Barbara Griggs Tribute

Green Pharmacy - Barbara Griggs

We note with great sadness the passing of Barbara Griggs, author of countless books on herbal medicine, including her pre-eminent work on herbal history, Green Pharmacy. Barely a library exists amongst serious herbalists which is not graced by this erudite work. Although it was written in 1981, there is still no better introduction to the history of herbal medicine, and nor is there ever likely to be. Green Pharmacy had that rare crossover quality of appealing to both a popular audience whilst being “sophisticated enough to be put on reading lists for graduate students.” (Scarborough, 2015).

The Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey famously wrote: “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” That is Barbara Griggs’ gift to the herbal community: to gift us our roots; a narrative; the realisation that we belong to an eclectic and vibrant healing fraternity as old as humanity.

The uniqueness of herbal medicine (historically, philosophically, paradigmatically) was to Barbara something worth preserving, at a time when herbalists were coming under increasing pressure to define themselves as an adjunct therapy to orthodox medicine. She often used wryly-tinged humour within an adroit writing style, which was both thought-provoking and entertaining. Her literary contribution and style were utterly unique, and will be greatly missed.

If you are unfamiliar with Barbara Griggs’ work, I have included a short video she made for the NIMH Talking Heads series. Below that, a typical quote from Green Pharmacy, illustrating her deep passion and unwavering enthusiasm for the mystery of herbal medicine.


Barbara speaking to fellow herbalists on the NIMH Talking Heads project

Below these layers of prejudice and ignorance, there runs a much deeper and more violent objection to the use of herbs which can be summed up in one word: unscientific. In the clean, clinical, mathematically-ordered context of modern medicine, there is no place for the disorderly plant. Western medical students spend years and years learning to be doctors, and painfully cramming their skulls with an endless procession of facts. They are aware that others around them are busily accumulating more facts still, and they believe that striking medical advances will come about as a result. They grow up with an exaggerated respect for facts, figures, graphs and numbers. They are, literally blinded by science. Just as they imagine that those diseases about which the sum of medical knowledge is greatest will be most curable, so also they assume that a standardized chemical medicine whose action has been studied for years, and every one of whose constituents is known, must be the most effective.

For this sin fell the angels. Not surprisingly they find it almost impossible to believe that someone who knows nothing of a disease mechanism could still be capable of curing it, or that a plant whose chemical structure is an unelucidated riddle can be effective medicine. Such assumptions would not be made in the East, but they rise easily in the Western mind, which has become preoccupied with information at the expense of wisdom and experience.

Griggs, Barbara., 1981. Green Pharmacy: A History of Herbal Medicine. Jill Norman & Hobhouse Ltd, London. 

[1] Scarborough, J. (2015). Green Pharmacy: A History of Herbal Medicine. Barbara Griggs. Https://Doi.Org/10.1086/353390, 74(4), 598–599.