Folk Medicine comprises medical aspects of traditional knowledge that developed over generations within various societies before the era of modern medicine. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines traditional medicine as "the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness."
In some Asian and African countries, up to 80% of the population relies on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs. When adopted outside of its traditional culture, traditional medicine is often called alternative medicine. Practices known as traditional medicines include Ayurveda, Siddha medicine, Unani, ancient Iranian medicine, Irani, Islamic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Korean medicine, acupuncture, Muti, Ifá, and traditional African medicine. Core disciplines which study traditional medicine include herbalism, ethnomedicine, ethnobotany, and medical anthropology.
Traditional medicine may include formalized aspects of folk medicine, that is to say longstanding remedies passed on and practised by lay people. Folk medicine consists of the healing practices and ideas of body physiology and health preservation known to some in a culture, transmitted informally as general knowledge, and practiced or applied by anyone in the culture having prior experience. Folk medicine may also be referred to as traditional medicine, alternative medicine, indigenous medicine, or natural medicine. These terms are often considered interchangeable, even though some authors may prefer one or the other because of certain overtones they may wish to highlight. In fact, out of these terms perhaps only indigenous medicine and traditional medicine have the same meaning as folk medicine, while the others should be understood rather in a modern or modernized context.
In the written record, the study of herbs dates back 5,000 years to the ancient Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses for plants. In Ancient Egyptian medicine, the Ebers papyrus from c. 1552 BC records a list of folk remedies and magical medical practices. The Old Testament also mentions herb use and cultivation in regards to Kashrut. Many herbs and minerals used in Ayurveda were described by ancient Indian herbalists such as Charaka and Sushruta during the 1st millennium BC. The first Chinese herbal book was the Shennong Bencao Jing, compiled during the Han Dynasty but dating back to a much earlier date, which was later augmented as the Yaoxing Lun (Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs) during the Tang Dynasty. Early recognised Greek compilers of existing and current herbal knowledge include Pythagoras and his followers, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Galen.
Roman sources included Pliny the Elder's Natural History and Celsus's De Medicina. Pedanius Dioscorides drew on and corrected earlier authors for his De Materia Medica, adding much new material; the work was translated into several languages, and Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew names were added to it over the centuries. Latin manuscripts of De Materia Medica were combined with a Latin herbal by Apuleius Platonicus (Herbarium Apuleii Platonici) and were incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon codex Cotton Vitellius C.III. These early Greek and Roman compilations became the backbone of European medical theory and were translated by the Persian Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 9801037), the Persian Rhazes (Razi, 865925) and the Jewish Maimonides.
Arabic indigenous medicine developed from the conflict between the magic-based medicine of the Bedouins and the Arabic translations of the Hellenic and Ayurvedic medical traditions. Spanish indigenous medicine was influenced by the Arabs from 711 to 1492. Islamic physicians and Muslim botanists such as al-Dinawari and Ibn al Baitar significantly expanded on the earlier knowledge of materia medica. The most famous Persian medical treatise was Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine, which was an early pharmacopoeia and introduced clinical trials. The Canon was translated into Latin in the 12th century and remained a medical authority in Europe until the 17th century. The Unani system of traditional medicine is also based on the Canon.
Translations of the early Roman-Greek compilations were made into German by Hieronymus Bock whose herbal,published in 1546, was called Kreuter Buch. The book was translated into Dutch as Pemptades by Rembert Dodoens (15171585), and from Dutch into English by Carolus Clusius, (15261609), published by Henry Lyte in 1578 as A Nievve Herball. This became John Gerard's (15451612) Herball or General Hiftorie of Plantes. Each new work was a compilation of existing texts with new additions. Women's folk knowledge existed in undocumented parallel with these texts. Forty-four drugs, diluents, flavouring agents and emollients mentioned by Dioscorides are still listed in the official pharmacopoeias of Europe. The Puritans took Gerard's work to the United States where it influenced American Indigenous medicine.
All cultures and societies have knowledge best described as folk medicine. Although there is large overlap, the denotative and connotative definitions differ. Folk medicine often coexists with formalized, education-based, and institutionalized systems of healing such as Western Medicine or Great traditional medicine systems like Ayurvedic, Unani medicine, and Chinese medicine, but is distinguishable from formalized or institutionalized healing systems.
Some examples of strong informal and to some degree institutionalized folk medicine traditions are: Traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Korean medicine, Arabic indigenous medicine (source of Unani medicine, along with ancient Greek medicine), Haitian folk medicine, Uyghur traditional medicine, Various African herbal folk remedies, Celtic traditional medicine (in part practiced by the Irish medical families), Japanese Kampo medicine, traditional Aboriginal bush medicine, Georgian folk medicine, and others.
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