Inspiring innovation from tradition

Paul A. Trout, Deadly Powers. Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-61614-501-9.

As the author puts it, myth-making evolved as a cultural survival strategy for coping with the constant fear of being killed. When language appeared, stories (which had been acted out in the Pleistocene era) were recited, memorized and much later written down as the myths that have survived. "Recent" ancestors mythologized animal predators in 4 basic ways: as monsters, as gods, as benefactors, and as role models. These are all techniques to manage relationships with the natural world, which could probably be transferred to the plant world.

Heins Mehlhorn (ed.), Nature Helps ... How Plants and Other Organisms Contribute to Solve Health  Problems. Heidelberg, Dordrecht, London and New York: Springer, 2011. ISBN: 978-3-642-19381-1.

If human reacted to predators and other elements of the natural world, plants also activated mechanisms of reaction to the aggression present in nature, including wound-healing substances. The collection of essays under the eloquent title Nature Helps aims to highlight the benefits to be obtained from the traditional knowledge of plants and other living creatures (or from new investigations) through a focus on fifteen case studies. We discover how curcumin, for example, acts on parasites, as does also the Neem Tree (Azardirachta indica (L.) Adelb. or A. siamensis Val.). Also, we learn that marine organisms have therapeutic properties for the treatment of human diseases and, to quote just a few examples, how various helminths may be used to treat human autoimmune diseases. Through this collection of essays we open a window on an infinite world of resources that has been forgotten in recent times.

Mahendra Rai, Geoffrey A. Cordell, Jose L. Martinez, Mariela Marinoff, Luca Rastrelli (eds.), Medicinal Plants. Biodiversity and Drugs, Enfield, NH: Science Publishers, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-57808-793-8.

This collection of essays complements that in the volume Nature Helps ... and goes one step further as the opening chapter by Geoffrey Cordell makes it clear: New "Strategies for Traditional Medicine". Research needs to go beyond stating the efficacy of herbal and natural medicines, and to create new ways to integrate traditional data into drug discovery or to translate ancient sapience into new applications. Nevertheless, recording still living traditional knowledge is urgently needed before it disappears, as is also bringing historical traditions to light. The present collection (with almost 700 pages) is a precious sum of information and a useful source of updated material that gives an overview of all the streams contributing to the field of traditional medicines.

Kara Rogers, Out of Nature. Why Drugs from Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8165-2969-8.

This 200-page volume by Kara Rogers, senior editor of biomedical sciences for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is best summarized by the introduction paragraph of its conclusive chapter (p. 168): "Biodiversity conservation requires that we understand the big picture of life on Earth, especially how our actions affect ecosystems, which contain all the living forms that make our existence possible.We, like all the creatures around us, are the products of evolution, born from nature, from generations spent among plants and animals. Our ancestors depended on nature for survival, and so do we, for everything from food to shelter to sustaining global economy."

Mahendra Rai, Deepak Acharya, Jose Luis Rios (eds.), Ethnomedicinal Plants. Revitalization of Traditional Knowledge of Herbs, Enfield, NH: Science Publishers, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-57808-696-2.

Walking in the footstep of the essays collected under the title Medicinal Plants. Biodiversity and Drugs (above), the present series of articles surveys the current state of exploration of traditional knowledge. Starting from the consideration that "there is a pressing need for revitalization of traditional knowledge of the plants used by rural and tribal people", it offers 17 chapters covering ethnomedicine from Mexico to Lebanon, passing through Brazil, West Indies, Costa Rica, Nepal, India, Tunisia, Cameroon, Spain and Norway. The approaches are differentiated and deal with a plant (Woodfordia fruticosa (L.) Kurz), a method for the absorption of plants (smoking), specific pathologies (microbial affections or digestive diseases among others), mechanisms of action (anti-inflammatory action for example), laboratory techniques, inventory of traditional uses (in Tunisia) and conservation strategies. In brief: all the spectrum of scientific activities that compose the field of traditional studies, from inventories to laboratories. The index of plants (binomial designations) adds further value to this insightful collection of essays.

Carole Fisher, Materia Medica of Western Herbs, Nelson, NZ: Vitex Medica, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-473-14811-9.

From the introduction: "This volume is based on the original Materia Medica of Western Herbs for the Southern Hemisphere by Carol Fisher and Gilian Painter and has been expanded and updated to include botanical, scientific, pharmacy and safety information. It is designed for worldwide use and contains detailed monographs of 180 medicinal herbs. There are appendices to help students understand pharmacological and medicinal actions, a glossary listing the known actions of common constituents, a table of interactions and a comprehensive therapeutic index. This textbook is valuable not only for students and practitioners of herbal medicine but is also of use to any health provider who wishes to know more about how and why herbs work and the safety issues related to them."

Faya Causey. Amber and the Ancient World. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-60606-082-7.

Amber has a long history, for sure. More than anything else, however, it is history. Literally. Pieces of history encapsulated in this magic, trans-lucid, honey (or sunny) resin. Faya Causey has traveled across the globe to discover all the aspects of these fascinating repositories of history. In this small elegantly illustrated book, she guides us through a virtual exhibition of past memories of amber.

James P. Mandaville, Bedouin Ethnobotany. Plant Concepts and Uses in a Desert Pastoral World. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-8165-2900-1.

If there should be a model for data collection from a population still living in a traditional way, this thick volume of near 400 pages would be it. The author has spent several years in the country and went around asking people, buying the substances they mentioned, describing them in an almost forensic way, and detailing their uses, knowledge and any other relevant aspect. It is not a dry inventory or dictionary, however, but a lively account that goes beyond a list by reconstructing the concepts beyond uses and thus recreating the world from which the uses are like "emanations".

Jacques Jouanna, Greek Medicine from Hippocrates to Galen, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012. ISBN: 978-90-04-20859-9.

The author is a well-known French historian of Greek classical literature and Hippocratic medicine. A member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, Jouanna published all his work in French only. The present volume is an English translation of 16 of his essays, for the English-speaking world to have an easier access to his production. The accent is on historical, literary and cultural context, with such concepts as disease as an aggression, Hippocrates and the sacred, dietetics, sensation, and also the tradition of Hippocratic medicine in Galen's work, that is, in the second century CE. A general index adds to the value of this collection that will serve as an introduction to Jouanna's oeuvre.

André Fabre, Haschich, chanvre et cannabis; l'éternel retour. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2011. ISBN: 978-2-296-55478-8.

In this brief, yet brilliant pamphlet, the French physician André Fabre evokes all the history of cannabis, which he terms as "eternal comeback". A very refreshing way of looking at the history of medicinal plants and medical traditions.

Ana Leonor Pereira, Joao Rui Pita, Pedro Ricardo Fonseca (eds.), Darwin, Evolution, Evolutionisms. Coimbra: Imprensa de la Universidade de Coimbra, 2011. ISBN: 978-989-26-0137-3.

Joao Rui Pita, A Escola de Farmacia de Coimbra (1902-1911). Coimbra: Imprensa de la Universidade de Coimbra, 2009. ISBN: 978-989-8074-69-0.

The historical university of Coimbra in Portugal has a very active and productive history of pharmacy department led by Prof. Joao Rui Pita. Two of its most recent publications are about evolutionary thinking (the first title above, which is a collection of 25 essays in English on several aspects of Darwinism) and pharmacy (the second title, in Portuguese, by Joao Rui Pita), with a panoramic presentation of the history of pharmacy in Portugal from the 15th century and a special emphasis on the 20th century, particularly a reform introduced in 1902 which moved pharmaceutical education to the university level. The study includes biographies of the first pharmacists which transform this book into a reference work for any future research on 20th-century European pharmacy.

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