Green Medicine by Margaret B. Kreig

Margaret Kreig - Green MedicineOriginally published in 1964 ‘Green Medicine: The Search for Plants that Heal…’ is written by Margaret B. Kreig. This review is written from the 1st UK hardback edition, 1965. The book explores humanity’s recent botanical investigations in order to discern new sources of medicinal drugs. Kreig was a journalist and science writer and this book was the result of four years research.

While there are elements in this book that foreshadow the ‘natural Vs. synthetic’ drug argument that has been fought between chemists and herbalists over the past few decades, Kreig’s work is notable for understanding them as two lines on a single therapeutic goal. Published in the mid-sixties before the public furore about psychedelics had reached its peak—though there is mention of the concern of Establishment researchers that supplies were ‘leaking’ out to the public and that ‘cultish’ behaviour was starting to appear around them—the primary theme is about new discoveries and potential worth to science and medicine.

The first section is about adventurers or, rather, individuals who have gone in search of plants around the world—whether they be botanists, psychopharmacologists, academics, or pharmaceutical company affiliates. Quests to discover the lost Strophanthus of Africa, and the different countries and companies who sent expeditions, to the famous ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes who spent years in South America studying plants, Kreig looks at the joys, the pitfalls, and the adventures with a particularly informative and well-researched narrative. Indeed, the spirit of discovery and adventure pervades the text.

“While he [Schultes] is vague about the dangers of rapids, hostile Indians, and bouts of disease, he still remembers his depression after he lost all of the material collected in one particularly in accessible area. He had “preserved” it with formaldehyde which was weak or impure, and the specimens had rotted away. Another time, in a canoe mishap, he sustained one of his great losses when a large bundle of plant material for chemical study of a new narcotic, the plant having been described by Richard Spruce and never seen since, floated over a waterfall” (Kreig 1965, 86).

Schultes was an exceptional individual and Kreig’s extensive interview and retelling of just some of his expeditions is highly engaging. But, as a man who was devoted to the plants, he was also acutely aware of the cultural gulf between indigenous people, who often closely guarded their botanical knowledge, and the chemists who sought to exploit this knowledge—for the greater good of health, but also for profit. Schultes was a master of ‘going native’ as it were, and one gets the impression that he very much saw the ‘search for plants that heal’ as a dialogue between Westerners and locals—not simply a pillaging.

Kreig, for her part, joined one Bruce Halstead, director of the World Life Research Institute, on an expedition to South America—he believed that some of her questions were best answered by experience. The chapter that details her journey, When M.D.’s Consult Witch Doctors, reveals much about the changing cultural landscape of indigenous people within the scope of searching for plants that heal. Horror stories about the killing of children and people as recompense for the appearance of disease to the greater tribe, are put against the Christian missionaries who were trying to end this sort of behaviour with the introduction of Jesus and medicine. Early ayahuasca tracts make interesting reading from her journey:

“In addition to trips out of Iquitos into the jungle, we interviewed missionaries, anthropologists, and “civilized” witch doctors who were sophisticated enough to charge for samples of the ayahuasca liquid we had heard about at Neavati.(This was the vision-producing brew used by the witch doctors who condemned the children to death; it was made from the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi, first identified in 1852 by the great English botanist Richard Spruce.)” (Kreig 1965, 130)

Green Medicine sat on the U.S. bestsellers list for some time. Obviously, Burroughs and Ginsberg’s The Yage Letters (1961) had been out for a couple of years, but I was surprised at such a lengthy discussion about ayahuasca. Reading swathes of the current ayahuasca literature, which largely owes its existence to ‘ayahuasca tourism’, one might think that it only became public in the West in the last three decades. What this book nicely reveals is that the mechanisms of the current ayahuasca phenomenon are much older. She quotes Schultes again as saying: “We merely stand on the threshold of our investigation into the botany, ethnology, history, pharmacology, chemistry, and therapeutics of that complex of intoxicants” (Kreig 1965, 131). In many respects, it feels like we are still there.

Kreig also writes a number of short histories of plants and medicines, including ones about Rauwolfia, Mexican yams, Quinine, and foxglove. Each is fascinating and lucidly told, and is a timely reminder that the connection between folk remedy and scientific fact need not be two opposing strands, but rather partners in the investigation of plants that heal. In an interview with the author Aldous Huxley, Kreig is told that it is “frightfully important to take them [plants drugs] in the context of the native rites” (Kreig 1965, 354). In many respects, this sums up the many themes of the books; adventure, co-operation and respect—between cultures, disciplines, and with nature. Overall, a thoroughly engaging read.

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