How the Physicians of Myddfai inspired modern medicine

In the run up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the business world suddenly seems to be waking up to the looming disaster that will befall all of us as a result of climate change, environmental destruction and the loss of biodiversity. So I thought it would be a good time to share this short essay from my 300-mile walk through Wales exploring how we restore balance with nature.

It’s about The Physicians of Myddfai and how modern Pharma’s knowledge of the healing powers and wisdom of nature can be traced to their teachings of over 1000 years ago.

The corpse road over the Black Mountain, Carmarthenshire

Science may only now be starting to explore and understand the true nature of trees and the connections of forests but people have appreciated the medicinal and healing power of trees and plants for many hundreds of years.

No more so than where I was right now in the shadow of the Black Mountain, walking on the Beacons’ Way towards the village of Llandeusant. In the 19th century this was a corpse road – where the bodies of local men who had perished working the coal pits of Brynamman were carried back to be buried in their home village. Brynamman men would start the journey and meet the men of Llandeusant by a bronze age cairn situated on the mountain.

And it was here that one of the greatest medical dynasties began – a family of physicians born of otherworldly heritage whose knowledge would be passed down through successive generations of doctors over the next 700 years. These were the Physicians of Myddfai and their nature-based remedies and philosophy, however folkloric it might be, continues to have resonance today.

the Physicians of Myddfai do appear to have been real people. The Red Book of Hergest, one of two medieval Welsh language tomes hand-written on velum in the 14th century, recounted how a father, named Rhiwallon, and his three sons, Cadwgan, Gruffudd and Einion, were physicians at the court of Rhys Gryg, the son of the Lord Rhys. Rhiwallon was said to be the eldest son of the Lady in the Lake.

The Red Book’s version of Meddygon Myddfai (The Physicians of Myddfai) included some 500 herbal remedies prescribed by the Physicians, including everyday medieval ailments like how to treat a snake bite (drinking juice made from fennel, radish and wormwood was recommended), how to reduce swelling and pain in the thighs (a mix of rue, honey and salt applied topically would do the trick) and how to stop a nosebleed (betony powder and salt applied inside the nostrils).

The book also included what might be consider more optimistic remedies for curing blindness and deafness (a mix of elm wood embers, black eel oil, honey and betony sealed in the ear with the help of the wool of a black lamb.) The Red Book included a few cures where you feel the Physicians might just have been having a joke at their patient’s expense. One remedy for “a man’s swollen penis” advised “Take African lard (or grease) and leeks, and smear upon the penis, and it will be fine.”

Academics have questioned whether the remedies that appear in the Red Book of Hergest can really be tied to Rhiwallon and his sons. They note that many of the remedies were well known in medieval times. More intriguing is the argument that the Physicians of Myddfai story was embraced, adapted and embellished by 18th century Welsh antiquarian intellectuals (including a rakish poet named Iolo Morgannwg who you’ll meet later on this journey) in an attempt to trace a modern Welsh national identity all the way back to the ancient Druidic heritage. The Physician’s connection to the trees and nature, and their expertise in herbal medicine, also matched the values of the Romantic age that shaped these ideas.

Whatever the veracity of the original story the Physician’s understanding of nature to help cure disease still resonates. Just ask the hard-headed, extremely logical pharmaceutical companies who invest millions each year into the field of ethnobotany to discover and monetise plant-based medicines.

Medicinal plants contribute to pharmacological treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, malaria (arteether), Alzheimer’s (galantamine), asthma (tiotropium) and, of course, many types of painkillers (aspirin is made from willow bark while morphine comes from the opium plant). 

And the philosophy espoused by the Myddfai clan continues among communities all around the world. The World Health Organisation estimates some 20,000 medicinal plants are used to treat ailments and promote health worldwide. In Sarawak, Malaysia, there are some 1220 species of medicinal plants used on a regular basis by local people. In South Africa, an estimated 80% of the population still use traditional medicinal plant remedies. And, in some Amazon communities of South America, shaman embrace the psychedelic properties of plants like the liana vine to provide wisdom and guidance to their communities.

There were no shamans in the village of Myddfai, just the local community centre featuring an exhibit celebrating the famous Physicians. It did have a café, however, serving tea and Welsh Cakes – exactly the remedy I needed.

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