Pomegranate in Early Medicine

Different elements of the pomegranate, both tree and fruit, had a wide range of uses in premodern therapeutics. Pomegranate also had a rich symbolic role in the art, literature, and religion of numerous cultures. In nearly every part of the globe where the pomegranate grew, it came to represent fundamental dualities: life and death, inside and out, many and one. The medicinal purposes for which healers recommended pomegranate at times reflected broader symbolic associations, and those associations are an important part of the therapeutic tradition. The dualistic symbolism that attended the pomegranate in various cultural traditions synergized with dualistic medical concepts, reinforcing the therapeutic power of pomegranate in otherwise diverse contexts. Reflecting this duality, pomegranate was both an astringent and a laxative, an emmenagogue and an antimenorrhagic, an expectorant and an antiemetic, a pyrogen and a febrifuge, a restorative and a soporific. In both literary and medical traditions, the pomegranate mediated transitions —or maintained balance—between opposing states. This essay provides an overview of the rich and sundry uses of pomegranate in premodern therapeutics, revealing how cultural associations both reflected and informed medical practices.

POMEGRANATE 46WEB TITLE:  Pomegranate in Early Medicine

RESEARCH TITLE: Pomegranate and the Mediation of Balance in Early Medicine

COUNTRIES: USA

CONDUCTED BY: University of Wisconsin, Madison

PUBLISHED ON: Gastronomica
RESEACH: Different elements of the pomegranate, both tree and fruit, had a wide range of uses in premodern therapeutics. Pomegranate also had a rich symbolic role in the art, literature, and religion of numerous cultures. In nearly every part of the globe where the pomegranate grew, it came to represent fundamental dualities: life and death, inside and out, many and one. The medicinal purposes for which healers recommended pomegranate at times reflected broader symbolic associations, and those associations are an important part of the therapeutic tradition. The dualistic symbolism that attended the pomegranate in various cultural traditions synergized with dualistic medical concepts, reinforcing the therapeutic power of pomegranate in otherwise diverse contexts. Reflecting this duality, pomegranate was both an astringent and a laxative, an emmenagogue and an antimenorrhagic, an expectorant and an antiemetic, a pyrogen and a febrifuge, a restorative and a soporific. In both literary and medical traditions, the pomegranate mediated transitions —or maintained balance—between opposing states. This essay provides an overview of the rich and sundry uses of pomegranate in premodern therapeutics, revealing how cultural associations both reflected and informed medical practices.

Interest in the medicinal properties of pomegranate continued into the modern era, both as a result of the sustained popularity of traditional healing systems and because colonization, exploration, and global traffic expanded the transmission and appropriation of medical and botanical knowledge. As late as the 1880s, for example, English physicians were still “discovering” uses for pomegranate. “I found that whenever a young child lost its appetite, had more or less irregular bowels, somewhat tumid belly, was peevish by day and restless by night, when it was wasting in flesh, and the symptoms were negative as to worms or fevers,” wrote Brigade Surgeon Edward Nicholson who served in India, “the decoction of pomegranate root invariably effected a cure” (Nicholson 1886: 364). Soldiers in the American Civil War also were aware of the pomegranate’s medicinal properties. “A decoction of the blackberry root and the rind of the pomegranate fruit boiled in milk,” wrote a pharmacist from Atlanta in 1898, “was a common remedy in diarrhoea” (Jacobs 1905). Today, this interest in the medicinal properties of pomegranate is experiencing something of a renaissance. Fewer than thirty scientific or medical papers were published on pomegranate in the late twentieth century, but nearly double that number now appear every year. Studies of pomegranate extracts in vitro have revealed a wide range of bioactive compounds. Chemicals that have antiatherogenic, antibiotic, anticarcinogenic, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, astringent, estrogenic, neuroprotective, spermatogenic, and vermifugic properties have been isolated, and the actions of many of these compounds reflect medical practices thousands of years old (Jurenka 2008; Lansky and Newman 2007; Seeram et al. 2006). Researchers worldwide are now seeking to learn if pomegranate can play a significant role in yet one more medical system: twenty-first-century biomedicine. Indeed this interest, both ancient and modern, in the medicinal properties of pomegranate has led to its use as a symbol of medicine itself. Along with the staff of Asclepius, the caduceus, and the red cross, the pomegranate is a widely employed device in medical iconography. The insignias of the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Anaesthetists, Midwives, and Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, and the U.S. Army’s 61st Surgical Hospital all feature pomegranate, and the fruit was the logo for the Millennium Festival of Medicine. This use of the plant and its fruit in medical iconography reflects the historical role of the pomegranate both in therapeutics and as a religious and political symbol, as well as the current revival of interest in pomegranate-based therapeutics. Although the medical evidence is at best inconclusive, the concept of “superfoods” with intrinsically healthful properties has captured the popular and scientific imagination. Everything from berries to yogurt, liver to mushrooms, phytoplankton to microgreens, and of course pomegranate, has been labeled at one time or another a superfood, with spending on research in the botanic pharmaceutical industry well over $20 billion a year worldwide. But while many premodern writers regarded pomegranate as a medicine yet doubted its nutritive value, today the fruit is a nutritious food whose medicinal properties are investigated and debated. In bridging historic and modern anxieties about health and diet, the pomegranate is even now a symbol of duality. As in Gregory’s metaphor of the Catholic Church, whose members were held together by a “diversity of merits” like the seeds in a pomegranate, scientists and physicians continue to seek a “diversity of merits” in the pomegranate’s many bioactive compounds.

RESEARCH SUMMARY: Different elements of the pomegranate, both tree and fruit, had a wide range of uses in premodern therapeutics. Pomegranate also had a rich symbolic role in the art, literature, and religion of numerous cultures. In nearly every part of the globe where the pomegranate grew, it came to represent fundamental dualities: life and death, inside and out, many and one. The medicinal purposes for which healers recommended pomegranate at times reflected broader symbolic associations, and those associations are an important part of the therapeutic tradition. The dualistic symbolism that attended the pomegranate in various cultural traditions synergized with dualistic medical concepts, reinforcing the therapeutic power of pomegranate in otherwise diverse contexts. Reflecting this duality, pomegranate was both an astringent and a laxative, an emmenagogue and an antimenorrhagic, an expectorant and an antiemetic, a pyrogen and a febrifuge, a restorative and a soporific. In both literary and medical traditions, the pomegranate mediated transitions —or maintained balance—between opposing states. This essay provides an overview of the rich and sundry uses of pomegranate in premodern therapeutics, revealing how cultural associations both reflected and informed medical practices.

YEAR: 2015