A Contribution to South African Materia Medica

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A contribution to South African materia medica, chiefly from plants in use among the Natives / by Andrew Smith of St Cyrus, M.A.; with a new introduction by Tony Dold and Michelle Cocks. (Eastern Cape Reprints). Grahamstown: Rhodes University, Cory Library, 2011.
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Andrew Smith* taught history, geography, philosophy and mathematics, at the Lovedale 'College Department' but his real passion was botany. In 1885, he published a humble 23-page pamphlet entitled ‘A Contribution to South African Materia Medica’. It generated an overwhelming response and further information flooded in from all corners of the Eastern Cape.

The third and final edition extended to 240 pages, more than ten times the length of the original. Notable contributors included Dr JF Soga, South Africa’s first qualified veterinary surgeon, and WW Gqoba, one of the great figures of early Xhosa literature. Of Gqoba’s contribution, Smith wrote: 

‘The moment Mr Gqoba knew that my object was to bring the use of certain medicinal plants, usually kept secret, within the reach of all men, he placed his own knowledge at my disposal, and did all he could to procure a knowledge of these remedies from others.’

Smith’s ‘Contribution’ is first and foremost a botanical text and a monument to Xhosa indigenous knowledge. Smith was also interested in the way people lived and consequently provides us with a unique and vivid insight into the society within which these indigenous remedies were applied.

He seems to have a particular interest in snakebite, and learned much about red dagga (Leonotis leonurus [umfincafincane]) from the Rev WS Davis of Clarkebury, ‘than whom none have had better opportunities of testing the thing.’ The ‘Contribution’ is a serious scientific work, but it can also be read for pleasure by the merely curious.

This facsimile edition is introduced by Michelle Cocks and Tony Dold of Rhodes University, themselves expert on the social and medicinal uses of indigenous plants. They situate Smith’s work in the context of earlier studies of South African medicinal plants, and they update it with a look at subsequent writings as well as the continuing relevance of indigenous medicines today.

Comprehensive tables give the current botanical names and correct isiXhosa spellings of plants mentioned in the book. There is a full bibliography.

Eastern Cape Reprints is a project of the Cory Library at Rhodes University, Grahamstown. It makes available facsimile reprints of scarce books, long unobtainable but of lasting value and utility. Each book is provided with an expert introduction, which highlights important aspects of the text, contextualises its background, and brings the reader up to date on subsequent relevant research.

* Andrew Smith (1828-1898) was born in St Cyrus, Scotland, and he always refereed to himself as 'Andrew Smith of St Cyrus' to distinguish himself from an earlier, more famous zoologist also named Andrew Smith, with whom he was frequently confused.