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Ethnopharmacology: Where science and traditional wisdom meet

Written by Tony Harrison

Ethnopharmacology is a branch of science which integrates traditional herbal medicine and modern scientific analysis. This article shares how it has been used to give a deeper understanding of traditional Chinese medicine.

This article was first written for the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine and has been copied with permission.

Outside display with Isatis tinctorum (da qing ye) in flower

The focus of this article is to provide background information to complement the information presented on the public interpretation sign in the new ethnopharmacology display bed within the Bristol Chinese Herb Garden. In particular, it is designed to provide some scientific evidence for statements made on the sign and to present the baseline for additional articles to be posted on the RCHM outreach website. What Is Ethnopharmacology?

There are several definitions depending on your area of work (1). The one I use is: The integrated study of traditional herbal medicine with modern scientific analysis. It is a deceptively simple definition which amalgamates a range of disciplines including botany, pharmacology, anthropology, and cultural medical systems of health and disease. As a recent branch of ethnobotany, it also incorporates the botanical identity, quality and sustainability of wild herb plants through conservation and cultivation. Unlike modern drugs which are standardised to a single chemical ingredient, the quality of a herb is variable as it depends on many factors such as how it is grown and processed.

The aim that lies behind this project is not only to draw together research from traditional herbal medicine and modern science, but to give equal emphasis to both. In this way we can understand the strengths and weakness of each. There is then potential to enter a real dialogue between European and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The integration of these two systems is currently a major part of the modernisation of TCM within China.

After graduating from the University of East Anglia in Biological Sciences I worked as an ecologist. I was drawn to the ecological principles which underlay Chinese medicine. This led to a study of acupuncture at the College of Traditional Acupuncture in Leamington Spa. On graduating in 1981, we opened the Natural Health Clinic as I was interested to work alongside and learn from other therapies.
After 10 years as an acupuncturist, I began to feel I was working with only part of Chinese Medicine and studied Chinese herbal medicine in London at the School of Chinese Herbal Medicine. After another 5 years working with both acupuncture and herbs, I became president of The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) www.rchm.co.uk. My aim at this time was to improve the ecological sustainability and quality of herbal product being given to patients.In 2005, I set up the Approved Suppliers Scheme to audit suppliers for the RCHM to ensure safe delivery of herbal products to patients.
On return I established the Bristol Chinese Herb Garden in 2000 which is located at the University of Bristol Botanic garden. The garden is used for teaching and research into Chinese herbal medicine. It is attempting to combine traditional use with modern science in the field of ethno pharmacology.

Tony Harrison

After graduating from the University of East Anglia in Biological Sciences I worked as an ecologist. I was drawn to the ecological principles which underlay Chinese medicine. This led to a study of acupuncture at the College of Traditional Acupuncture in Leamington Spa. On graduating in 1981, we opened the Natural Health Clinic as I was interested to work alongside and learn from other therapies.
After 10 years as an acupuncturist, I began to feel I was working with only part of Chinese Medicine and studied Chinese herbal medicine in London at the School of Chinese Herbal Medicine. After another 5 years working with both acupuncture and herbs, I became president of The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) www.rchm.co.uk. My aim at this time was to improve the ecological sustainability and quality of herbal product being given to patients.In 2005, I set up the Approved Suppliers Scheme to audit suppliers for the RCHM to ensure safe delivery of herbal products to patients.
On return I established the Bristol Chinese Herb Garden in 2000 which is located at the University of Bristol Botanic garden. The garden is used for teaching and research into Chinese herbal medicine. It is attempting to combine traditional use with modern science in the field of ethno pharmacology.

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