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Medical Botany: Plants Affecting Human Health, 2nd ed.
Medical Botany: Plants Affecting Human Health, 2nd ed.

Medical Botany: Plants Affecting Human Health, 2nd ed. Walter H. Lewis and Memory P.F. Elvin-Lewis. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. 812 pp. hardcover. US $95.00. ISBN 0-471-62882-4. Order from ABC.

The first edition of this magnificent book appeared in 1977, and it was immediately accepted as the gold standard for university courses covering medicinal plants. This book, without doubt, has informed many thousands of health care professionals, and its use in the classroom has made a most compelling case for the importance of plants in health care. It certainly has had a major impact on the trajectory of these reviewers’ careers, and it was with great joy that we received the second edition of the book, much updated and richer in its content. The title, Medical Botany, hearkens to a day when all physicians studied the division of botany that dealt with the identification, collection, preparations, and therapeutic administration of medicinal plants. The topic of this book is all the more important today. For example, pharmacy schools are grappling with the requirements of including herbal medicine material so that pharmacy graduates can pass the test questions about herbs and related dietary supplements on the recently revised national licensing examinations. Popular interest in the subject of medical botany is at an all time high, as evidenced by the spectacular growth in the herbal medicine industry over the past 25 years.

This book is authored by the dynamic husband-wife team of Walter H. Lewis, PhD, DSc, Professor Emeritus of Biology and University Research Ethnobotanist at Washington University in St. Louis, and Memory P.F. Elvin-Lewis, Professor of Biomedicine in Microbiology and Ethnobotany, Adjunct Professor of Biology at the same institution. Walter is also Senior Botanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the nation’s largest botanical institutions; Memory specializes in dental microbiology and traditional ethnomedical uses of plants for oral care. The Lewises have been actively involved in ethnobotanical and economic botany research and education for over 40 years. Together and separately they have earned numerous international awards and accolades from their colleagues.

Medical Botany is organized into three parts: Injurious Plants, Remedial Plants, and Psychoactive Plants. Part I: Injurious Plants covers Internal Poisons, Immune System and Cell Modifiers, and Allergies (curious that such plants are considered “injurious”). Part II: Remedial Plants covers various conditions, diseases, and physiological systems: cancer, musculoskeletal system, peripheral nervous system, heart and circulation, etc., plus “Deterrents: Antibiotics, Antiseptics, Pesticides, and Herbicides” and “Panaceas, Adaptogens, and Tonics.” Part III: Psychoactive Plants covers the central nervous system, stimulants, hallucinogens (some would argue that these might belong in the “injurious” category, but such positions are often more politically motivated than scientific), and depressants. Appendix A provides a useful outline of the Classification of Plants; Appendix B contains an extensive Bibliography of Traditional and Herbal Medicine and Ethnobotany (conveniently sub-divided into eight geographical regions plus general references covering more than one area and Ethnobotany in general). There is also a Glossary of terms and an anally retentive 45-page Index in very small type. (A very useful and woefully inadequate feature in many reference and textbooks!)

The 800 plus pages of this book are filled with information that cannot be found elsewhere, at least with the ease that some expect today, which reflects the extraordinary level of scholarship shown by the authors in crafting this work. For example, in the section on oral hygiene, the authors relate that humans have long used “chew sticks” to clean and preserve their teeth; this process was recorded with great precision as early as 7000 years ago by the Babylonians. A fourteen-page table containing the plant species used as chew sticks lists taxa ranging from a twig of Lindera benzoin in the Ozarks of the United States to the pounded petiole of Musa sapientum in Ghana. What distinguishes this book, and makes it much more valuable than the average medicinal plant book, is that a great deal of medical information is given on the anatomy, physiology, and pertinent pathophysiology of the particular condition under discussion. For example, in the section on oral hygiene, the reader is taught about the structure and function of teeth, as well as disease conditions, such as caries, that affect this part of the body. Plus readers gain an understanding of how such conditions develop. Armed with this background, it is much easier to appreciate how the chemical compounds or physical structure of chew sticks results in their efficacy.

The book is rife with graphics: numerous tables, line drawings of chemical structures of key phytochemical constituents of medicinal plants, black-and-white line drawings of various anatomical structures, biochemical and physiological processes, photos of herbs and classic botanical paintings, and an occasional sidebar of interesting information.

The ethnobotanical community, indeed all of us who work with plants and people, owe the authors of this book our gratitude for their dedication to updating this most important resource. The result is the most comprehensive and authoritative textbook on medicinal plants available anywhere.

—Mark Blumenthal and Michael J. Balick, PhD