with dropsy.  Even today the plant kingdom provides a basis for some 70% of our modern medicines.

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The Porter's Garden in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
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