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Plant People: Medical Herbalist David Hoffman

As an internationally renowned medical herbalist, author of 14 herbal textbooks, teacher, and our chief formulator here at Traditional Medicinals, you would think that David Hoffmann’s story starts with a childhood love of plants. Rather, David’s story is steeped in a healthy skepticism for authority and an innate desire to bring healing to the planet. Plants have proven their healing power time and again throughout the course of his life, leading him to realizations, new beginnings, and a vocation of service that has spanned over four decades. With his long hair, wry smile, and political witticisms, David remains every bit a child of the 1960s. And rightly so. Unlike many of his peers who embraced the trend but abandoned the mission, his life continues to embody all the ideals of the hippie era while still being grounded in modern day realities. David is a humble and reluctant hero, but his serendipitous path to herbalism, his passion, and conviction have inspired new generations of herbalists—several of whom work here at Traditional Medicinals (TM)—to relight the torch of a once-dying tradition.

David in 1960

David in 1970

A Heritage Rooted in Rebellion

Born in 1951 to a family decimated by anti-Semitism and recuperating in an exhausted, post-war Great Britain, David’s rebellious streak, passion, and conviction run strong in his DNA. His mother’s family migrated to England to escape the pogroms of late 19th century Russia. His father, Dežo Hoffmann, immigrated to England from Slovakia after his entire family had been killed in the Holocaust. Dežo had earned his stripes as a photojournalist while covering the Spanish Civil War, alongside comrades Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa. When he later shifted to photographing celebrities like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, David was able to experience the 1960s through a magnifying lens, with The Who’s Pete Townshend living just down the road. “I grew up in a left-wing type of family,” David explains. “So everything in my life was in the context of ‘we can change it.’ That must have been happening to lots of people, because suddenly the Sixties’ Revolution was going on. Without knowing it, I was in the right place at the right time. I thought it was normal, but it really was quite amazing.” For David, the hippie movement was a burst of sunshine that allowed him to find joy, a love of nature, and a voice against oppression.

Embracing the Green

In 1970, following a personal pilgrimage to India, David knew that he couldn’t return to mainstream, consumer culture—a realization that put him in the mindset to study ecology and help heal the planet. After finishing his degree at the University of Sussex, he began lecturing on ecology at the University of Wales. During that time, he was faced with a nagging choice: to pursue a Ph.D. in Ethiopia to study freshwater snails or to follow his intuition and start an intentional community of like-minded people in Wales. Much to his surprise, he chose Wales. His affirmation came a month later when the research station in Ethiopia was bombed in the Ethiopian Civil War; it was the decision that would lead him to herbalism.

For David, the hippie movement was a burst of sunshine that allowed him to find joy, a love of nature, and a voice against oppression.

Valerian, the plant that awakened David to herbalism

After several sleepless nights during a rare heatwave in Wales, his friends introduced him to an herbal tea made with valerian. “As a man of science, I wasn’t interested in that nonsense,” he explains, “but after many hours of the most refreshing, transformative sleep I’ve ever had, I had a realization that the planet was healing me so I could heal the planet. It opened my mind and body to herbalism, and from then on my life changed.” Soon after, he enrolled in the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, opened his own practice in 1978, and earned his degree in 1979.

The Seventies ushered in David’s “embrace of the green,” during a time when folk herbalist Rosemary Gladstar and community activist Drake Sadler were also co-founding Traditional Medicinals and the California School of Herbal Studies across the pond. The Herb Renaissance was gaining momentum, and most of the main figures of modern herbalism got started at that time. “There’s a point that isn’t made enough,” David asserts. “Herbalism was the grounding of flower power. Flower power wasn’t just about hippies celebrating with flowers in our hair; nature got us. Nature woke us up.” However, the Sixties had marked a dark era for herbalism, as many herbs in The United States Pharmacopoeia had been dropped—“not because they didn’t work,” David insists, “but because there wasn’t a lobby group pushing them. The mindset at the time was ‘better living through chemistry.’” In contrast, the Herb Renaissance represented a conscious return to traditional ways of remaining connected to the earth. The modern day successes we have in the natural food movement and plant-based medicine all owe their reemergence to herbal pioneers like David, Rosemary Gladstar, Michael Moore, Michael Tierra, Christopher Hobbs, Susan Weed, David Winston and Simon Mills, among others.

An Englishman in California

During the Eighties, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hardline policies incited enough controversy to make David believe the ideals he’d fought for during the Sixties and Seventies had been completely lost. Determined to defend the environment during a very industrial age in Great Britain’s history, David ran for Parliament for the Green Party in 1983. Although he never expected to win—and didn’t—his candidacy succeeded in bringing nature back into the political discourse. “After that, Thatcher won, and I gave up on England.”

In 1985, he left Britain to spend a year touring around the world, including North America, China, Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Among his many adventures, two plant-based experiences changed his life. The first occurred in Southern China, where he ate contaminated food. Alone and not even remotely conversational in Chinese, David lay violently ill in a hotel room. The hotel staff found him and sent a doctor of Chinese Medicine to help. After a therapy of acupuncture and berberine tablets, David was saved. “Had I not been there, I might not have lasted a week. When I came around after all that, my body was different; my mind was different. I had sloughed off the old person, and who knew who the new one was?”

The answer would come during his trip to California, where he met Rosemary Gladstar, “the Godmother of Herbalism.” Shortly after meeting him, Rosemary offered him a job teaching at the California School of Herbal Studies. David gave away his practice in England, and in 1986, he set his sights on California. “I came to this country without knowing anyone except Rosemary and created a new life. It was my deliverance—the hippie dream. I was just doing what I had always done.” Once again, plants led David to a fresh start.

“Herbalism was the grounding of flower power. Flower power wasn’t just about hippies celebrating with flowers in our hair; nature got us. Nature woke us up.” - David Hoffman

“Herbalism is ecology in practice,” David explains.

“Herbalism is Ecology in Practice”

After moving to California, the face of David’s vocation shifted from clinical practice to education. He became the Director of the California School of Herbal Studies in 1987, co-founded the American Herbalists Guild, and was elected their first president in 1989. David had already written two herbal textbooks while in Great Britain, but his writing career in America flourished; David would go on to write and publish 14 herbal medicine textbooks, with another currently in progress. “Since coming here, my commitment shifted from politics to the rebirth of American herbalism. It’s been an incredible joy to be associated with Rosemary. Her brand of herbalism is folk herbalism, the people’s herbalism—it’s not commercial. This wonderful community welcomed, embraced and nurtured me.”

“Herbalism is ecology in practice,” David explains. “If the World Health Organization defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,’ health is not about the absence of anything; it’s an active state, so you have to work at it.” The same is true in ecology, and the state of the environment is not only about the trees, but also the organisms that rely on each other to survive and thrive. If one is sick, the whole of the environment is said to suffer. Using this rationale, David continues:

“It turns out that the active ingredients in plants are important to the health of the soil, to fungi, and they’re essential to insects. Herbs, then, are not just for us. In their unique pharmacology, they are a way in which the environment integrates itself—not feeds itself, not genetically makes itself, but integrates itself so that it’s not animals and plants fighting all the time…There is mutual support and synergy going on, and the new biology suggests that. One of my real joys is reading that the new science is confirming all of our New Age mumbo-jumbo. The whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. Science has shown us to be right.”

Today, David continues to teach and write and serves as TM’s chief herbal formulator, making the connection between plants and herbal medicine while also nurturing generations of budding herbalists. “The most important thing in my life is maintaining the green.” He concludes, “I couldn’t just write and formulate if I wasn’t also hugging trees. I couldn’t do this if it was just intellectual. If Rosemary is the Godmother of Herbalism, I guess you could call me its weird uncle!” After David’s 13 years of service to TM and a lifetime of service to herbalism, we feel blessed and proud to be part of his enduring legacy.

Posted in Community on November 18, 2016