The Christopher Hedley Memorial Award commemorates the life and work of Christopher Hedley, FNIMH, who sadly passed away in 2017. We asked Guy Waddell, MNIMH to explain why he felt Christopher was so special, and why the memorial award in his name matters.
It may seem obvious that herbal medicine is ‘plant based’. After all, without plants there couldn’t be any herbal medicines, or much of anything else, in fact. It may also be surprising though, because, for Christopher, knowing medicinal plants as living critters by becoming familiar with their lives was important for clinical practice. It was not just relevant or interesting or sustaining, but possibly essential. ‘How a herb is in the world is how it will be in your body’, Christopher used to say, ‘Herbalists will heal the world. Because herbalists know people and also about plants. So they act as a bridge to reconnect people with nature. Herbalists are the nicest people on the planet, you know. I’d rather spend time with herbalists than with anyone else at all.’
In 1965, whilst Christopher was attending Sussex University to study maths and physics, he met Non Shaw, who was studying art. They married and were together for the rest of their lives, living in the same flat near Primrose Hill in northwest London. After teaching in secondary schools, Christopher studied herbal medicine at the UK School of Phytotherapy beginning in the late 1970s, with Non studying the course material alongside him. His relationship with Non was as central to his being a herbalist as his relationship with plants, and he credited her in everything he published.
Christopher became a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) in 1983. He joined the Postgraduate Training Board in 1993 and served as its chair from 1994 to 1996. He was a Council member from 1993 to 1996 and was made a fellow in 1999. He was a lecturer at the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine from 1996 to 2010 and at Westminster University from 1999 to 2009. He taught materia medica, therapeutics, and pharmacy. He also taught many seminars for practitioners. Along with Non, he published Herbal Remedies: A Practical Beginner’s Guide to Making Effective Remedies in the Kitchen (Parragon Book Service, 1996), and A Herbal Book of Making and Taking by Christopher and Non, was published posthumously by Aeon Books in 2019, although it had been self-published prior to that. Christopher was also a regular contributor to the European Journal of Herbal Medicine.
I was lucky enough to know Christopher for 23 years. I first met him when I went to an herbal medicine evening class in the basement of Neal’s Yard Remedies in Notting Hill. Each week, we did a tea tasting, then talked about the herb, its history, actions, phytochemistry, and different approaches to health care. He told wonderful stories and listened with his ears and heart wide open to all of ours.
As Christopher used to say, “Herbalism is about stories: people’s stories they tell you and yours as you listen and think about how to treat them.” Indeed, his stories were most likely responsible for many people deciding to study herbal medicine. Many of us owe our professions to Christopher.
On herb walks, he would point out a particular plant and say, “And here we have the most beautiful plant in the whole known universe,” before moving on to the next plant: “And here we have the most beautiful plant in the whole known universe.” He loved plants. His awe and love of green nature, combined with his willingness to truly listen and his knowledge about people and plants meant that his practice thrived. Despite never having a website or advertising, he developed a loyal client base.
“When with patients, look closely and listen closely: they will tell you what’s wrong with them; listen longer and they’ll tell you what to do about it,” he would say. “And then they pay you! It helps if you have white hair and look deeply into their eyes; they will think that you are wise!” While humour was a central part of his teaching, he was certainly wise, although he never claimed to have access to knowledge that anyone else couldn’t cultivate. Christopher pointed out that the herbs we need are often under our noses, growing between the cracks in the pavement. He was an urban herbalist, and saw the city as offering up as many possibilities as meadows. He knew his patch like no one else.
People used to ask me how old Christopher was and I would reply that he was something between four and 400. He had the curiosity and twinkle of a four-year-old and the wisdom of the ancients. Non died in July 2017. Christopher followed her just after the autumn equinox. He always did have good timing.
So, why does Christopher’s work still matter and why are we honouring other herbalists in his name? Simply put, because herbal medicine is about more than herbal medicines. It is also about developing relationships with living plants and the natural world and bringing this into relationships with people. Keeping close to the plants themselves is arguably an important part of being a herbalist, with a herbalist being anyone who works with plants to help people. Celebrating other herbalists in Christopher’s name reminds us of this.