UP Book Forum Revisits the Enduring Legacy of Traditional Filipino Medicine

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by Joel Toledo

“No single Filipino has not encountered traditional plants and medicine; they are everywhere, even in the most modern of families,” said Dr. Ma. Mercedes Planta, author of the book Traditional Medicine in the Colonial Philippines, 16th to the 19th Century. The book was the focus of the third and most recent installment of the UP Interdisciplinary Book Forum (IBF), which takes place in UP Diliman twice every school year.

On hand to talk about the recently released book from the UP Press were discussants Dr. Victor Paz of the UP Archeological Studies Program, Dr. Salvador Caoili of the UP Manila College of Medicine, and Dr. Ma. Luisa Camagay of the UP Department of History. UP Vice President for Public Affairs Dr. Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr. was the forum’s moderator. The two-hour event was held last September 27 at Pavilion 1131 at the Palma Hall in UP Diliman.

Dr. Planta went on to say that when she set out to write the book, she had in mind “a history that is practical, a history that is readable. It was very clear (to me) that this (book) will only focus on traditional  medical plants and herbolarios… (I wanted to) be able to talk about the healers in a specific manner.”

Historian and former UP Press Director Dr. Camagay began her own discussion by lauding the book’s comprehensive appendices, saying that the second appendix section in particular is an “important compendium” for both Philippine history and medicine. She added that in the future, “the author may want to focus on other aspects of medicine aside from herbal medicine, and at a particular century.” Dr. Camagay added that this revisiting of pre-American era Filipino medicine is particularly laudable as it harkens back to a time before the Americans demonized traditional medicine when it introduced the concept of public health in the country. “Ang unang nagdumi sa Manila Bay ay mga Amerikano (The first to pollute Manila Bay were the Americans),” she stressed.

Dr. Caoili of the UP College of Medicine in Manila said that the book’s centuries-based analysis offers “a broader stroke of the significance of Philippine Medicine,” adding that “one problem is that we are very discipline-based, which forces us to focus on narrow spaces and time scales. It’s important to see that we are in this bigger share of space.” He offered that the book be treated as a springboard for further interdisciplinary endeavors. “(It’s) a very readable, very accessible source of insight… (Its) fresh historical aspect gives one a sense of timeline.”

For his part, Dr. Paz of the UP Archeological Studies Program said that the reason traditional medicine and healers persisted over the centuries is largely because of “the lack of colonial infrastructure to service indios.” He likewise went on to praise the book, saying that it is a deserving addition to the cultural history of the country. He added that the reason some of the sources, especially those from the 16th century, are not fully documented is because they come from word of mouth, and cannot thus be confirmed. He stressed that a good perspective for approaching and understanding the value of such research is to keep in mind that the “structures are colonial, not just physical.”

The discussions led to an open forum, with questions fielded by many of the guests which included students, faculty, and administrators of the Diliman campus. Moderator Dr. Dalisay asked about the common ailments of our Filipino ancestors, to which Dr. Planta replied by saying that compared to most countries in Southeast Asia who had to deal with famine, epidemics, in-fighting, and head-hunting, tuberculosis was the main source of sickness in the Philippines.

Dr. Caoili joined in and said that we were primarily hunter-gatherers and farmers until technology allowed for a social environment, one that people were not evolutionary optimized for. Such quick transition from agricultural to industrial led to new diseases, from cholera and small pox to HIV and Ebola. “New diseases continue to emerge. It’s a blitz,” he emphasized.

He continued by saying that, nowadays, people “might be overly sanitizing (themselves) and using more antibiotics… Today, non-human cells are more prevalent in the body.” He suggested evaluating plants (like the malunggay) as though they were drugs or food, and posed the question, “Why can’t we make our own vaccines and sera like we did a century ago?”

Dr. Planta pursued Dr. Camagay’s points on the public health issues of the Spanish era, and lamented that many people treat that time as a period of obsolescence because of how American historians have pictured it.  “The Spanish couldn’t give us public health in the 19th century because they didn’t have it,” she said. She then expounded on the Filipino concepts of ginhawa and hiyang, explaining that the former is “well-being, the total thing and not just healing. Well is your kaluluwa (soul), not just in your solar plexus.” She added that in the time of the Babaylan, they served different functions, from the mystical to the physical. “In traditional medicine, walang (there’s no) overdose,” Dr. Planta said. “The concept is called hiyang; dosage didn’t really exist.”

Several notable administrators attended this third installment of the UP Interdisciplinary Book Forum, including CSSP Dean Dr. Grace Aguiling-Dalisay, current UP Press Director Neil Garcia, and Director of the UP Institute of Creative Writing (which co-hosts the IBF alongside UP Press) Dr. Roland Tolentino. Dr. Tolentino gave the closing remarks, explaining the rationale of the IBF in connection to an EIDR Funding from UP Diliman, as well as invited everyone to come to the forum’s next installment in the second semester.

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