ABC's role connecting therapeutic guides and herbal reviews to the research of medicine and pharmacology in this country has increased each year. By sponsoring and conducting studies and analyses of ginseng products, providing continuing herbal education courses for pharmacists, and serving as a liaison between professionals of the herbal and the pharmaceutical industries, ABC has become a vital link connecting the best of both worlds. That has been ABC's mission throughout the years, to investigate and promote the safe and effective use of medicinal plants, thus increasing the public's knowledge and appreciation of nature's herbal bounty.
Behind every organization, there is not only the vision that leads to its creation, there are also humans who provide the energy and knowledge to physically turn the production wheels. As this issue of HerbalGram (No. 44) marks the beginning of a 10th anniversary, we are beginning a five-part series recording ABC's history for the subscribers and supporters who keep the wheels greased and turning.
In 1974, a young man from E1 Paso, Texas, Mark Blumenthal harnessed his growing interest in herbal plants to founding Sweethardt Herbs. Sweethardt Herbs was a wholesaler and broker of bulk herbs, ginseng, and herbal products. Later the company grew into creating and marketing Hot Cha Cha!, the first natural food salsa, and the Texas bottling rights for the soft drink, Ginseng Rush. Through an ingenious marketing plan for Ginseng Rush, Mark arranged a photo shoot dressed in hip, John Travolta-style Urban Cowboy duds, posed promoting the soft drink, and thus became "Herbal Cowboy," a "handle" (or as we say in the 90's, an "e-mail") he still carries today.
Mark spent many days and many more miles traveling in his van to visit health food store owners with his products. Even at this early date, he was establishing himself as an authority known as "the root doctor" and the "stand-up botanist." But probably most important, Mark was serving as a link in the relatively new world of health foods, herbal products, and alternative health issues in this country. Realizing a need to close the gap between reality and poor information, and to educate the public to medicinal choices that had existed for many years in other countries, Blumenthal began taking the subject of herbs much more seriously.
In 1976 Blumenthal was a founding member and later president of the Herb Trade Association, the first herb industry trade organization. In 1977, he began publishing Herb News, an industry newsletter that eventually evolved into HerbalGram. 1983 saw the founding of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), where he served as a founding board member. Blumenthal also co-founded and served as vice-president of the Herb Research Foundation (HRF). HerbalGram was at that time the newsletter for AHPA and the HRF. The first 17 issues of HerbalGram were in black and white and the first few issues were no more than 8-12 pages, but, as the public demand for more herbal education resources grew, so did the publication.
HerbalGram Managing Editor Barbara Johnston, or BJ as the staff knows her, remembers the early days of the publication. BJ's association with Mark goes back 15 years to the day in 1983 when she met Blumenthal at a herb fest in a parking lot in Austin. They discovered mutual political views and senses of humor. Because she had an early Macintosh computer with 48K memory, and knew how to use it from hours of playing the original "Adventure" computer game, Mark convinced her to create one of the first issues of HerbalGram. She promptly purchased a computer chip that increased the Mac to 64K and added the ability to type capital letters. The issue was then passed through a Daisy Wheel printer which ran a tremendously noisy ribbon-driven printer. BJ then trimmed the copy and handpasted it on a board in preparation for a trip to Kinko's where the 700 or so final issues were copied for mailing. The subscription labels also came from this early Macintosh.
For B J, these early days of desktop publishing were the beginnings of a movement in this country to acquaint the public with more health alternatives. She believes the growth of this movement has directly been encouraged and sustained through the exhaustive efforts and energy level of Blumenthal. As she remembers, "Many nights Mark would pound on my door at 11:30 p.m., rousing me from bed to work on HerbalGram. Amazingly, I always threw on my bathrobe and jumped right in to the job at hand. Mark has always had a passion and determination for compiling reliable, scientific herbal data that could be reviewed on a professional level. And, thus began the vision which led to publication of The Complete German Commission E Monographs -- Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. One hundred years from now it will still be seen as an incredible achievement."
As the herbal industry grew in the U.S. and began facing growing opposition from federal regulatory agencies, Blumenthal saw a need to provide reliable, scientifically sound information about medicinal herbs not only to professionals in health care industries, but also to an increasingly confused public. In 1988, he gathered some of the nation's foremost herbal researchers together and formed the non-profit organization, the American Botanical Council.
Another long-time employee, Margaret Wright, who handles not only circulation and classified advertising for HerbalGram, but also accounts receivable for ABC, records her years with the organization by the age of her twin sons, Travis and Daniel. When Margaret began working with Blumenthal, the boys were six months old. January 1999 will mark 11 years for the twins and her time with ABC.
Margaret originally began doing a bit of everything for ABC from sending out brochures and information for the newly formed organization, to organizing a database of information resources and recording early subscribers for HerbalGram. Actually, most of this work was done in a bedroom/office in Mark's home, running in a circle from the telephone, to a typewriter with a memory bank, to the copy machine, then back to the telephone.
Much of the attention and activity was being generated by an increasing demand for Blumenthal as an editor and writer of herbal research articles, a speaker, and from a weekly radio show airing from New York where he answered or directed inquiries to reliable herbal information sources. Even Margaret's 14-year-old daughter Carrie grew up with ABC, attaching mailing labels to early HerbalGrams, and now working summers opening mail and helping out with general office duties. As Margaret says, "Mark's attitude has always been `Family first.' That attitude, plus the importance of herbal research affecting people's health, has made my work for 11 years a real pleasure."
George Solis, the shipping assistant and overall indispensable office organizer, traces his time with ABC back many years as well. He and Mark met at 3:00 a.m. in an Austin Mobil service station where George handled the all-night shift. When Mark questioned him about his job and his life, George told him he slept in a truck out back and showered with the waterhose. Mark gave him his home address with instructions to show up the next day for work, and 11 years later, George is still with ABC.
George has always had varied roles in the organization from bottling fragrance oils for Sweethardt Herbs (sometimes 80-100 1 oz. bottles by hand), to shipping early issues of HerbalGram from Mark's garage. As he remembers, "Mark always took care of me and made sure I had food in my stomach. It's wonderful to see his dream come true with Case Mill, surrounded by beautiful herbal gardens and professional people. He's been an employer, a friend, and a big brother to me."
"Mark has always been a recognized and respected presence in the herbal industry. I've certainly seen his focus turn over the years to scientific research and to educating the general public," says Janet Brown, Blumenthal's travel agent for more than 15 years and now his personal assistant handling his crowded schedule for speeches, presentations, interviews, and meetings internationally.
"Certainly in the early years his travel plans were less complicated, but now they can be very complex. I can only attribute this activity to Mark's dedication and commitment to making ABC the most informative source for the science of medicinal plants. His focus and integrity to this company have never changed. His loyalty and thoughtfulness are obvious not only to staff, but also to other professionals in the industry."
Cecelia Thompson, financial advisor for the growing ABC group, has been involved with the group officially 10 years in 1999. But many years before its inception in 1988, Cecelia and husband Gary had opened one of the first natural food stores in Dallas, Texas. Those early days saw one or two jars of organic peanut butter and honey on the shelves, surrounded by a few herbal teas and vitamin supplements. Blumenthal would call on them with a van full of bulk herbs and, as they shopped his wares from the vehicle, they would gossip and share tales of the trade. As she recalls, "Mark was always so impressed by the fact that we were his first customers to ever purchase two pounds of goldenseal powder! And we were pretty excited about it too because we actually had enough customers that wanted to buy it." But as she also remembers, it was the beginning of Mark's renown. "Because he spent so much time on the road, meeting and organizing people in the alternative health industry, and real ly researched reliable herbal information for the retailers, Mark was building a foundation that eventually led to the founding of ABC."
Today, as financial manager for ABC, Cecelia has tracked the organization's growth. From the early financial records of 1988, ABC has seen receipt of tax deductible donations and grants for herbal research quadruple. Sales from the extensive Herbal Education Catalog, including early sales of The Complete German Commission E Monographs -- Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines, have increased by more than 75 percent. Readership of HerbalGram has grown to more than 50,000 throughout 71 countries.
These are indications of the growing demand for continuing research, programs, and education to supply health professionals viable scientific evidence of the importance of herbal medicines not only in this country, but internationally as well.
Even with all ABC already has available to offer the public, the organization is still rapidly growing -- answering the public and scientific community's desire for more understanding of botanical medicines and their origins. As some of the senior employees of ABC have expressed in this article, they have witnessed this desire grow tremendously and they have contributed to an organization which is dedicated to responding to these needs. Overall, 10 years has passed quickly.
As BJ, HerbalGram's managing editor commented, "When I think about my association with Mark Blumenthal and ABC, I must say it's been a wild rollercoaster ride, but I'm hanging on to see it continue as far as it can go. Right now there's no end in sight."
(This is the first of a five-part series recording the history of the American Botanical Council and all the programs and projects it supports. This is published in observance of a full year's celebration of the organization's 10th anniversary beginning November 1, 1998.)
Article copyright American Botanical Council.
By Nancy Beckham