Echinacea From Native American Panacea to Modern Phytopharmaceutical

Medicinal herbs play an important role in health care throughout the world–especially
in non-industrialized continents such as Africa, South America and parts
of Asia. However, even in many industrialized countries, a number of traditional
herbs are still used by a majority of people for minor to moderate every-day
ailments for self-medication. In Germany, for instance, one can find a rich
assortment of herbal-based extracts in modern blister packs–looking very
much like Dristan–their American pharmaceutical counterpart.

Although many traditional European herbal remedies do not undergo extensive
scientific testing, and are simply popular and still allowed to be sold
by government regulatory agencies, many do have substantial laboratory and
clinical testing. Herbal remedies that fall into this category are being
called phytopharmaceuticals. These preparations are strictly controlled
as to purity and levels of active constituents. Just as OTC products in
the U.S., there are very specific therapeutic claims, dosage guidelines
and contraindications which can and must be made.

A number of the most popular phytopharmaceutical preparations in Europe
contain an American herb by the name of echinacea, or purple Kansas coneflower.
The first commercial European preparation of echinacea was made over 50
years ago by Gerhard Madaus under the name Echinacin. Since then,
this preparation has undergone numerous clinical trials, which has supported
its traditional use by Native American people as a sovereign remedy for
colds, flu and infections.


Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist and physician, gave us the first “modern”
generic name for any of the species of Purple Coneflower, Rudbeckia purpurea
(1753), after Olaf Rudbeck and son, a fellow botanist and physician. This
name was used in the botanical and horticultural literature as late as 1860
and even today, one can occasionally find it.

Echinacea has a few common names in English. This is in contrast
to an herb like Dandelion, which has many. Echinacea was known to
the whites for only 200 years or so, as opposed to centuries for Dandelion.
The most widely encountered common name is Purple Cone-flower, for obvious
reasons–the flowers are purple (except one odd species) and they are crowned
with a prominent cone. One also sees Purple Kansas Cone-flower, Black Sampson,
Red Sunflower, Comb Flower, Cock Up Hat, Missouri Snakeroot and Indian Head
(Lyons 1907). E. purpurea has been popular in American horticulture
as a border plant or as a plant in wild gardens for many years.


As one reviews the many articles written between the middle 1800’s and the
middle 1900’s on the medicine of the Native Americans, one gets a sense
of a wide range in sophistication and skill among the various cultures.
Some authors feel that the Native Americans were abandoned to primitive
rites and magic charms as a way to cure the ails of tribal members, others
that they had a very advanced system of health care based on sound natural
healing methods. Some authors stress incantations, blood-letting, scarifying
and power objects as the main methodology, others, the sweat lodge, fasting,
diet and a complex system of herbal compounding.

It does seem certain that many tribes did have a substantial pharmacopoeia,
and some used herbs and other internal medicines.



CHEYENNE e Col., w Kansas sore mouth, gums, etc. mohk ta

CHOCTAWS s Miss. s Ala. coughs, dyspepsia ? COMANCHE n, ne Tex. toothache,
sore throat ?

CROW Mont., e Wyom. colds, toothache, colic “Like Comb”

DAKOTA (Oglala) S Dakota cool inflammation ichahpe-hu

DAKOTA n Neb., s S. Dak. chahpe-hu —

DELAWARE se N. Y. gonorrhea ?

HIDATSA — stimulant —

KIOWA sw Kan. coughs, sore throat dain-pai-a

MESKWAKI (Fox) se Wis. cure cramps, fits shika’wi

OMAHA e Neb. septic diseases, etc. inshtogahtehe

OMAHA-PONCA ne Neb. eye-wash mika-hi

PAWNE cen. Neb. stalks–children’s game Ksapitahako

SIOUX (Dakota) n Neb. bowels, tonsillitis — S Dakota hydrophobia, sepsis

WINNEBAGO e Wis. anesthetic against heat ?

Early American Uses and Pharmaceutical Preparations–

The Eclectics and Regulars

The Eclectics were a group of doctors who depended heavily on botanical
medicine in their practices, and were prominent from the 1830’s to the 1930’s–over
100 years. They had a number of medical schools, notably in Cincinnati,
and practitioners in every part of the country.

Several of their journals are good sources of information on the medicinal
uses of herbs: The Eclectic Medical Journal, The Eclectic Medical
and the California Eclectic Medical Journal. Several
of their larger works on materia medica and therapeutics have been reprinted
and are available today.

The Eclectic school was a major force in bringing Echinacea to the
forefront of herbal medicine, and the Lloyd Brothers–John Uri, Curtis Gates
and xx, suppliers of herbal medicines to the Eclectics, made “Specific
Medicine Echinacea” and “Echafolta”, probably the
most respected preparations of the day. It is beyond the scope of this present
article to enumerate the history of the Eclectics, but this information
can be found elsewhere (Wilder).

One of the best-known Eclectic doctors and author of an important work,
The American Dispensatory (King 1852), in print for over sixty years,
was John King. King, along with one of the Lloyd brothers, John Uri Lloyd,
a prominent pharmacist, writer and manufacturer, were instrumental in the
introduction of Echinacea to the medical profession in 1887. Ironically,
King mentions Rudbeckia (Echinacea) purpurea and R. laciniata
in the first edition of his Dispensatory in 1852, saying, “Both
of the above plants deserve a full and thorough investigation from the profession.”
Little did he suspect that he would be championing E. angustifolia
35 years later. The section in his Dispensatory about E. purpurea
provides a few uses, as well as botanical information and range. He wrote
about its properties: “The root is very pungent to the taste, and has
been popularly used in medicine under the name of Black Sampson; it is stated
to have been employed with much benefit in syphilis.” The history of
the introduction of E. angustifolia into the medical profession has
been quoted widely–the best account is John Lloyd’s “History of Echinacea
angustifolia” and the Lloyd Brother’s “A Treatise on Echinacea“,
both of which have been reprinted and are still available (1904, 1917).

Around 1870, a H.C.F. Meyer, also of Pawnee City and a German lay physician,
learned of Echinacea‘s use and later began making and selling a patent
medicine containing it, called “Meyer’s Blood Purifier”. It is
uncertain if Meyer was a graduate of any medical school, though he did place
an M.D. after his name in his correspondence. Sixteen years later, Meyer
became convinced enough of the efficacy of his preparation, which also included
Hops and Wormwood, that he wrote to two eminent medical men of the Eclectic
school, King and Lloyd, sending them samples of his blood-purifier.

Perhaps Meyer truly believed in this preparation, and he thought Echinacea
to be the most important ingredient, but he no doubt hoped to expand his
business, and sales as well. King wrote back, saying that he could not consider
introducing or trying his preparation unless all the ingredients were made
known. Lloyd was thoroughly convinced the whole affair to be unworthy of
interest, and Meyer a fraud, especially after reading the fantastic claims
that were enumerated on the medicine’s label (fig. 1).

Neither King or Lloyd recognized the root Meyer sent to them in May of 1886,
after King requested identification of the drugs Meyer was using. It wasn’t
until September, 1886, that Meyer sent the whole plant, whereupon C.G. Lloyd,
an eminent botanist, identified the plant as Echinacea angustifolia.
This further convinced Lloyd that the preparation was worthless, for he
knew that E. purpurea was considered to be of small value. Even more,
shortly after the identification of E. angustifolia, Meyer wrote
back to Lloyd and King, “urging (them) to give the profession the benefit
of his discovery”. Lloyd writes of his letter (in the drug treatise),

In view of our incredulity as to the virtues of the drug in the direction
of the bites of poisonous serpents, he offered to come to Cincinnati and,
in the presence of a committee selected by ourselves, allow a rattlesnake
of our selection to bite him wherever we might prefer the wound to be inflicted,
proposing then to antidote the poison by means of Echinacea only.
This offer (or rather, challenge) we declined. Dr. Meyer, thinking this
was because we had no serpent at our command, again offered not only to
come to Cincinnati and submit to the ordeal formerly proposed, but to bring
with him a full-sized rattlesnake, possessed of its natural fangs…

This they also declined. Later Lloyd sorely regretted having dismissed Echinacea
so quickly, to the point where he publicly wrote of his ‘humiliation’ over
the affair. Especially after he considered the results of a study he did
in 1912 regarding the popularity of vegetable drugs among medical practitioners
of the day. He sent out 30,000 questionnaires to doctors of all kinds, both
Eclectic and Regular listing more than 200 herbal medicines, both official
and non-official, asking them to rate them as to importance in their practice.
The results showed that Echinacea, from its humble beginnings in
1886, when it was introduced, until 1915 had risen from obscurity to rank
11th among all the contestants!

Fortunately, King had a premonition about Echinacea, and he was known
to be interested in promoting native U.S. drug plants, for he decided to
give it a trial. He soon developed a strong interest in the plant, for a
preparation of it (made by Lloyd at his request) was the only remedy that
he found effective for his wife, who had cancer at the time. Echinacea
both retarded the progress of the disease and provided improvement in the
pain she was experiencing. This led King to continue his investigation of
the plant, by having Lloyd send out preparations to doctors whose judgement
he trusted, notably, Goss from Atlanta and Webster of Oakland, as well as
using it more extensively in his own practice.

Finally, two years later, in 1887, King wrote the first journal article
on E. angustifolia, in collaboration with Meyer, who, being German,
had little command of the language. From this article, until the last eclectic
article on Echinacea, in 1937, many were written, mostly by doctors
extolling its virtues in clinical situations.

In 1898, King’s standard work, King’s American Dispensatory was revised
and edited by Felter and Lloyd. Much new and up-to-date material was added.
In the same year, Felter published another similar monograph on Echinacea
in the Eclectic Medical Journal under the title “The Newer Materia
Medica: I. Echinacea“.

These articles provide very good summaries of the history, botany, chemistry
and uses up to that time. The Felter-Lloyd Dispensatory is still available.

Felter considered the pharmacological action of Echinacea, calling
it “antiseptic” and “alterative”, but he recognizes
that these terms are not specific enough and makes a further statement about
its action: “A corrector of the depravation of the body fluids;”
and further:

Its extraordinary powers–combining essentially that formerly included under
the terms antiseptic, antifermentative, and antizymotic–are well shown
in its power over changes produced in the fluids of the body, whether from
internal causes or from external introductions.

Felter was grappling with unexplained actions of an herb that would, years
later, with increased understanding of the biochemistry and physiology of
the human body, be understood to stimulate and modify many amazingly complex
chemical reactions, especially within the immune system. He goes on to say

as a stimulant to the capillary circulation no remedy is comparable with
it, and that it endows the vessels with a recuperative power or formative
force, so as to enable them to successfully resist local inflammatory processes
due to debility and blood depravation.

This action, as we now understand it, is at least in part related to the
polysaccharides of Echinacea combining with, and protecting, the
matrix surrounding our tissue cells, thus limiting bacterial and other pathogenic
access–while at the same time, stimulating phagocytosis and other local
immune functions to counteract infection and remove toxic by-products; and
to stimulate granulation and growth of healthy tissue.

It is obvious that the Eclectics were enamored with this remedy, but the
Regulars, or allopaths, were critical and unconvinced that it was anything
but inert. In 1905, in The Lancet-Clinic, an allopathic medical journal,
a talk given by C.S. Chamberlin, was reported, along with a following discussion
including the allopathic attenders. Chamberlin speaks, sardonically, about
some of the profession accepting at face value remedies which

emanate from some dye-works in Germany and is not so protected by our patent
laws that the article, which is profitably sold in Germany at $1.00 per
pound, may be gently unloaded upon the confiding medical profession of America
at $1.00 per ounce.

Aniline dyes were the source of the so-called coal tar analgesics and antipyretics.
Today, acetanilide is still used widely. The Allopaths were unconvinced
after the talk, where Chamberlin enumerated the uses of Echinacea,
giving several clinical examples. Chamberlin notes that

more than ten thousand medical practitioners hold this remedy in such high
esteem, it seems impossible to awaken any interest in it among the regular
profession. Personally, I have within the past three years, written to more
than one thousand physicians, calling attention to the medicinal value of

J.H. Stealy has this to say in the following discussion:

I have given this Echinacea a trial. Take the average case of local
sepsis from an injury, and if you use any moist lotion, as of boric acid
or alcohol or plain sterile hot water or arnica, and often they will get
along very well…..I have used it to my heart’s content, and found it not
worth any more than any other preparation we have that is inert.

One researcher, at least, had an idea that Echinacea was operating
on a deeper level, within the very workings of the body’s defence system.
In 1915, V. von Unruh, M.D., in the National Eclectic Medical Association
, wrote an extensive article on his tuberculosis treatment,
using a preparation of E. angustifolia and Inula helenium.
The compound he used was a “special colloidal compound…and does
not contain an excess of alcohol”.
This is an interesting report
for two reasons. Lloyd and others were in the habit of making Echinacea
extract with a high percentage of alcohol. His recipe was 75% alcohol, 25%
water added to dry root. Ecafolta, his surgical preparation, was even higher
in alcohol, and had all the color, sugars and starches removed. Is it a
coincidence that Unruh used a low-alcohol, colloidal, preparation of Echinacea
and discovers that after

My own laboratory researches, conducted for a period of over three years,
have shown that Echinacea increases the phagocytic power of the leucocytes….Echinacea
does produce in the blood, effects parallel with and similar to those produced
by the vaccines, without any of the objectionable features of the latter.
The leucocytes are directly stimulated by Echinacea, their activity
is increased, the percentage among the different classes of neutrophiles
is rendered normal, and phagocytosis is thus raised to its best functioning

Today, after H. Wagner’s (of Munich, Germany) studies on natural products
effecting immune function (1985), it is known that Echinacea contains
water-soluble polysaccharides that strongly affect the immune system. Unruh’s
preparation must have contained a much higher concentration of these polysaccharides
than either of Lloyd’s preparations, “Specific Medicine Echinacea
or “Echafolta”. And yet, even these preparations were effective
for a wide range of complaints. Notice, however, that Felter and Ellingwood
stress it’s antiseptic, and stimulating powers, which parallel that of Xanthoxylum,
while Unruh stresses its power on the phagocytes. This question may be an
important one, for even today there is much controversy about whether a
low-alcohol or high-alcohol preparation is more effective.

Although the official organizations and publications of the Regular, i.e.
allopathic, doctors (Journal of the American Medical Association),
criticized the use of Echinacea, as Lloyd’s study indicates, many
used Echinacea in their practice and some allopathic medical journals
published articles favorable to Echinacea. Between 1891 and 1923,
there were over a hundred published articles on this herb (Hobbs).

It is fitting that the first published report on the chemical constituents
of Echinacea was by John Uri Lloyd, in 1897. Before that time, 11 years
after its introduction into general medical practice, little was known.
References were made only that it was at first “sweet”, and then
“acrid”. This in itself says something about its makeup, for we
could surmise that the root might contain sugars and perhaps essential oil
or resin, which it does. The methods of assay were crude, however, as was
evidenced by Couch and Giltner’s study (1921a, 1921b). They had no idea
at that time the rich depth of Echinacea‘s chemical makeup and physiological
activity. Despite the crude methods available to him, Lloyd was thorough
in his investigation of E. angustifolia and submitted it to extensive
tests. He also had the advantage of being thoroughly familiar with its nature,
for he had been making pharmaceutical preparations from it for at least
10 years. After Lloyd, one of his students, S.H. Culter, worked on the analysis
of Echinacea for several years, as his doctoral thesis, published in 1931.
He provides the most complete account of what was known then, as well as
a good summary of previous work. Other notable research was carried out
in this country by Heyl and Staley, Heyl and Hart, Bischoff, Woods, and
Martin Jacobson on the insecticidal and juvenile hormone activity of the
essential oil. After the 1930’s, most commercial preparation of Echinacea
preparations ceased, along with chemical investigations. The few exceptions
are noted below. Meanwhile, beginning in the 1930’s, the Germans, with their
penchant for minute investigations became interested in Echinacea
and Gerhard Madaus, as well as others, published many studies over the next
55 years.

After the prolific amount written about Echinacea over a 50-year
period, it seems remarkable that after 1937 there is not one mention of
it in the U. S. medical or pharmaceutical literature. Considering the usefulness
of Echinacea today, it is fortunate that interest in it did not completely
disappear. Rather it moved to Germany, where the flame, so to speak, has
been carried for over 50 years.

Today, as we are even more enamored with the prodigal son, our own native
herb echinacea–so much so that it has become the number-one selling herb
on the U.S. medicinal herb market. With a tremendous amount of new pharmacological
and chemical research published on echinacea showing that it is indeed an
effective immune stimulant, helping to protect one against colds, flu and
infections of all kinds, its future as a world phytopharmaceutical star
seems assured.

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Written by Christopher Hobbs LAc AHG

Explore Wellness in 2021