1899 Merck Manual Shows Natural- and Food-Based Medicine Once Reigned Supreme

Written By: Sayer Ji, Founder of GreenMedInfo


Near the turn of the 20th century, in NYC, for one dollar, you could have grabbed yourself what was at the time, the most comprehensive medical book ever published in a Western language — one that clearly acknowledges the many ways foods and plants heal serious disease.

The Merck Manual, also known as the The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, is the oldest continuously published English language medical textbook, and the best-selling medical textbook worldwide. The first edition titled, “Merck’s 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica.” was produced by George Merck, founder of Merck & Co, in New York as a subsidiary of the family company established in Germany in 1668. Today, Merck & Co. has grown into a multinational corporation with an annual revenue of $43 billion dollars, and hires tens of thousands of employees throughout the world.

The 1899 manual was laid out in the following three parts:

  1. “all those Simple Medicinal Substances (that is, drugs and chemicals) which are in current and well-established use in the medical practice of this country”
  2. “the principal means of treatment for each form of disease, as reported to be in good use with practitioners at the present time.”
  3. “the modes of action of the various medicaments [as laid out in Part 1].

The 1899 manual promised to provide the physicians of the time:

“…a complete Ready-Reference Book covering the entire eligible Materia Medica. A glance over it just before or just after seeing a patient will refresh his memory in a way that will facilitate his coming to a decision.”

Materia Medica is a Latin term for the extant body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing (i.e., medicines).


Perhaps what is the most striking thing about the first 1899 edition of the Merck Manual is that many of the remedies listed are entirely natural. It would not be until 1906 that Congress, with the strong support of President Theodore Roosevelt, would pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, which would usher in the era of pharmaceutical medicine, largely consisting of patented, synthetically produced medications. In 1899, the standard of care included toxic compounds like arsenic and mercury, as well as completely natural ones derived from common plants and foods, but few if any patented drugs.

The Pharmaceutical Industry Has Always Depended on Natural Medicine

While this may be counintertuivive about the origins of what has become, arguably, the world’s most powerful international pharmaceutical company, namely: natural medicine is still the basis for the vast majority of today’s blockbuster pharmaceutical products. In fact, 63% (537 of 847 small molecule-based pharmaceuticals) of all drugs introduced since 1981 were derived from natural products or had a natural product-inspired design. And perhaps even more noteworthy, of the 155 anti-cancer drugs developed since the 1940’s, only one would be considered de novo chemical (with absolutely no relationship to inspiration from a natural chemical compound!)1


Thanks to the Gutenberg Project, the original version was released to the public on December 24th, 2012 for free access and distribution, making it possible for millions around the world to see the humble, and surprisingly natural-medicine based origin story of today’s dominant and global pharmaceutical empire.

You can view a fully scanned and text searchable version of the 1899 Merck Manual here.

The manual contains reference to hundreds of foods and commonly used natural products, such as arnica, papain, cod liver oil, valerian, camphor and myrrh. [For our readers who have the time and inclination, please list additional natural compounds from the manual in the comments section below this article].

Cannabis, for instance, is listed as a medicine 62 different times, including for the following conditions:

  • Cannabis Indica: as diuretic in hematuria.
  • Cannabis Indica: as diuretic in acute and chronic Bright’s disease with hematuria.
  • Cannabis Indica: sometimes useful in chronic cases.
  • Cannabis Indica: Bladder, Paralysis of…iin retention from spinal disease.
  • Cannabis Indica: in very chronic cases of Chronic, Bronchitis
  • Cannabis Indica: Cholera Asiatica.
  • Cannabis Indica: Chorea: may do good; often increases the choreic movements.
  • Cannabis Indica: in retention from spinal disease.
  • Cannabis Indica: Bright’s Disease.
  • Cannabis Indica: Climacteric Disorders.
  • Cannabis Indica: Corns
  • Cannabis Indica: Coughs
  • Cannabis Indica: in nocturnal delirium occurring in softening of the brain.
  • Cannabis Indica: Delirium Tremens (associated with Alcoholism)

Consider that the list of remedies in the manual were often food-based. For example, for Delirium Tremens related to alcoholism, the Merck Manual lists “Beef-tea,” as “most useful,” and “Food: nutritious; more to be depended on than anything else.” Imagine if a doctor today recommended such “quackery” in todays’ pharmaceutically-dominated paradigm? As we’ve discussed previously, even the term “snake oil” comes from the use of snake lipids by Chinese railroad workers as a linament to soothe aching muscles. And “quack” from the use of mercury amalgams by early dentists. History has an amazing ability to provide context.

Merck’s 1899 incredible compendium of ‘natural cures’ would define the medical practices and thinking of the age, and for at least three more decades. This is additionally confirmed through an amazing map of ‘herbal cures’ from 1932 released by Slate, which included medicinal plants in common use among pharmacists and the public back then. The map itself states under the heading ‘The Service of Pharmacy’:

“It is important that the public does not lose sight of the fact that the professions of Pharmacy, Medicine, and Dentistry, each give an essential service, which must not be impaired or destroyed by commercial trends. The public and the professions will suffer equally if these services are allowed to deteriorate. In pharmacy the public should understand something of the breadth of knowledge required of the pharmacist. Few people realize the extent to which plants and minerals enter into the practice of pharmacy, and how vital they are to the maintenance of the public health. It has been stated that upwards of 70 percent of all medicines employed are plant products.”

Flash forward 80 years and we have a medical system which relies almost entirely on patented chemicals and/or biologicals that are far removed from anything resembling the ‘back yard farmacy’ of yesteryear.


The FDA’s very definition of a drug now precludes the use of natural substances, and drug-based medicine has become a form of human sacrifice, on a scale that may exceed previous civilizations sacrifice of their population for ostensibly religious reasons. This map should be shared far and wide and hopefully will shed light on the massive, emergent database of natural substances (there are about 1700 indexed on our website alone) that can be used to treat a staggeringly wide range of health conditions (over 3,000 indexed on our site alone).


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  1. A natural history of botanical therapeutics. Metabolism. 2008 Jul;5`7(7 Suppl 1):S3-9. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2008.03.001.