The Development of Thai Herbal Medicine During Rattanakosin Era (Part 1)

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Sopit Tham-aree
Monthira Tankeyoon


The Thai traditional medicine handed down from the Sukhotai period through the Kingdom of Ayudhya till the contemporary Rattanakosin Era has mainly used herbs in the therapy. Although being preserved and restored under the glory of various kingdoms over a long period of nearly seven hundred years, the Thai herbal medicine lacks a favourable development in proportion to the advances in other fields. The major reason for this lagging improvement is the insufficient knowledge of the traditional herbalists in science, chemistry, taxonomy and English. They empirically used the herbal remedies according to what they had learned from the previous generation without any scientific evidences to confirm the efficacy and effectiveness of the drugs. There was some confusion of synonymous names of the plants. Sometimes the plants were unidentified and no individual was able to establish the correct identity of those plants possessing the therapeutic values. The symptoms and the names of the diseases were not well understood in terms of modern medicine.

The herbal remedy itself has many weak points that require amendment: for instance, the drugs were not palatable, difficult to administer, of slow action and to be taken in large amount at one single dose. Furthermore, it took long time to prepare for each treatment. Some preparations had complicated formulations consisting of too many kinds of unnecessary ingredients.

Because of all the above disadvantages, the herbal medicine was gradually dying out when people were offered a better choice of treatment, i.e. the modern medicine, which was first introduced into the country in the reign of King Rama the Fifth (A.D. 1868-1910).

Being strongly supported by the royal courts, it was accepted by the public with gradually increasing popularity.

Severe shortages of imported medicines during the Second World War made the people turn to the medicinal herbs again. One striking suggestion about an effective and rapid measure against the acute deficiencies of modern medicines was to launch a nationwide campaign to encourage the people to raise household gardens growing some important medicinal plants. Unfortunately, the idea was not carried out as intended due to lack of earnest cooperation from the government and the public.

However, this marks the beginning of the developing period for the Thai herbal medicine. Medicinal herb gardens have been set up, The physical, chemical as well as healing properties of these plants have been investigated, During the past decade scientists have paid more attention to boost the use of herbal medicine. It has been further studied in wider aspects such as botany, phytochemistry, Pharmacognosy and pharmacology. But those works were separated and independent. The results were hardly ever made known to the public, and so was the use to the benefit of the patients.

For the sake of unity, a collaborative project was initiated a few years ago to systematically develop the medicinal plants, so as to eventually and effectively make clinical use of the results obtained. The future of the Thai herbal medicine is not showing a good visibility, notwithstanding there has been an upward tendency in research in medicinal plants. As one senior physician put it "The distance of the herbal medicine from the experimental room to the patient's bed is so far apart".


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