Oct 8, 2013

“Wise Women” - their contributions to health and healing

Most medical histories chronicle great discoveries by great men, from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, to Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. Their contributions should not be underestimated, but from ancient times down to the present day, a relatively small number of male physicians have made the great discoveries and ministered to the kings and princes, while an enormous number of women herbalists have taken care of everyone else.

Women healers have gone by many names: midwives, wise women, green women, witches, old wives, and nurses. Most physicians have never taken women's folk healing very seriously, and scientists often dismiss folk wisdom as "old wives' tales."

But the fact is, medically untrained women still provide most of the world's primary care. Even in the United States, most people view physicians as the health-care choice of last resort. The medical profession promotes the idea that family doctors are our "primary providers," but studies show that before people call health professionals, about 90 percent consult a friend or family member, and those "health advisers" are overwhelmingly women.

Not only that, women have always been the primary consumers of health care. Today women account for an estimated two-thirds of all physician visits and three-quarters of all prescriptions. It's no coincidence many herbs were used historically to calm the womb, trigger menstruation, induce abortion, promote or dry up mothers' milk, and treat infant colic and infectious diarrhea (still a leading cause of infant death in the Third World). These were the daily concerns women patients brought to their women healers.


Sometimes medically unschooled women herbalists introduced university-trained physicians to powerful medicines. For example, a woman folk healer introduced a British physician to foxglove for congestive heart failure. Foxglove contains the heart drug digitalis. But by and large, physicians looked down on folk healers as ignorant practitioners of inferior medicine, much the way most doctors view herbal healing today. The fact is, women herbalists have played a key - and largely undocumented - role in medical history. Just as herbs are the forgotten sources of many medicines we use today, the "wise women" represent the forgotten healers whose thousands of years of collective experience taught us how to use them.
Judging by the number of herbs used primarily to treat women, these unsung healers apparently helped create all four of the great herbal traditions. Nevertheless few women are ever mentioned by name in the written history of herbs. (‘The Healing Herbs’, the ultimate guide to the creative power of Nature’s medicine’, by Michael Castleman)