It is hard to imagine a food that is in more common use throughout the
world than garlic. But if garlic is widely accepted and used as a condiment
and food, it is not less so, at least today, as a drug. Thus, garlic is
one of the best examples of which one can conceive, of that category of
food-drugs which Hippocrates explained to us over 2300 years ago, saying
“let your food be your medicine,” and vice versa. What
he was talking about was prevention–something that may be of value in today’s
world, where our health is under assault from many unseen forces. To optimize
our ability to fight infections and adapt to rapidly-changing environmental
conditions, such as the proliferation of potentially toxic compounds in
our air, food, and water, and the weakening of the ozone layer, certain
foods that can help our body adapt to non-specific stress may be the medicines
of the future. These special foods have been defined by the famous Russian
doctor and researcher, I.I. Brekhman and his teacher Lazarov, as “adaptogens,”
of which garlic is a prime example.
Although known to the Ancients and probably cultivated and used as food
and medicine by them, it is likely that the uses of garlic are far more
Today, there is rapidly increasing world-wide interest in garlic, and the
number of scientific studies performed every year is increasing exponentially.
These studies have supported the idea that the regular consumption of garlic
can reduce blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels, act as an inhibitor
to the overgrowth of pathogenic organisms in the body, such as Candida
albicans, be useful as a worm medicine, and have a number of other beneficial
Today, a history of safe use for any herb is considered essential for its
acceptance by government regulatory agencies (such as the Food and Drug
Administration) as a food or “traditional medicine” recognized
as safe for trade. The evidence on garlic is abundant–and it is worth noting
that Dioscorides was ahead of his time when he said of garlic so many centuries
ago in his Materia Medica that “it doth clear the arteries”
(by way of a Renaissance English translation, of course).
Pharmaceutical preparations of garlic are manufactured throughout Europe,
some of them standardized to allicin, one of its proven active constituents.
In the U.S., garlic products are extremely popular and are widely sold in
natural food stores, supermarkets, and pharmacies. Sales are reported as
being brisk, with no end in sight, especially given that heart disease and
stroke are still the number one and two killers.
In this article, we will explore the origins, as well as some of the ancient
beliefs and uses of this “pungent panacea,” known in English as
garlic, and for countless centuries in Latin as Allium.
In reviewing the literature on this single popular herb, it is interesting
to note the changes that were taking place in the discrimination of the
usefulness of its medical qualities. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were
much more likely to idealize its effects, paying little attention to where
it was appropriate and where it was not, based on individual constitutions.
This changed over the centuries, through the 18th century, where its medical
uses, at least, were much more circumscribed.
Garlic is a member of the lily family, Liliaceae. It is a relative of
the onion and leek, and other related species containing the aromatic sulfur-based
compounds which contribute to the characteristic odor and taste, as well
as garlic’s beneficial healing effects. Although the traditional garlic,
Allium sativum L., is from the old world, the new world has its share
of aromatic, sharp-tasting wild onions and garlic-like plants. I remember
many times, while camping in the high Sierra, harvesting the bulbs of various
species of these two plants and adding them to trail stews and soups.
Linneaus described Allium sativum in the first edition of Species
Plantarum (1753). He carried on the name from Bauhin, who published
it in his Theatri botanici, 1623. The name can be seen further back,
in Dodoens, whose first English edition of his Herbal, translated by Lyte,
dates from 1578, and in Turner, who wrote the second English herbal in 1551
(after Bankes, 1525), calling garlic Allium sylvestre. But the name
Allium is by far more ancient than this. The Greeks called it scorodon
or skorothon and the Romans, notably Plautus, Varro, Horace, Homer, Herodotus,
Aristophanes, Theophrastus and Dioscorides, allioum or Allium.
DeCandolle in his Origin of Cultivated Plants concluded that garlic
was indigenous to Europe and Western Asia and that people “cultivated
such form of the species just as they found it from Tartary to Spain, giving
it names more or less different.” He bases this partly on the fact
that it does not occur in herbariums or floras of Sicily, Italy, Greece,
France, Spain, Algeria, Egypt, China, or Japan as a wild plant. Examining
the philology, one notices that the names are diverse and often a derivative
connection cannot be seen from one region to another. One exception is the
English name garlick, which may have come from the Welsh garlleg. Though
another explanation for the name is that it derives from gar-leek, signifying
its similarity to its relative, the ancient leek, or from the Anglo-Saxon
gar-leac, meaning “spear-plant,” a reference to its sharp, lance-shaped
leaves and spear-like unopened flowering head.
According to DeCandole, the only land where garlic was shown with any certainty
to be actually observed in its wild state is in the desert of the Kirghis
of Sungari (Manchuria).
Pickering, whose monumental work, Chronological History of Plants,
documents our historical connection with plants through the ages, agrees
with De Candolle, saying that garlic is “of the plains of Western Tartary.”
History of Use
Because garlic has so many name variations in such diverse cultures,
it is certain that the plant has been under cultivation for a long time.
Garlic is also one of the few herbs that was and still is used in all 3
great healing systems of the world–Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine,
and Traditional European Medicine. If one reviews the many uses ascribed
to garlic in all of these healing systems, as well as the popular uses by
the people of their respective cultures, one sees remarkable similarities.
For instance, it was considered a protective plant against evil influences
among the Hindus, Scandinavians, Greeks and Germans, among others. To this
day it is bought on the eve of Saint John’s day in some European countries
as a guarantee of financial success during the rest of the year.
Traditional European Medicine
In Traditional European Medicine, garlic was an important food and medicine
of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, and Egyptians. It was popular
with the ancient Egyptians, according to Herodotus, and has been found in
Egyptian burial sites, even in the tomb of Tutankhamen. It has even been
said that the Egyptians considered it a “God” (Soyer).
Though archeological evidence of garlic’s use is scant, it is known that
the plant was considered “unclean” by the priests and so may not
have been used commonly in burial rituals. Then, as today, garlic may not
have been as accepted as an “official” drug but was widely used
by the common people.
In Coptic medicine garlic macerated in oil was prescribed for skin diseases
and to be taken after birth, as it was thought to stimulate milk production.
The Assyrians mentioned garlic as a food and medicine many times. They used
it as an antibiotic, to fill rotten teeth,
The Greeks gave garlic a mixed review. Soyer said that they “held it
in horror,” but that it was generally eaten by warriors to excite their
courage and lust for the battle, and by sailors, who would always have a
good store of it on hand for sea voyages. However, much of the surviving
writings of the Greeks and Romans suggest that garlic was used in pharmaceutical
preparations more than almost any other herb or food. Pliny was particularly
effusive in singing its praises.
In the Hippocratic school, garlic was recommended to be used as a fumigant
for aiding in the release of the placenta. For running sores, they applied
a mixture of the ashes of garlic and oil. For asthma, the cooked form was
used more often than the raw.
Theophrastus has little to say about the healing properties of garlic but
does mention that it was eaten and followed with a “draught of neat
wine” by root diggers when they were gathering hellebore, because
otherwise the poisonous properties of the hellebore would soon makes the
Pliny, that perennial optimist, or uncritical quoter of quacks, depending
on how one wants to view him, has much that is good to say about garlic.
In fact, his accounts of it would be much more readable were he to say what
garlic was not good for. “Garlic has powerful properties,”
he emphasizes, writing of how it was esteemed by some, stating that people
swear by it as one would to the deities when taking an oath. He reminds
us again that it is with the country people that garlic finds its most frequent
use, saying, “Garlic is believed to be serviceable for making a
number of medicaments, especially those used in the country,” perhaps
not the least of which was, because of its pungent smell, for warding off
scorpions, serpents and perhaps (as some said) “every kind of beast.”
Pliny also gives us detailed information about the cultivation, storage,
and uses of garlic. Even in those days, a main objection to the use of the
plant was the lingering smell one had after its use. The chewing of parsley
was not mentioned as an antidote as is recommended today, but he does recommend
planting garlic “when the moon is below the horizon” and
gathering it “when it is in conjunction,” which would “prevent
them from having an objectionable smell.” Others thought that the
best time for planting was between the Feast of the Crossways and the Feast
of Saturn (May 2 to December 17).
Table 1 Pliny’s Uses of Garlic
- Keeps off serpents, but after they have bitten, the cloves and leaves
are roasted and added to oil to be applied as a liniment
- Repels scorpions and other beasts
- Good for shrew bites and dog bites (as an ointment with honey)
- Effective for healing hemorrhoids “when taken with wine and brought
up by vomiting”
- Neutralizes the poisonous qualities of aconite and henbane
- Excellent for bruises, even after they have swollen into blisters
- Useful taken with vinegar for relieving tooth-ache
- Garlic mixed with goose-grease is placed into the ears
- Relieves hoarseness, checks phthiriasis and scurf if taken boiled with
milk or beaten up with soft cheese
- Cooked in oxymel (vinegar and honey) it removes tape-worms and other
parasites in the intestines
- Mixed with fat, it cures suspected tumors
- Epilepsy may be cured when garlic is taken in food
- Garlic brings sleep
- It improves circulation, making the body of a “ruddier color.”
- Garlic acts as an aphrodisiac when taken in wine with coriander
Pliny also quotes the uses of garlic by other physicians. He says that Diocles
recommended putting a clove of garlic in a split fig, to be taken as a purge,
or well-boiled for phrenitis (a form of madness); Praxagoras blended garlic
with wine for jaundice, and with oil and pottage for “iliac passion
(severe colic) or scrofula.
In the Materia Medica of Dioscorides (1st century A.D.), so widely
quoted by future herbalists and physicians alike, Allium sativum
is referred to as Skorodon, but several other wild species are also mentioned
as being more active. All of the uses of garlic quoted seem to refer to
the wild species. Dioscorides warns that they (the various species of garlic)
expel flatulence, but disturb the belly and dry the stomach, causing thirst,
puffing up, and producing boils on the skin, and dulling the eyesight. The
healing qualities of garlic are also clearly enumerated. As previously mentioned,
Dioscorides foreshadowed the popular, scientifically-supported use of garlic
for cardiovascular ailments by saying that it “clears the arteries
and open[s] the mouths of the veins. Also mentioned is garlic’s
long-standing use as an anthelmintic, as a protectant from bites of venomous
beasts (dogs and vipers), for the removal of sputum and relief of coughs,
for healing running ulcers, leprosy, tooth pains, and as a stimulant to
the menstrual flow.
Galen said that garlic was referred to as Theriaca Rusticorum, or
the husbandman’s treacle, which showed its popularity as a medicine for
poisonous bites. He also mentions that boiling the bulbs causes it to lose
its sharpness and “retaineth no longer his evill juyce.”
The ambivalent attitude about the benefits of garlic continued through the
Middle Ages and Renaissance. In 1368, for instance, King Alphonso of Castile
had an extreme repugnance to garlic and made it a statute of knighthood
that if a knight were to eat it, he would not be allowed to appear before
the sovereign for at least a month.
When considering how the popularity of garlic as a medicine rose or fell
over the centuries after Galen, the Persian literature of the middle ages
stands out as a rich source of information on pharmacy and medicine, but
it is often misleading, for much of what has been translated into English
or other European languages draws heavily from Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen,
among others. For instance, in both the Materia Medica of Al-Samarqandi
and that of Al-Kindi, one reads uses quoted from Dioscorides, and little
that is new except a small quote from Al-Kindi (a Persian physician) who
recommended garlic for “pain due to ear inflammation, and for its
suppuration, pulsation and its fistulas.”
The Renaissance herbalists were somewhat less enthusiastic and more discriminating
than the Greeks about the virtues of garlic and accepted that a food or
medicine as hot and drying as garlic is suitable for some people and not
others, depending on their underlying constitution (hot, dry, cold, or moist,
etc.). For instance, Gerard says that garlic “yeeldeth to the body
no nourishment at all, it ingendreth naughty and sharpe bloud. Therefore
such as are of a hot complexion must especially abstaine from it.”
Gerard and Johnson (1633) says that garlic is “very sharpe, hot,
and dry, as Galen saith, in the fourth degree, and exulcerateth the skinne
by raising blisters.” In England, where it would be a major problem,
due to the cold, damp climate, garlic was recommended in cold phlegm conditions.
According to Gerard again, garlic “attenuateth and maketh thinne
thicke and grosse humors; cutteth such as are tough and clammy, digesteth
and consumeth them.” As a protectant, it was praised for the “bitings
of venomous beasts, even in so seemingly innocuous or uncommon as the “bitings
of the Mouse called in English, a Shrew.”
In Renaissance England, plagues were a common part of life. Garlic was among
the most revered medicines for protecting one against any kind of pestilence
as a “preservative against the “contagious and pestilent aire,”
as Gerard tells us.
Another Renaissance herbalist, Culpeper, in his famous translation and commentary
on the Pharmacopeia Londenensis (1650), merely quotes Dioscorides
In 18th Century England, garlic could be found in various pharmaceutical
preparations. It was often mascerated in wine, vinegar, oil, or honey, all
of which extracted, to some extent, its acrid properties for internal or
external use. The excellent Dr. William Lewis (1791), says that “vinegar
and honey excellently coincide with and improve this medicine, as a detergent
and deobstruent, in disorders of the breast.”
In fact, herbalists today often make preparations of garlic for coughs,
colds, and other chest complaints by macerating garlic in these media.
Lewis, in his Materia Medica (1791) reports, that some writers and
doctors praise it, but some condemn it “not only as an offensive,
but as a noxious drug.” Lewis explains that the reason for the
mixed reviews garlic had received was due to constitutional differences.
He says of it that:
“To warm and stimulate the solids, attenuate thick humours, and
resist putrefaction, seem to be its primary virtues. Hence, in hot bilious
constitutions, where there is already a degree of irritation, where the
juices are thin and acrimonious, or the viscera or intestines unsound, it
is apparently improper, and seldom fails to produce head-aches, flatulencies,
thirst, febrile heats, and inflammatory symptoms in various shapes. In cold
sluggish phlegmatic habits, on the other hand, it proves a salutary and
powerful corroborant, expectorant, diuretic, and, if the patient is kept
Lewis goes on to recommend its uses for loss of appetite, and humoral asthmas,
as well as dropsy, especially in the beginning, when it can prevent a “new
accumulation of water after evacuation.” This latter use is supported
by Sydenham who claims to have seen dropsies “cured by the use of
As an application to the soles of the feet, it was used in the “low
stage of acute distempers” by stimulating the cardiovascular system
to relieve the head.
The influential Dr. Cullen adds that when used externally, garlic is “not
so apt to ulcerate the part as mustard, more capable of being absorbed,
and extending its action to remote parts.”
Another authoritative work of late 18th century England is the Medical
Botany of William Woodville, M.D., who was a member of the Royal College
of Physicians. Woodville strongly delineates the uses and contraindications
of garlic for people with different constitutions. He emphasizes that although
it “stimulates the stomach and favors digestion,” its effects
are pervasive throughout the body and thus is more useful as a condiment
with the food of “phlegmatic people.” This is a reference
to people who are apt to accumulate mucus in their systems, and being more
cold than hot. He summarizes the current medical uses of garlic as: expectorant
in asthmas and other pulmonary complaints (without inflammation), as a diuretic
in dropsies, to remove worms, as an external application to remove tumors,
and as an ear remedy (for which it is still recommended today by herbalists).
Woodville mentions that garlic is used in a variety of ways, including swallowing
the clove whole (after it is dipped in oil), or after cutting it into pieces,
and in pills after it is “beaten up.” Although a syrup and oxymel
of garlic had been official in the British Pharmacopeia, by the time
Woodville’s work was written (1790), it had been removed.
In the U.S., the Eclectic doctors, a medical school based on the use of
predominantly herbal remedies, practiced roughly from the 1880s to the 1930s.
One of the most respected practitioners among the Eclectics was John King,
who said of garlic in his American Dispensatory (1877) that it acts
as a tonic to the stomach and is useful for coughs, cattarrhs, whooping-cough,
hoarseness, and worms. He mentions that preparations were made by mixing
the juice of garlic with sweet oil of almonds and glycerin, which was dropped
into the ears for atonic deafness. He also recommended its use in children’s
diseases, and as a “resolvant in indolent tumors.” He gives
the dose of fresh garlic as from one-half drachm to two drachms, and of
the juice, half a drachm (about 2 ml). King warns that if garlic is used
too freely, or when one’s system is already in a state of excitement, that
it might cause “flatulence, gastric irritation, hemorrhoids, headache
Finally, the U.S. Dispensatory, 21st edition (1926) says that the
use of garlic was, at the present time, “limited chiefly to pulmonary
complaints, such as chronic bronchitis, asthma and sometimes whooping-cough.”
The most popular preparations were said to be the syrup, made from fresh
garlic, recognized by the National Formulary, which is given in the
dose of 1-2 teaspoonfuls (4-8 ml). Garlic was official in the U.S. Pharmacopeia
(1820-1890) and the NF (1916-1926).
Garlic was known as mahoushudha in Sanscrit. The plant is well-known as
a food and medicine of the Hindus and is called rasona in the Raja Nirghanta.
Other Hindi names are suggestive of its many uses, such as Ugra-gandha “strong-smelling,”
mahanshadha “panacea,” bhuta-ghna “destroying demons,”
and so forth.
Dymock, in his classic Pharmacographia Indica (1890), mentions that
the Hindus consider garlic to be “tonic, hot, digestive, aperient,
cholagogue and alterative.” As in European practice, the bulbs were
macerated with honey or other sweeteners, or crushed into foods to help
relieve coughs and mucus conditions, fevers, swellings, gonorrhea, colic,
rheumatism, and worms. In India, spicy herbs are often boiled in milk, not
only to render the milk more assimilable, because of their ability to stimulate
digestion, but as a way to mitigate their harshness. Garlic was commonly
boiled in milk and taken in small doses for such diverse conditions as hysteria,
flatulence, sciatica, and heart disease. The ancient Sanskrit name, mahanshadha,
which means panacea, is truly justified, if one accepts its efficacy in
all these conditions.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Garlic, or Suan, was known to the ancient Chinese people from before written
records. It was first mentioned in the Calendar of the Hsia, which was written
two thousand years before the time of Christ. Probably the most famous historic
medical figure in China is the Yellow Emperor, who was said to set forth
the principals by which Traditional Chinese Medicine is practiced, as well
as rules for maintaining health by being in harmony with the ways of nature.
A legend is told about the beginning of use and cultivation of garlic, which
was written in the Erh-ya. It is told in this legend that the Yellow
Emperor, Huang-ti, and some of his followers were poisoned by eating an
aroid plant called yu-y¸, but after eating the garlic they found growing
on the spot, their lives were saved.
The Pentsao, the most famous materia medica of TCM, says that the consumption
of garlic is forbidden to the Buddhist priests and to people who are fasting.
The therapeutic uses of garlic, as in other cultures, were numerous but
considered to have a special influence on the TCM organs, spleen (which
transforms and assimilates food and has to do with metabolism and energy
production); and the kidney, which stores vital energy and sends it out
to other organs and tissues; and the stomach, which ripens and rots food
to get it ready for the spleen. It was also thought to remove poisons from
the body, correct the unwholesomeness of water, and to eliminate the noxious
effects of putrid meat and fish and to keep plagues away. It can be noted
that most of these uses are similar to ones found in TEM and Ayurveda.
As we have seen, the popularity of garlic has not waned over the centuries.
In fact, we are currently undergoing an increased awareness and appreciation
of this ancient “pungent panacea.”
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Formerly published in Pharmacy in History