Herbal Remedy

Alternative medicine guru Simon Mills wants apothecaries on every corner. But first, he'll start a training program in Columbia

March 16, 2001|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

COLUMBIA - Simon Mills, a distinguished British authority on herbal medicines, had just given his most exhilarating pitch for the United States' first graduate program in botanical healing when a hand lifted tentatively in the audience.

The young woman looked perplexed. What credential, she wondered, would this new graduate school in Columbia give to legitimize unlicensed practitioners - described through history as apothecaries, phytotherapists, wise women, white Indians, medical herbalists and even snake oil salesmen?

"What will we call ourselves when we're done with the program?" asked 26-year-old Rebecca Rhoads of College Park.

Mills did not hesitate; his eyes twinkled instantly.

"Damn fools," he replied.

Over the years, Mills has earned a reputation as one of the most thoughtful spokesmen in the European theater of the alternative medicine wars. As retired director of the Complementary Medicine Center at England's Exeter University, adviser to the British House of Lords and international proponent for regulation and research in what he calls "the health jungle" of alternative therapies, his credentials are sterling. He has a medical science degree from Cambridge University, has led numerous double-blind studies, logged three decades as a herbal physician and serves on esteemed European scientific councils.

But the strain of being simultaneously among the orthodox leaders in Europe and yet now on the medical fringe in the United States requires a certain forgiving temperament. Unexpected twists of humor help when your practical vision for improving health care in North America strikes some people in the service of traditional medicine as not merely impractical but absurd.

"You can start with the fact that herbalists are crude and simple people," he said, provoking another wave of laughter at last week's gathering of prospective students who came to the Tai Sophia Institute in Columbia to learn about the program. "What we talk about here will not be highfalutin stuff. Herbal medicine does not carry a big backpack. It's light. It's simple."

And yet he and his newly formed faculty do have a weighty goal in mind. Mills has pledged to build a herbal medicine program in Columbia that "will stand up to scrutiny by any hard-nosed scientist." They have set off on a long-term mission that will complement, if not entirely embrace, traditional academic disciplines. The vision is audacious.

"We want to create a new apothecary tradition in this country," he told his audience. "We hope to see herbalists established as part of the primary health care team. We want to re-dignify the profession of the health-care professional behind the pharmacy counter, and make health care again immediately available to people when they enter their neighborhood drugstore. How much more proximate can you get to the public? You walk right in off the street and within 30 seconds you're talking to a health-care professional. That's an apothecary. And we want to pursue that grand vision."

If a new army of apothecaries were to emerge from last week's gathering - Mills will accept no more than 30 students into the first three-year program this fall - it would not surprise the staff at Tai Sophia. The school, once known as the Traditional Acupuncture Institute, has seen acupuncture blend into the mainstream of health care, though not too many years ago the technique was widely regarded as exotic, metaphysical quackery.

Given the explosion of herbal products into an estimated $5 billion industry, it was not unusual to have found among the curiosity-seekers in Mills' audience a bookkeeper from Alexandria, Va., and an investment banker from Owings Mills.

Joining them, swilling bottled water and sipping herbal teas, was also the usual scattering of men with ponytails and women in soft sandals. But everyone seemed less interested in "communing with the plant," as one instructor put it, than with more practical issues of financing tuition costs and nailing down the program's prerequisite courses in anatomy, biology and physiology.

"I've already processed the ideas mentally in terms of what they could mean for health care and what they mean in terms of science," said Mike Graff, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer from Columbia. "I know a lot of scientists are coming around to endorsing what we call alternative therapies. So for me it's really just a question of whether I can afford it."

The idea of creating a new class of professional herbalists in the United States is a direct response to the explosion of unregulated herbal medicine products. Natural remedies such as Echinacea, ginseng, saw palmetto and St. John's Wort have flourished in this country without basic licensing, inspection standards or mandatory testing. Neither consumers nor physicians have adequate knowledge of how herbal medicines should be used or what dangers they might pose, Mills said.

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