Book on traditional Filipino medicine offers “usable past”

| Written by UP Media and Public Relations Office

The book “Traditional Medicine in the Colonial Philippines: 16th to the 19th Century” by Ma. Mercedes Planta, PhD, presents “various medicinal plants that Filipino traditional medical practitioners or herbolarios have been prescribing since the precolonial period.” Through the book, the author invites readers to harness from the “usable past” the potentials of the knowledge and practices studied and recorded by the Spanish missionaries in the country during the 17th to the 19th century.

IBF discussion
(Photo by Jun Madrid, UP MPRO)


On September 27, experts from different fields shared their thoughts on the merits of Planta’s book at the 3rd Interdisciplinary Book Forum. The forum was hosted by the UP Press and the UP Institute of Creative Writing (UP ICW) at the Pavilion 1131, Palma Hall, UP Diliman, Quezon City.

Ma. Luisa Camagay, PhD, of the UP Department of History, Victor Paz, PhD, of the UP Archeological Studies Program, and Salvador Caoili, MD, of the UP Manila College of Medicine, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, served as forum discussants. Planta, a faculty member of the UP Department of History, responded to questions raised during the open forum. UP ICW Director Roland Tolentino, PhD, gave the closing remarks. UP Vice President for Public Affairs Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr., PhD, served as moderator.

According to Camagay and Paz, the book offered readers and researchers material for broader discussions and modern studies about herbal and non-herbal Filipino traditional medicines, practices, and its practitioners.

Camagay said there were still voluminous documents stored in archives here and abroad that needed to be accessed, translated, and studied. She added that discussions on the dynamics among the missionaries or priests, government, herbolarios, midwives, hilots, and natives, as well as the development of the public health system during colonial times, could be written by Planta in the future as these were also interesting topics related to the book.

Paz said young researchers could use the book as a reference when they are able to gather more documents from the archives and study the artifacts from archeological sites. He added that the persistence of traditional medicine and healers might also be due to the continuing lack of infrastructure that provide health care, the “modern” and of licensed practitioners and institutions such as hospitals that were established by the colonizers; and that these “old” traditions survived because the colonizers had no replacement for them, unlike the old spaces for worship, the caves, that were replaced by the colonizers with stone churches.


Dr. Victor Paz of the UP Archeological Studies Program (Photo by Jun Madrid, UP MPRO)


Caoili said the book was very readable, accessible, and rich in information and insight. It “helps us find a common ground” where specialists could “share in this bigger space,” he said. He said herbal medicines are essentially food plants that traditional healers were able to use way before the colonizers arrived. He added that the book served as a springboard for additional researches and interdisciplinary endeavors on herbal and traditional medicines.

Dalisay expressed the hope that the faculty, and forums such as this, further inspire young students to pursue their fields of interests and produce beneficial researches.

Among the questions raised at the open forum were on the health conditions of the natives before colonial times, health-related concepts and practices from the 16th to 19th centuries, and the “correct dosages” for the prescribed herbs.

According to Planta, the book focuses on herbal medicines that have been used and recorded during the colonial times and how these can still be used at present. The discussants also explored the concept of “hiyang”, as the “correct dosages” for the prescribed herbs depended on the traditional practitioner or herbolario and the specific conditions of the person being treated.

The Interdisciplinary Book Forum, made possible through a UP Emerging Inter-Disciplinary Research (EIDR) grant, is held every semester. (Fred Dabu, UP MPRO)

Click here to view more photos of the event.