St John’s Wort – who was the first to use it?

 

Figure 1 Hypericum perforatum or St Johns Wort

 

This is the answer I received to the question on who was the first to use St John’s Wort (SJW) for depression.

 

Introduction

 

It may seem strange but in a discussion on St John’s Wort, I asked the dumb questions “Who was the first use SJW for depression and why? Did they notice their goats were falling off cliffs or jumping around madly?”

The standard answer always with herbs, is somebody went with their intuition. The trouble is there is a big gap between the yellow flowers will make you happy to working out a dose of 300mg of the plant extract taken three times daily will relieve depression.

The Received Answer

 

The answer I received is that SJW came out of research and development in the noble medieval institution, the abbey. The Abbeys of the time were large economic institutions many of whom did train many monks in various specialities including herbal studies. While the abbeys were self-contained institutions some things had be bought from outside mostly for writing and the luxuries that could not be made locally. One of the more seemly goods an Abbey could produce was always pharmaceuticals.

One of the tasks that a young monk would be required to do is to develop a better understanding of a chosen herb. This would end up being the master work of the monk that he would be required to complete before he could leave the abbey and go to work at another place or start a new abbey. The monk would literally try out the herb. There were the occasional lethal failure and in the black book that was kept by the head herbalist monk, a notation was made that herb X was (bad pun) a dead end.

The young monk would normally pick something that was local and not too rare and not known to be lethal. Then he would check the background to this plant and see if there was any known value. Various parts of the plant would be ingested or extracted and the extracts taken. He would normally ask a couple of fellow monks to also take some to see how it affected them. It was explained that the SJW was a useful plant and that it was associated with the green/water or phlegmatic humour. It was used to treat or balance the yellow/fire or choleric humour. Lo and behold one of symptoms of the excess of choleric humour is irritability which happens to be sometimes a symptom of depression.

 

Since the above is an intuited answer to a question, I cannot defend the above answer.

 

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