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A World of Similarity: The Doctrine of Signatures and its application in medicinal plant identification

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Abstract

In 1652, the great English herbalist Nicolas Culpeper wrote that “by the icon or image of every herb man first found out their virtues”. He was expressing a widely held belief - that dated back, at least, to biblical times - in the axiom similia similibus curantur or ‘like cures like’. One of the more intriguing and, lesser-known, outcomes of the great age of discovery was the realisation that European, pre-Columbian, African and Asian Cultures shared this belief. The Doctrine of Signatures (DoS) codified apparent relationships between plant form and medicinal function. For example the resemblance of Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum L.) to the human form was deemed to indicate Mandrake’s worth as a cure-all and fertility aid. However, the highly subjective nature of such interpretations and the risk of what Bennett (2007) calls “post-hoc attribution” led to the DoS’s rejection by organised science and its subsequent role as little more than a historical footnote. Nevertheless, this rather esoteric notion has persisted in different forms within anthroposophic and traditional medical systems. Latterly anthropological studies have re-framed the DoS within the realm of sensory ecology, as practiced by earlier cultures, with some even labelling it as a primarily mnemonic (or memory-aiding) device. Despite potentially harmful examples of its application - including the use of the highly nephrotoxic Aristolochia clematitis L. (birthwort) during child birth - the concept of like cures like has had a profound effect on man’s search for medicines. This poster attempts a historical overview of the topic and presents a number of examples of the DoS as expressed at different times in different cultures – including Euphrasia officinalis L. (eyebright), Panax ginseng C.A.Mey. (Asian ginseng) and Panax quinquefolius L. (American ginseng).
A World of Similarity
The Doctrine of Signatures and its application in medicinal plant identification
Owen Durant MSc BSc AMRSC
REFERENCES: 1 Bennett, B.C., 2007.Doctrine of Signatures : An Explanation of Medicinal Plant Discovery or
Dissemination of Knowledge ?' Economic Botany. 61 (1927) p. 246- 255 2 Court, W.E., 1985. The Doctrine of Signatures or
Similitudes. , Trends in Pharmacological Sciences. 3 Leonti, M., Sticher, O. & Heinrich, M., 2002. Medicinal plants of the
Popoluca, México: organoleptic properties as indigenous selection criteria. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 81(3), pp.307
15. 4 Shepard, G.H. 2004 A Sensory Ecology of Medicinal Plant Therapy in Two Amazonian Societies . American
Anthropologist, 106, 2, pp. 252266 5 Etkin, N.L., 1988. Biobehavioral Approaches in the Anthropological Study of
Indigenous Medicines. Annual Review of Anthropology, 17, pp.2342. 6 Schmidt, R.P., 1982. "Brief Comment on the
Doctrine of Signatures." Literature and Medicine 1.1: 53-54. 7 Horrox, R., Ormrod, W.M., 2006.A Social History of England
1200-1500 Cambridge University Press 8 Winternitz, M., 1898. Folk-medicine in Ancient India. Nature 58, 233235. 9
Leonti, M., 2011. The future is written: impact of scripts on the cognition, selection, knowledge and transmission of
medicinal plant use and its implications for ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 134(3),
pp.54255. 10 Pearce, J.M.S., 2008. The Doctrine of Signatures. European neurology, 60(1), pp.512. 11 Dafni, A. & Lev, E.,
2002. The Doctrine Of Signatures In Present-day Israel 1. , 56(4), pp.328334. 12 Warner, M., 2007. Herbal Plants of Jamaica.
Macmillan Caribbean. Oxford. 13 Ehrman, T.M., Barlow, D.J. & Hylands, P.J., 2007. Phytochemical informatics of
traditional Chinese medicine and therapeutic relevance. Journal of chemical information and modeling, 47(6), pp.231634.
14 Bremner, P., Heinrich, M., 2005. Natural products and their roles as inhibitors of the pro-inflammatory transcription
factor NF-jB. Phy- tochem. Rev. 4, 2737. 15 Lee-Huang, S. et al., 1995. Anti-HIV and anti-tumor activities of recombinant
MAP30 from bitter melon. Gene, 161(2), pp.1516 16 Carlson, A.W., 2013. Ginseng : America s Botanical Drug Connection
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IMAGES:1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paracelsus#mediaviewer/File:Paracelsus.jpg 2) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/Jacob-B%C3%B6hme.jpg 3) http://applebeesatpeartree.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/butterbur-butterdock-pestilence-wort.html
4) http://www.mdidea.com/products/proper/proper00504.html 5) en.wikipedia.org 6) https://www.cbgarden.org/calendar-of-events.aspx?eid=168&ModuleId=285 7) nhm-wien.ac.at/Bilder-A-F/aristolochia-clematitis-1.jpg 8) http://www.chemspider.com/ 9)
http://www.erboristeriasauro.it/images/detailed/3/x124050461549f09927c827a.jpg 10) http://www.chemspider.com/ 11) Court, W.E., 1985. The Doctrine of Signatures or Similitudes. , Trends in Pharmacological Sciences. 12) http://xenolithic.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/mandrake-root.html
13) http://www.popcorncoffee.com/7-benefits-of-turmeric-for-a-flawless-skin/ 14) http://tangcenter.uchicago.edu/herbal_resources/5.shtml 15) https://www.horizonherbs.com/product.asp?specific=696 Background Image:
http://www.proyectosalonhogar.com/Diversos_Temas/Mapa_mundi_2.htm
Middle East/Africa
Some of the earliest references to the
DoS are found in the Old Testament
(Genesis 30:1416). Mandragora
autumnalis - known in
Arabic as ‘Satan’s Apple’ – it is used
as an aphrodisiac and cure for
impotency11, based on a similar
rationale to its European counterpart,
the scopolamine containing
Mandragora officinarum L. (Fig. 11, 12).
North America
Fig. 4
Native Americans discovered the tonic
quality of Panax quinquefolius (American
ginseng) (Fig. 4) from its likeness to the
human form (Schmidt 1982) 6 - its name
coming from the Greek pan akos, meaning
remedy for all. Flower colour features
prominently within Native American
ethnomedicine (Etkin 1988) with yellow
flowering plants favoured for the
treatment of liver diseases and red
flowering plants for the treatment of
blood diseases5.
Europe
Aristolochia clematitis L.
(birthwort) (Fig. 7) - selected for
its supposed resemblance to the
womb and birth canal and used
for the treatment of women in
childbirth has subsequently
been discovered to contain
highly nephrotoxic and
oncogenic aristolochic acid. (Fig.
8)
South America
Shepard (2004) describes the importance of
“visual cues” in the Amazonian Yora
medical system - citing the example of
species from the Gesneriaceae (African
violet) family, whose pink, eye-shaped
leaves are used to treat eye infections, as an
illustration of “sensory ecology”4.
A Universal Belief
In 1652, the great English herbalist Nicolas
Culpeper wrote that “by the icon or image of
every herb man first found out their virtues”.
Fig. 1 Fig. 2 Fig. 3
Left to right: Paracelsus, Boehme, Culpeper - all fervent
proponents of the Doctrine of Signatures.
He was expressing a widely held belief - that
dated back, at least, to biblical times - in the
axiom similia similibus curantur or ‘like cures
like’. One of the more intriguing and, lesser-
known, outcomes of the great age of discovery
was the realisation that European, pre-
Columbian, African and Asian Cultures shared
this belief.
The Doctrine of Signatures (DoS) codified
apparent relationships between plant form and
medicinal function. For example the
resemblance of Mandrake (Mandragora
officinarum L.) to the human form was deemed
to indicate Mandrake’s worth as a cure-all and
fertility aid.
However, the highly subjective nature of such
interpretations and the risk of what Bennett
(2007) calls “post hoc attribution” led to the
DoS’s rejection by organised science and its
subsequent role as little more than a historical
footnote. Nevertheless, this rather esoteric
notion has persisted in different forms within
anthroposophic and traditional medical
systems.
Latterly anthropological studies have re-
framed the DoS within the realm of sensory
ecology, as practiced by earlier cultures, with
some even labelling it as a primarily
mnemonic (or memory aiding) device.
Despite the potentially harmful examples of its
application - including the use of the highly
nephrotoxic Aristolochia clematitis (birthwort)
during child birth - the concept of ‘like cures
like’ has had a profound effect on man’s search
for medicines.
This poster attempts a historical overview and
presents a number of examples of the DoS as
expressed at different times in different
cultures.
With special thanks to: Prof. Dr Michael Heinrich,
Dr Jose Maria Garcia Prieto, Dr Frances Watkins,
Dr Tony Booker.
Euphrasia officinalis L.
(eyebright) (Fig. 9) is
traditionally used for the
treatment of acute
inflammation in
conjunctivitis - based on its
‘resemblance’ to a blood-shot
eye. One of its active
compounds aucubin (Fig. 10)
demonstrates anti-
inflammatory properties as
an inhibitor of NF-κB 14.
Asia
There are numerous occurrences of the DoS
in both Ayuverdic and Traditional Chinese
medicine - the most famous of all being
Panax ginseng C.A.Mey. (Asian ginseng)
(Fig. 14) which for the same reasons as its
North American and Middle Eastern
counterparts is widely used as a tonic and
stimulant ; dan shen (Salvia miltiorrhiza)
(Fig. 15) is frequently prescribed for heart
and circulatory problems and has been
shown to be an anti-coagulant. Turmeric
(Fig. 13) is used widely in Ayuverda as an
anti-hepatoxic and is understood to have
been chosen based on its yellow colour,
linked to jaundice typical of liver disease8.
Signs of Dissent
Throughout the Middle Ages and much of the 16th and 17th centuries the DoS was
accepted as an unchallenged truth. Its advocates included Parcelsus (1493-1541) , viewed
by some as the father of modern medicine who, while rejecting and even burning the
works of Galen and Avicenna2, clung to the DoS unflinchingly. Jakob Boehme -
expressed an extended interpretation in his Signatura Rerum (The Signature of All
Things) which saw the divine signature pervading the entirety of creation; the physician
and alchemist Crollius (c.1560 - 1609) described these signatures as fleeting signs within
the otherwise “occult silence of nature”. The first signs of dissent appeared in Dodoens
(1583) who described the DoS as ”so changeable and uncertain that, it seems absolutely
unworthy of acceptance“. Such views gathered momentum in the climate of scientific
enlightenment, but Agnes Arber (1912) states that belief in the DoS persisted well into
the 19th Century 1.
Conclusion
It could be argued that the DoS is simply a means of illuminating the interface between
symbolism and healing. The fact that symbolism is subjective to culture and time
complicates our interpretation of it, as does its multisensory quality. The DoS nonetheless
appears to reflect the universal immediacy of our ancestors’ relationship to their
environment. Its emphasis on the symbolic aspects of healing might suggest that the DoS
was more than an idiosyncratic way of documenting remedies and, demonstrates a working
knowledge of the placebo effect. Whether the DoS can be proved or disproved is a moot
point, but it is now well understood that medicinal plant selection is not a random process
and that the DoS has exerted a major influence on the plants we have come to regard as
medicinal.
The DoS in the 20th Century
Rudolf Steiner - the father of anthroposophic medicine - accepted a relationship, albeit
more complex than the traditional one - between structure, properties, environment and
healing function, yet without proof the DoS became marginalised. Leonti et al. (2002) state
the DoS “cannot be studied as well as the humoral system in biomedical or bioscientifical
terms”. Consequently, direct research on the DoS has been sparse. Bennett (2007) carried
out a literature survey which sought to record the occurrence of body part names in Latin
names and to correlate these with healing properties1 . Such investigation is fraught with
difficulty but modern science has confirmed the systematic integrity of healing categories
in, e.g., Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)13 which themselves derive from classification
of organoleptic qualities.
Central America/Caribbean
Fig. 5
Momordica charantia L. (cerassee)
(Fig. 5) is one of the most widely
used medicinal plants in the
Caribbean12. Its red seeds denote its
traditional role as a “blood
cleanser”; studies have shown MAP
30 - a plant protein extracted from
M. charantia - disrupts DNA
structure and ribosomal function of
rRNA in target HIV-infected cells15.
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Fig. 11
Fig. 12
Fig. 13
Fig. 14
Fig. 15
... Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM) which are of growing popular interest in the West and are, increasingly, the focus of serious ethno pharmacological studies which demonstrate the integrity of traditional healing categories and the superior reliability of ethnopharmacologically based drug leads . 15,16,17 In the same way that attempts to justify the Doctrine of Signatures have been labelled as examples of post hoc attribution, our evaluation -of a doctrine -rather than of the disparate ideas which it contains could be seen in a similar light; a fundamental misunderstanding clouded by history . ...
Article
Full-text available
Generally viewed as a quaint, if puzzling, relic of the folk medical tradition, the Doctrine of Signatures and wider concepts of 'sympathetic magic' have informed selection patterns of natural medicines the world over. Associations between form and perceived medical value are idiosyncratic and culture specific. Briefly considered here are the factors that led to the development of a Doctrine of Signatures in the western tradition and what lessons it might impart when re-considered as an evolving series of ideas, rather than as a single doctrine.
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