Pharmacognosy is the actual and historic root of the pharmacy profession.
It is the study of plants and other natural materials which are used to produce3 medicines.
The name is from 2 Greek words, pharmakon-drug and gnosis-knowledge.
An early definition stated that” it is the simultaneous application of various scientific principles with the object of acquiring knowledge of drugs from every point of view”
It involves the cultivation, collection, identification and standardization of plant material and other natural substances to be used to produce medicines.
The earliest pharmacopoeias set the standards and the scientific principles for the identification and extraction of the active constituents to be used in preparing medicines.
The British, United States, European and other pharmacopoeias still set such standards.
The use of plants as medicine is of extreme antiquity. There are records of the cultivation of medicinal plants from at least 7000 B.C. The British Museum has an Assyrian clay tablet which refers to a brown drug “a daughter of the poppy”- obviously opium.
Botany was included in the syllabus in the first year in pharmacy schools and was followed in the next year by a study of pharmacognosy. This equipped pharmacists to recognise and use plant material suitable for the preparation of the large range of extracts, tinctures and other medicinal formulations to the standards of the Pharmacopeias current at the time.
Modern medicines are largely based on scientific research and the production of chemical molecules which are active against a large range of diseases.
There is an increasing interest in the study of the medicinal value of plants and other natural substances. Pharmacognosy departments are established in many universities and significant modern research is contributing to our understanding of the actions of the active constituents of medicines in nature.
The Museum has a collection of over 200 Pharmacognosy specimens and a display of the process used to extract the active alkaloids from the plant material according to the requirements of the British Pharmacopeia. There is also a collection of some 800 examples of plants used by Traditional Healers in South Africa. The library also has a wide selection of Pharmacognosy books.
by Ray Pogir