An illustration of the leaves, flowers and fruit of the neem tree

Community medicine chests

Traditional treatments often come from a community’s local habitat. How can these influence global modern medicine?

For thousands of years, practitioners of Indian traditional medicine have used the oil and leaves from neem trees to treat infections and skin diseases. In recent times, modern science has caught up and researchers have started testing neem for its medicinal properties. A 2011 study, for example, found that extracts from neem leaves inhibited the growth of a number of fungi that can cause diseases in crops as well as humans. The extracts were also active against Candida albicans, the fungus that causes thrush. One patent for a neem-based drug, though, was withdrawn after legal action from the Indian government, on the grounds that the process it involved had long been used in traditional medicine.

Neem is just one example of modern biomedicine turning its attention to a traditional, plant-based remedy. The antimalarial drug artemisinin was originally extracted from sweet wormwood (see ‘Sweet wormwood and artemisinin’). Poppy plants, from which pain-relieving opiates are derived, have been used and abused since antiquity. By around 1500 BCE opium was being given to help people slip into a painless death, but it wasn’t until 1806 that morphine was isolated as the active ingredient.

Lead image:

Wellcome Library, London


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in May 2016.

Ecology and environment, Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development