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  • Traditional Medicine in the Colonial Philippines 16th to the 19th Century by Maria Mercedes G. Planta
  • Paula De Vos
Maria Mercedes G. Planta. Traditional Medicine in the Colonial Philippines 16th to the 19th Century. Quezon City: University of Philippines Press, 2017. xxx + 249 pp. Ill. $20.00 (978-971-542-825-5).

This work on traditional medicine in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era makes an important contribution to understanding of traditional practices and [End Page 614] especially of the sources and uses of herbal medicine in this area. In six chapters, the author gives an overview of native healing practices and the role of native healers, the ways in which these practices interacted with the Western medical system based on humoral pathology brought by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, and finally the fate of these interactions, particularly with regard to public health policy, following U.S. colonization of the islands. The text is well written and clear, based upon prominent primary and secondary sources.

The author begins with an overview of traditional Filipino medicine, highlighting its diverse practices and practitioners and its long use of local herbs for healing purposes, with detailed discussion of the use of the betel nut. Planta then turns to the arrival of Spanish colonialism in the late sixteenth century, focusing on three main areas of investigation. First, she explains the humoralism of Galenic medicine, the medical system that dominated Western ideas and practices for almost two thousand years and that guided Spanish medical ideas in the Philippines. These ideas were held by missionaries, who established hospitals on the islands but who also played a crucial role in gathering and recording information from Filipinos about traditional practices and especially about local herbs used for healing. One of the most important of these was Francisco Ignacio Alcina, a Jesuit who in 1668 compiled "A Brief Summary of the Best Known Medicinal Roots, Leaves, and Plants" of the Philippines based upon his contact with native Filipinos.

Following this important contribution, the Spanish Crown in the eighteenth century supported a series of major efforts in the Philippines to record the islands' natural resources—medicinal plants as well as those with other commercial value—as part of an Enlightenment program to boost imperial profits through the export of useful raw materials. This effort also involved studying and cultivating commercially valuable plants in a large-scale program of economic botany. In the Philippines these efforts led to the establishment of a botanical garden in Manila, where exports such as cinnamon were the subject of experimentation, transplantation, and large-scale cultivation. Other efforts included Crown-sponsored botanical expeditions such as that of Alejandro Malaspina and of Juan de Cuellar and the establishment of the Royal Philippine Company. Although these efforts mainly focused on commercial opportunities and success, medicinal plants, as the author points out, had always been an important part of botanical gardens and continued to be a focus of efforts at economic as well as scientific development.

In the nineteenth century, further endeavors on the part of the Spanish colonial regime attempted to bring together much of the research compiled in earlier centuries. Perhaps most notable is the work of Manuel Maria Blanco who wrote the Flora Filipina according to Linneaus, first published in 1837. A later edition of the work appeared with other studies of Filipino herbal medicines in what was called the "Monumental Edition" that consisted of four volumes, published in 1877, 1878, 1879, and 1880–83. This edition included a compendium of Blanco's work as well as a series of others on Filipino flora that had been written by various authors over the centuries. With the continuation of this kind of work into the twentieth century, by 1928 botanists and naturalists had identified over 4,500 species of medicinal plants and herbs throughout the Philippines. Upon U.S. [End Page 615] colonization of the Philippines, a series of public health measures also led to the establishment of the Bureau of Health and the Bureau of Science, which set up laboratories for biological and chemical investigation of local healing plants, furthering knowledge about these crucial components of Filipino traditional medicine in a modern...


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