Pharmacognosy is the study of pharmaceutical products that have natural origins in plants, animals, and minerals. People in this branch of medicine are interested in these products while in their natural state, rather than in refined and processed pharmaceuticals that are derived from natural origins. A number of colleges and universities have pharmacognosy programs and several pharmaceutical companies conduct research in this area with the goal of drug discovery.
This is the oldest branch of pharmacy. Humans have been using plants, animal products, and compounds derived from minerals in the treatment of disease for centuries. The history of herbal medicine includes the discovery of a number of compounds that are still used today. Pharmacognosy researchers are interested in studying natural pharmaceuticals currently in use to learn more about how they work and to develop ways of improving their quality and consistency. They also participate in drug discovery.
A number of disciplines are blended in pharmacognosy. Ethnobotany, the study of the way that other cultures use plants in medicine, is an important field of study, as is anthropology, giving people an opportunity to study medical practices in cultures all over the world. Chemistry and biology are critical, as an understanding of anatomy and pathology. People who work in drug research and development are also skilled at designing and tracking studies to collect data about drugs of natural origin.
Conservation is also an issue of concern. Some natural sources of medicine are under threat due to habitat depletion, overharvesting, and other problems. Conservationists are also concerned that valuable natural medicines may be going undiscovered in regions where the environment is being heavily exploited. As habitat loss accelerates in some regions of the world, scientists have difficulty keeping up with the plants and animals that vanish along with it, including organisms that could potentially be valuable for medicine.
Some researchers in this field are interested in alternative medicine. Others believe that drugs derived from plants, animals, and minerals could potentially be useful in conventional medicine. Both types of researchers are interested in the chemical makeup of natural medicines, studying how they act on the body, and learning about how to create reliable and stable dosing.
People interested in working in this field will need to attend a school with a pharmacognosy program and should plan on obtaining graduate degrees in this or related fields. With a degree, people can apply to work in government or private laboratories, for private organizations interested in drug research, and in university research settings.