Physicians look to tribal medicine for treatments, diagnoses

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 | 11:33 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Dr. Christopher Herndon, has a decidedly variant position on tribal healing than many of his Western counterparts: He believes in its future.

During a four-year stint in the Amazon, Herndon and his colleagues studied the Trio tribe's shaman healers in two remote villages in Suriname. They analyzed more than 20,000 patient visits and took note of the exceptional breadth of knowledge the shamans possessed in their methods of diagnoses and treatment.

Herndon emphasized how billions are invested in pharmaceutical research yet the progress is incremental.

“We can learn from other healers,” he said.

Herndon and Dr. Mark Plotkin made the case for herbal medicine in their tag-teamed keynote speech Tuesday night. They opened for a two-day “Symposium on Plants for the Future” that is organized by the Interdisciplinary Plant Group.

The five-session conference will take place at the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center on the MU campus from May 25-26 and include speeches on biofuels, genetic engineering, plants and pharmaceuticals and food sustainability.

Speaking immediately prior to Herndon, Plotkin primed the audience with anecdotes of self-healing, daisy-eating chimpanzees and a historical reference to real “witches” who actually rode broomsticks dipped in hallucinogens to give them the sensation of flight.

“That’s why ethnobotanists don’t have to read science fiction,” he said.

Plotkin, an ethnobotanist who also studies healers in the Amazon, took a more serious tone when he spoke of the global incentive to preserve the rainforests and these shaman traditions. 

Plotkin spoke briefly of the healing powers of many naturally produced ingredients, such as wormwood for malaria, non-addictive painkillers via frogs and a new treatment for diabetes that comes from the gila monster. 

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