Ethnobotanist

The New York Times Magazine has a superb article titled “Could Ancient Remedies Hold the Answer to the Looming Antibiotics Crisis?” Through the story of a researcher at Emory University, the article makes a case for investigating medicinal herbs and plants.

The article describes medicinal uses of plants known to traditional human societies. Amazingly, it even mentions animals that use plants for the same purposes.

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Ethnobotany is the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses.

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As part of my attempt to understand Anandi’s thesis, I am reading a book about science, technology and medicine in British India. The chapter relating to medicine has a description of the Indian Medical Service which was an arm of the British government and of the earliest attempts by the British to understand Indian systems of medicine – the Hindu Ayurveda and the Muslim Unani. Indeed, the earliest medical colleges (founded during the 1820s-1840s, in order to prepare assistants to work under the IMS doctors) taught Western medicine as well as Ayurvedic and Unani medicine. In addition several Indologists took up serious study and translation of Ayurvedic texts.

British doctors were generally cautious and skeptical of these traditional practices, finding them to be less rigorous than western medicine on one hand, and on the other too closely identified with religion. Even so, one report noted that there existed in Sanskrit “many tracts of merit… on the virtues of plants and drugs and on the applications of them in medicine, the knowledge of which might prove beneficial to the European practitioner.”

So, what seems new today — the value proposition of ancient medicine — had been noted almost 200 years ago at the dawn of the encounter between a modern society and a traditional one.

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Anandi’s thesis contains a lot of information about beliefs and practices relating to obstetrics in her time. In writing it, she relied on books published in India (possibly resulting from the studies undertaken by the Indologists and students of the colleges).

The thesis mentions herbs (turmeric, ginger), minerals (iron, zinc), practices that promoted hygiene, and even surgery.

Before reading the NYT article, I had approached Anandi’s thesis as a cultural/historical artifact. Now,  I recognize the thesis as also a trove of ethnobotanical information.

While I try to digest the information contained in the thesis, I will also be pondering this question: what aspects of her hard-won Western medical education impelled her to focus on the ancient knowledge to which she would have had access anyway?

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