By Dee Atkinson FNIMH
Herbal Medicine is in my blood. As a child growing up on an organic small holding in 1970s Wales, I easily fell into the rhythm of the seasons.
My parents, latecomers to the back to the land movement, decided that a few acres and self-sufficiency was the key to a good life. The dream might have been hard work, but it was paradise for a child and I watched, entranced, as cough syrups were made alongside our own attempts at butter and cheese making. When my father visited a local herbalist to find a cure for his ulcer I was, as usual, glued to his side, watching everything that was going on. The resulting foul tasting mix of herbs, as well as some wise dietary advice, literally changed his life.
These early years had a lasting impact. Some years later, having already done a degree in Social Sciences, I found myself back at school again, this time studying Herbal Medicine at the Collage of Phytotherapy in Tunbridge Wells. My sister was also passionate about plants and had already decided to become a herbalist and I was following in her footsteps.
Once qualified my sister ended up taking her herbal skills to Canada, via a brief spell in Glasgow, and I was honoured when Jan de Vries asked me to take over the Herbal practice at Napiers in Edinburgh.
The Napier Years
Duncan Napier was an eminent Victorian herbalist and botanist. Born in Edinburgh, he was orphaned at an early age and brought up by the local innkeeper. A baker to trade, he developed a chronic cough from exposure to the flour dust and decided to take matters into his own hands in his search for a remedy. After coming across a book on herbal medicine at a local market stall on Nicolson St, he experimented with the herbal recipes it contained and made a Lobelia Cough Syrup. He vomited each time he took the mixture, but as his wife pointed out, after a few months he was cured. Lobelia is an emetic, and he had got the dose wrong, but the herbs had worked.
Duncan started to make other herbal medicines, trying them out on his friends and family, collecting herbs and plants from Edinburgh and the Borders. He became a member of the Edinburgh Botanical Society and, encouraged by his contemporaries, opened his first herbal shop on Bristo Place, Edinburgh on the 25th of May 1860.
The first shop was not the present premises of Napiers. After 14 years of growing the practice and a growing demand for herbs, it was necessary to find a much bigger space, and in 1874 Duncan moved along the street to the current corner site at 18 Bristo Place.
The shop and clinic at Bristo Place remains open to this day and is now Scotland's oldest remaining herbal house. In the course of time, his sons went into the business with him and it became D. Napier and Sons.
The National Institute of Medical Herbalists, of which Duncan Napier was a founder member, was set up in the middle of the 19th century. This is still the oldest professional organisation for herbal practitioners in the UK, with members of NIMH being recognised worldwide.
When Duncan Napier died at 91, the shop was taken over by his son and the business remained in the family for many years, passing down through the generations. The last family member to carry on the practice was John Napier, but when John died in the late 1970s the business virtually came to a stand still. Duncan Napier's wonderful enterprise, the practice of herbal medicine in the community and the manufacture of his unique formula looked like it was at an end.
The business was rescued by Jan de Vries, who managed to stop the haemorrhage of antiques and formula. Jan held the business stable for some years and eventually in 1988 passed the clinic side of it over to me. At this time the shop mand manufacturing had been rented out and was separated from the clinic. I was newly qualified, ambitious and passionate about plants, medicine and community.
When I took over the practice at Napiers in 1988 I had a vision, I wanted Herbal Medicine to be a viable healthcare option and I wanted to increase public access to, and awareness of, herbal medicine. I wanted to help train herbal practitioners and I wanted us to have herbal clinics and dispensaries 'out there' on the high street, next to Boots the Chemist, reviving our profession and professionalism. In 1990 I managed to negotiate taking over the over the shop. My plan was to rejoining the shop and clinic and rebuild the traditional business of a herbal dispensary.
The Napiers I took over was a sadly rundown business, amounting to a recipe book and a wealth of memories and history. I stared by rewriting the formulas and, slowly, moved onto modernising the manufacturing processes, adding many of my own formula and expanding the business to include a traditional herbal dispensary, herbal and complementary therapy clinics and a mail order service selling Napiers' unique traditional herbal products.
Over the years, I pushed my vision, opening a shop in Glasgow, a second shop in Edinburgh and eventually shops in London and across the UK.
By 2012 with increasing economic pressures it was time for change. I felt that my original vision of a herbal clinic and dispensary was suffering. I wanted to spend more time working with The National Institute of Medical Herbalists, helping to move the profession toward statutory regulation, and to concentrate on my practice.
I left the Napiers brand and mailorder company in the competent hands of my long time friend and businesswoman Monica Wilde, giving me time to concentrate on the clinical practice of herbal medicine.
Traditional Herbal Medicine & my practice
Many of the traditional formulas were multi herb combinations, not the five to six herb blends that I had studied, but 20 to 30 herb blends, complex and interwoven. In some cases only small amounts of each active ingredient would be in the final product. These medicines were a true example of the whole being more than the sum of its individual parts. There was a synergy to the formula which I have always likened to cooking: the blends of spices mixing together in the pan to create a final, delicious dish, the meld of flavours exploding into a single unique taste.
Over the past 20 years of working with these formulae, I have coined the phrase 'The Tonic Prescribing Principle' to try to explain the ideas behind the Napiers blends. I was lucky in having access to all of the historical records and case histories as well as working for two years with someone who had been trained by John Napier.
One of Napiers most famous formulas was The Nerve Debility Tonic. This was a complex mixture for the 'stresses and strains of modern living', for 'when one could just sit down and cry'. To quote from an early text of John Napier, 'The first action is on the nerves of digestion, encouraging blood supply so that food may be properly digested. The nerves to the bowels are restored, easing congestion, and headaches, and blood supply to the muscles in the back and neck, to ease tension'.
It is all too easy to dismiss this explanation as being unscientific and fanciful, but behind the marketing speak of the time were some solid beliefs that had stood the test of clinical practice for over 100 years.
The Tonic Prescribing Principle is a specific way of laying a medicine to ‘tone’ all the body’s organs. If, for example, a patient suffers from nervous anxiety and tension, the remedy was not just to use a single herb, but many, perhaps to help with sleep or to lift mood. In many cases, the physical presentation of anxiety touches several body systems, so we might find a combination of palpitations, headaches, constipation, sleeplessness, shortness of breath or raised blood pressure - in other words, many physical symptoms that are a result of mental anxiety. There could be physical triggers to this, for instance, over work and under exercise are often drivers and, over the centuries, although our lives have been mechanised and improved, the basic stress drivers are often the same.
A tonic prescriber would look at all of the body systems and use herbs to support, tone and nourish these. So, blood supply would be improved, mild laxatives would support the bowels, muscle tension in neck and shoulders would be relieved and acid indigestion calmed. By toning all the body systems the whole body will gently move towards health.
All too often in medicine today we look at a single body ailment in isolation. Tension headaches are relieved by pain killers, leaving the patient constipated and with acid indigestion. The Tonic Prescribers tried to reach all organs with their prescriptions.
Napiers Nerve Debility Tonic contained: Jamaican dogwood, Saw Palmetto, Kola, Damiana, oats, Gentian, Skullcap, Passionflower, Calamba, Black cohosh, Cramp bark, Berberis aquifoluim, Uva ursi, Valerian, Skunk cabbage, Capsicum, Golden seal, dandelion root, lime flowers, lobelia and marsh mallow.
This complex formula, made partly by peculation of powder blends, partly by acid tinctures and partly by alcohol tinctures, is a superb example of the whole being more than the sum of the parts, as mentioned above. The main herbs in the mix are Skullcap and Passionflower which work on mental anxiety and nervous stress. The skullcap was used as a tincture, a peculated fluid extract and in water infusion, the different extraction methods meaning that we had something approaching whole plant extraction.
Continuing to work through the formula, we have Gentian to improve appetite and digestion, Dandelion to keep the bowels regular, Lime flowers to calm palpitations, Black cohosh to balance hormones, Saw palmetto and damiana to, again, regulate hormones as well as supporting the libido, Oats to build up and restore the nervous system and Uva ursi for bladder health.
The thought might be that such small doses of herbs, even when fluid extracts were used, were simply not enough to have an action. But clinic experience shows otherwise. Having used this every day in my practice since 1989, I know that this combination of herbs will support the whole nervous system. It can be used for mild depression, anxiety, work related stress, fear of flying, exam stress, and, in fact, as Mr Napier said in 1860, ‘for the stresses and strains of modern living’.
In practice, I often combine this as an adjunct with other formulas. I may be treating menopause patients who find stress is a major issue, or I may be supporting a cancer patient who is struggling with stress. This formula is right in both situations. The low doses of each individual herb mean that we rarely see side effects, the combination simply tones and supports the system.
These complex formulae were much used by the traditional herbalists of the last century. A successful herbal practice would have built up their repertoire of formula over many years, conversing and exchanging ideas with fellow practitioners. Napiers was no exception and letters track the course of the formulas. Exchanges with American colleagues meant new herbs were added and legislation changes caused changes in formula and name. For example, The Nerve Debility Tonic became The Herbal Tonic and eventually, in 2002, I changed the name to Skullcap, Oat and Passionflower. But, whatever the name, the formula is the same and the amazing Tonic Prescribing Principle, developed by The Napier Herbalists form 1860 onwards, is still being used in my practice today.
If you would like to read more about the history of Napiers, you can purchase the book 'Napiers History of Herbal Healing; Ancient & Modern' by the late Tom Atkinson from our website.