History of Medicines: Golden Seal in Early American Medical Botany

Although early American settlers favored the mostly European medicines
they knew and trusted, the native medicinal plants were quickly learned
out of necessity. European preparations were often scarce and as can be
imagined, conditions in the new world often precipitated an increased need
for them. At least some of the more common European herbs brought over by
the Colonists became naturalized and grew as weeds (1). From the beginning
of the 17th century, when the Colonists first landed in Virginia, the native
Indians were known to have a knowledge of the indigenous plants, and to
utilize them for their curative properties (2,3,4). Some of these Indian
remedies were learned and widely used by the settlers, and a few such as
ginseng, tobacco and sassafras were exported (5), but introduction and acceptance
into regular medical practice was slow.

A number of important species of native plants were used by the early settlers,
but little of note was written about them in popular books, journals and
pamphlets until the early 1790s. In fact, a careful review of the works
listed in Austin (6) making mention of medicinal plants reveals that before
1800, only a few works enumerated a small number of species (7,8,9,10,11,12).
A notable exception is Bartram’s small work on the “Description, virtues
and uses of sundry plants… (13),” wherein he mentions the medicinal
uses of several important American herbs, among them Collinsonia,
Sanguinaria, Polygonatum and Lobelia.

Few materia Medicas or works on medicinal substances were printed at all
before 1800–compared with after that date–and the few that were usually
went through several editions. Original works were especially lacking–though
several important British works on herbs or medicinal plants were reprinted
in America, most notably Culpepper’s popular Herbal (14), Lewis’ New Edinburgh
Dispensatory (15) and Cullen’s Materia Medica (16).

Major novel American sources for information on the medicinal uses of imported
plant drugs included almanacs and German Krauterbuchs (17,18,19,20). A number
of periodicals (21,22,23) offered lists of medicinal plants with their uses
and availability. The most often described indigenous American herbs in
these works were Virginia snake-root, Senega snake-root, sassafras, ginseng,
Indian pink, Collinsonia, Sanguinaria, Lobelia and
a few others (24,25).

After 1800, an increasing number of works mention American plants (26,27).

One American herb, well-known to the native American Indians was the woodland
plant, goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis L.). Golden seal is today
among the top-selling herbs in the American health food market, and was
an official drug plant in the United States almost continuously from (1830-1955),
but was initially slow in being accepted or written about. Bartram does
not mention it, although it does rarely occur in Philiadelphia and other
parts of Pennsylvania where he lived and botanized.

Goldenseal grows naturally from the north-east border of South Carolina
to the lower half of New York and east to northern Arkansas and the south-east
corner of Wisconsin. It is only abundant in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia,
Kentucky and part of Illinois (28). The plant is from the Ranunculaceae
(the buttercup or crowfoot family), is a low-growing herbaceous perennial
and has a bright yellow rhizome, due to the colored alkaloid, berberine.

Linnaeus published golden seal under the name “Hydrophyllum
in the 1753 edition of Species Plantarum, for at the time he had seen only
the leaves of the plant, which appear similar to members of the Hydrophyllaceae.
He corrected his error in 1759 in Systema Naturale with the name
Hydrastis. Linnaeus kept Ellis’ name, whom he gives as the authority
for Hydrastis; assuming the misconception that the plant grew in
“bog meadows” (29).

Golden seal was a favorite medicine of a number of Indian tribes, and is
mentioned in the later ethnobotanical literature for a number of uses. For
instance, the Cherokee mixed the root powder with bear grease for use as
an insect repellent and also favored it as a diuretic, stimulant, and as
a wash for sore and inflammed eyes, while the “Catawbas boiled the
root for jaundice, ulcerated stomach, colds and sore mouth. A piece of the
green or dried root was chewed to relieve the stomach.” (30). Hunter,
who was raised by the Kickapoo Indians made other early comments on the
use of the plant, generally agreeing with earlier reports but emphasizing
its use as an important remedy as a cold watery infusion for eyes irritated
by autumn prarie smoke, a common occurence (31).

Because of its bright yellow color, it is not surpising that golden seal
was also an important dye plant, for which it is mentioned by Martin as
early as 1782 (Lloyd, p. 86).

It was not until Barton, Professor of Materia Medica at the University of
Pennsylvania and ardent supporter of the use of American medicinal plants
in medical practice, that the medical uses of golden seal were mentioned
(Barton). He wrote in the first part of his “Collections …. towards
a Materia Medica
” that the ‘Cherake’ use it to cure cancer. In
the 2nd part of the work (1804) he says “The root of the plant is
a very powerful bitter
.” He adds that the plant is “a popular
remedy in some parts of the United States,” and that “an infusion
of the root in cold water is also employed as a wash in inflammations of
the eyes.” Sore eyes and mouth were undoubtedly the most common early
uses of Hydrastis. These uses are recorded not only by Barton, but
in the handwriting of Captain Lewis in 1804, during his expedition with
Clark to the Pacific coast. The plant was collected by Lewis and the notes
on the original herbarium sheet give a detailed description of its preparation
as “a sovereign remedy for sore eyes..and excellent mouth water.”
To make a preparation for eye infections, the rhizome was infused in cold
or hot water.

Other early 19th century reports of its use are summarized in table 1.

Table 1

Late 18th and early 19th century uses of Hydrastis

Author Year Uses Ref.

Barton (1791) rattlesnake bite 32

Barton (1798-1804) Cancer, dye plant 33 bitter tonic, eyes

Coxe (1814) (quotes Barton 34 verbatum)

Rafinesque (1828) used when fresh, 35 sore legs, disord. stomach, liver;
ext. as wash, dropsy, escarotic

U.S. Pharmacopeia (1830) tonic, detergent 36

(2nd NY ed.)

Smith (1830) laxative, dys- 37 pepsia, juice for eyes

Howard (1832) loss of appetite, 38 fevers

Beach (1832) laxative, dyseptic 39 disorders, tonic

U.S. (1834) old ulcers of the 40

Dispensatory legs, juice of root clothing dye

Thompson (1835) indigestion, bile 41 corrector

Golden seal was official in the form of the whole root and the alcoholic
or the glycerin extract (42) in the U.S.P. from 1830, 1860-1926; and in
the National Formulary (1888, 1936-1955). The alkaloid Hydrastine was official
in USP 1900-IX. In 1982 it was still official in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil,
France, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Roumania and Spain (43).

After 1840, golden seal is mentioned in many materia medicas and journal
articles (see Lloyd for a complete listing), but it was not until 1852 that
King’s more detailed account of its clinical uses stimulated the interest
of the Eclectic medical doctors, an interest that would continue until the
1930s, when this school of largely botanical medicine-oriented doctors rapidly
declined with the rise of allopathy (44). Because of the enthusiastic adoption
of golden seal by the Eclectics, it became known as an Eclectic remedy,
but eventually crossed over into use by the Allopaths as well, as seen by
its inclusion into official medicine in the U.S. Pharmacopeia and National
Formulary. King was more critical than previous authors, and omited some
of what he considered to be overblown claims for the plant (45). A complete
list of conditions (and they are numerous) claimed to be helped by golden
seal can be found in the National Dispensatory (1886) (46).

It can be argued that in the Eclectics, many of the American medicinal plants
that we use today got their first critial evaluation. Several eclectic works
have been reprinted and are valuable sources of clinical data on these plants
(47,48). Although not up to today’s laboratory standards, these works were
several steps beyond the (mostly) purely empircal accounts of American plants
that came before. Several of the doctors used herbal remedies for over 50
years (King, Scudder, Felter). King emphasized its use in cases of gonorrhea,
spermatorrhea, cystitis and other inflammation of the mucous membranes in
urinary tract infections.

Other Eclectic doctors and regular doctors recommended golden seal for chronic
constipation, general debility and as a restorative for internal organs
damaged by alcoholism (49,50).

The Drug companies

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, many pharmaceutical companies
manufactured golden seal products.

Squibb sold the root as a hemostatic, astringent, cholagogue and antihydrotic
in whole or powdered form, offering pure hydrastine as well (51). Park-Davis
sold Tincture Hydrastis, Fluid Extract Hydrastis, Solid Extract Hydrastis,
as well as a number of compound formulas in pill or tablet form containing
Hydrastis (52). Lilly offered an extract standardized to 9 to 11 percent
of ether-soluble alkaloids (53) and Thayer the tincture, wine and fluid
extract of golden seal (54).

The Homeopaths adopted the remedy for catarrh, and poor digestion and it
was still official in 1979 (HPUS 8) (55).

After the Eclectics, golden seal was still sold and used in medical practice
until 1960, when it ceased to be official, though modern American herbalists
recomended it in the 1930’s (56), the 1970’s (57) and still do today (58).

In the late 1980s, golden seal has developed a reputation as a means to
clear the blood of drug residues, enabling one to pass tests to detect such
substances. This use has been shown to be without basis in fact (59).

Despite this, modern science has, at least in part, supported some of the
medical claims of golden seal in showing that it has anti-bacterial, choleretic
and anti-convulsive activity (60).

Formerly published in Pharmacy in History

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Written by Christopher Hobbs LAc AHG

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