Indian Medicinal Plants

by Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar | 1918

A comprehensive work on Indian Botany including plant synonyms in various languages, habitat description and uses in traditional medicine, such as Ayurveda....

Introduction, part 4: Modern medicinal works

“The only way to illumine the whole field of native therapeutics,” wrote an intelligent foreigner, “is to survey it in small tracts and sift the value of those drugs peculiar to each province......... There is a wide feeling that there is a beneficence in the scheme of nature which provides in every country suitable remedies on the spot for the ill to which humanity is locally most prone. Very little has been done so far to incorporate in the practice of physicians in the country the medicines which in India nature scatters broadcast from her lap.”

It is necessary to pass in review the principal works which have advanced our knowledge of the subject. In order to do this, we should take into consideration those works which treat of the drugs of the different provinces of this country. In fact, excluding the “Pharmacopoeia of India,” the “Pharmacographica Indica” and Watt’s “Dictionary of the Economic Products of India,” all the works which have made their appearance deal with drugs and medicinal plants of certain provinces only. For obvious reasons this arrangement is a good one.[1]

I have already stated the great stimulus that was given to the study of the subject by the establishment of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Calcutta as till recently the Capital of India possessing one of the finest Botanical gardens in the world afforded great facilities for the study of the subject. Roxburgh, Fleming and Royle were the first to write about the medicinal plants and their uses in the Asiatic Researches and the Journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society. But there was no systematic treatise on the indigenous drugs of Bengal till the publication of O’Shaugh-nessy’s Bengal Dispensatory in 1842. Before the publication of this work, information concerning indigenous drugs was scattered in the journals and transactions of several learned societies, which were not easily accessible to all members of the medical profession. Mr. Louis DaCosta wrote in the Journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society for May, 1837, “it is a desideratum to know how the natives have treated the subject of medicaments—what of good their books contain—what of error. Our medical practice pays, perhaps, too little attention to vegetable remedies, of which the orientals possess an infinite variety, many inert but many active, and many also quite unknown to Europeans.” The Bengal Dispensatory supplied a long-felt want on the subject. This was followed in 1844 by the Bengal Pharmacopoeia. These two works form important landmarks in the literature of indigenous drugs. They were not free from errors. Even the author acknowledged that his multifarious duties prevented him from bestowing that amount of attention on the subject which its importance demanded. But considering the difficulties he had to contend with, the scanty materials which existed on the literature at his time, I think great credit is due to him for his works. He was one of the pioneers in this field of research. And it should not be forgotten that his Pharmacopoeia of Bengal subsequently formed the groundwork of the Pharmacopoeia of India.

The next work on the “Indigenous drugs of Bengal” is that of: Kanay Lai Dey. That gentleman is a well-known authority on the subject. In 1862, for the International Exhibition held in London, he forwarded indigenous drugs chiefly of Bengal. The catalogue of drugs exhibited by him was subsequently published in book-form at the request of the Inspector-General of Civil Hospitals of Bengal. This work was a decided improvement on O’Shaughnessy’s Pharmacopoeia and Dispensatory.

No other work on the indigenous drugs of Bengal deserves any notice. Mr. T. N. Mukerji’s “Catalogue of Amsterdam Exhibition” is a useful one, but it is principally compiled from the above sources.

There is no work treating of the indigenous drugs of Assam, Orissa, or of Behar (excepting Irvine’s short account of the Materia Medica of Patna, published in 1848).. Notices of some of the medicinal plants and indigenous drugs of Assam and Orissa are to be found in the Gazetteer volumes of those provinces.

There have been a host of medical men to work out the medicinal plants and indigenous drugs of Madras. In the early days of the East India Company, Madras, the so-called benighted Presidency of to-day, attracted more scientific and medical men than any other part of India. It was on the Madras side that most of the illustrated works on Indian Botany were prepared. Rheede’s “Hortus Malabarica,” Roxburgh’s “Coromandel Plants,” Wight’s “leones,” Beddome’s “Flora Sylvatica” were all prepared by men who labored in that Presidency. Ainslie’s “Materia Medica of Hindustan” published in 1813, and “Materia Indica” published in 1826, are still works of reference on the indigenous drugs of Madras. Waring was another authority on the Madras indigenous drugs. His labors have been embodied in the Pharmacopoeia of India.

Bidie’s “Paris Exhibition Catalogue of Raw Products of Southern India” is a useful publication on the indigenous drugs of Madras. In the Madras Quarterly and Monthly Journal of Medical Science, there are several papers from his pen on the subject of indigenous drugs.

Moodeen Sheriff will always occupy a prominent place amongst the workers on the subject of indigenous drugs. His Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia of India established his reputation as a pharmaceutist of no mean order. His posthumous work on the “Materia Medica of Madras,” has brought our information on some of the indigenous drugs of that Presidency up to date. It is unfortunate, however, that this work did not receive the last finishing touch of the author.

The indigenous drugs of Bombay, though neglected for a long time, have recently received proper attention. Dalzell and Gibson’s “Bombay Flora,” published in 1861, paved the way to the better study of the subject. Birdwood’s “Vegetable Products of Bombay,” published in 1862, was the first work that gave a systematic account of the Bombay drugs. In the Pharmacopoeia of Iudia published in 1867, the Bombay drugs were not adequately represented. But since then, due principally to the labors of Sakharam Arjun and Dymock, the Bombay drugs have been far better worked out than those of any other part of India. Sakharam Arjun’s “Bombay Drugs” was published in 1879. He was a skilled botanist, being the occupant of the Chair of Botany in the Grant Medical College. This publication was intended to serve as a catalogue of the Indian drugs in the Museum of the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley. Dr. Sakharam Arjun succeeded in correctly identifying some of the bazar drugs and brought to the notice of the profession a good many medicinal plants used by the natives of Bombay.

Dymock’s “Vegetable Materia Medica of Western India” is by far the best work on the indigenous drugs, not only of Bombay, but of India generally. It bears strong testimony to his having patiently worked at the subject for a large number of years. The Pharmacographiea Indica will remain, for many years to come, the standard work of reference on indigenous drugs.

The medicinal plants and drugs of Sind have not yet been properly studied. The only work on the subject is that of Murray on “Plants and Drugs of Sind.” Murray, neither being a medical man nor a skilled botanist, compiled his work from other sources and, as such, the work is of doubtful value as a guide to the plants and drugs of that province.

Our knowledge of the medicinal plants and drugs of the Punjab is also scant and meagre. Honnigberger’s work named “Thirty-five years in the East” was the first one mentioning the Punjab medicinal plants and drugs. Honnigberger was a homoeopathic practitioner and was physician to Ranjit Singh. The work is hardly of any value, and is very seldom referred to now-a-days.

The Punjab Exhibition of 1864 brought for the first time to light the drugs of that province. Mr. Baden Powell described the raw products in his well-known work on the Punjab products. Dr. Burton Brown, the late Principal of the Lahore Medical College, was the reporter on the drugs of the Punjab. As a chemist and a botanist Dr. Brown was well qualified to properly discharge his duties as a reporter. And up to this date, his report is the sole authentic guide to the drugs of that province.

Dr. Stewart, as Forest Officer, in his work on “Punjab Plants,” noticed some of the medicinal plants of that province. He freely acknowledged the great help he derived from Dr. Brown in identifying many medicinal plants. Dr. Stewart’s work is very valuable and, together with Dr. Brown’s Report above referred to, is the only work mentioning some of the medicinal plants of the Punjab.

Of the medicinal plants and drugs of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh we know very little. Mr. Atkinson’s work on the “Economic Products of the North-West Provinces” is the only work treating of the drugs of those provinces.

The medicinal plants and drugs of the Central Provinces and Rajputana have not been properly worked out. it is highly desirable that these provinces should receive, at the hands of botanists and medical men, that amount of attention which they deserve.

Thus it will be seen that, although there are many works on the medicinal plants and drugs of different provinces of India, yet a great deal remains to be done for the drugs and medicinal plants of Cashmere, Beluchistan, Sind, Punjab, United Provinces of Agra andOudh, Behar, Orissa, Assam, Central Provinces and Rajputana. Owing to the publication of the Pharmacographica Indica and Watt's “Dictionary of the Economic Products of India,” there is not the same difficulty now to work out the subject which the early laborers in this field of research experienced For, not only the Flora of British India projected by Hooker has been completed, but Floras of most of the provinces of India have been in recent years prepared by some of the noted Indian botanists. Thus the Bengal Plants by Sir David Prain, the Gangetic Flora describing plants of the United Provinces of Agra & Oudh by Mr. J. F. Duthie, Flora of Bombay by Dr. Theodore Cooke, Flora of the Central Provinces by Mr. Haines, Flora of Madras by Mr. Gamble, Panjab Plants by Colonel Bamber, Flora Simlensis by the late General Collett, Plants of Baluchistan by Mr. Burkill, and Flora of Assam under preparation by Rai Bahadur Upendra Nath Kanjilal, will be of great help to those who are interested in the study of the medicinal plants of this country. Of the Indian States of India, the plants of Kashmir were worked out principally by Jacquemont and Royle; of Nepal by Wallich and recently byMr. J. Hc Burkill; of Bhotan and Sikkim recently by Messrs. Burkill and Smith; of Catch by Revd. Father Blatter; of Mysore in the Gazetteer Volume of that principality; and of Baroda and Kathiawad States by Mr. Jayakrishna Indrajit in Guzerati.

Footnotes and references:


Of the drugs used by the ancient Hindus, the best account in English is the work on Hindu Materia Medica by the late Dr. Udoy Chand Dutt. This work requires re-editing.

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