The Six Tissue States (Experpt)


by Matthew Wood, MSc (AHG)

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The Six Tissue States

The theory of the four qualities (hot, cold, wet, dry) was replaced in the eighteenth century by the theory of ‘irritation.' Experimentation revealed that nerve fibers responded to irritation or stimulation. The nerve contracted, then relaxed. From this, Dr. John Brown developed a doctrine of two basic and opposite states in the organism requiring two opposite categories of treatment: sedation and stimulation. Either the organism was too stimulated, or not stimulated enough. These two categories, in effect, represented the old categories of ‘heat' and ‘cold' in Greek medicine.

Samuel Thomson, the great popularized of herbal medicine in early nineteenth century United States, taught that all disease was due to cold, either the dying down of the heat within the body or the invasion and retention of cold from the exterior. This, we can see, is a folk medical reworking of the theory of the two basic conditions of the Brunian system.

Thomson was possessive of his system and litigious. Also he was uneducated and lacked technical terms for his system. Thus, for example, he recognized six basic actions of herbs, which he called “no. 1” through “no. 6.” For these reasons, Dr. Alvah Curtis, reformulated his system and gave it the name physiomedicalism, from the Greek physis (nature) and medicine. Curtis recognized Thomson's basic categories, numbers one to three, corresponded to the three basic tissue states associated with nerve irritation: stimulation, contraction, and relaxation.

Thus, Curtis used these terms to describe the basic action of medicinal plants. A contemporary physiomedicalist, Dr. William Cook, added depression (inability to respond to stimulation). Nineteenth century literature shows that these terms were widely and informally used by doctors of all schools, including allopaths and homeopaths. Indeed, they are still applied today in neurology and common speech. In 1900 Dr. Joseph M. Thurston laid out a comprehensive system of six tissue states. To the four basic states described by Curtis and Cook he added atrophy (malnourishment) and torpor (the state that requires alteratives or bitters). Unfortunately, Thurston's terminology doomed his work to obscurity.

Stimulation became vasoexaggeration, relaxation became vasodilation. Physiomedicalism was brought to Britain by Isaiah Coffin and remains as an important movement within the herbal community down to the present. Meanwhile, it died out in North America, under persecution from conventional medicine. Thus, physiomedical doctrines have been preserved in the United Kingdom, not in their native land. Thus, the English herbalists A. W. Priest and L. R. Priest (1984) bring this theory down to the present, representing it pictorially:

Six Tissue States

Unfortunately, this system of thought has been suppressed in British herbal education in favor of the pharmacological model.  I interviewed several herbalists trained by Heim Zelstra, the official educator for the British National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMB) in the 1980s.  Although he mentioned this model in his teachings, he did not utilize it in practice.  One student, Mary Bove, asked him how he “really practiced,” as opposed to how he was teaching.  

Zelstra replied that he used this fourfold model.  Another student, Keith Robertson, said he thought these four actions were “a psychological metaphor.”  We see, therefore, how the old system lying at the back of physiomedicalism has nearly been lost in the last decades.   The sixfold model of Thurston is the most complete.  Actually, Priest and Priest recognized a fifth tissue state that he described, atrophy, and an unnamed sixth state, the one that needs alteratives (Thomson's “no. 4”).  The sixfold model also represents the entire scope of Greek energetics, including both the four qualities and the two tissue states.  They align fairly closely (not perfectly), as follows:

Six Tissue States


The six tissue states can be associated with the three doshas of Ayurveda as follows:

Six Tissue States

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