Catching Up with Artemis Founder Sandra Clair

Artemis founder Sandra Clair on the secret that changed her life

Artemis Founder Dr Sandra Clair. Picture / Doug Sherring.

Sandra Clair is the last person you’d expect to talk about having a mystical experience. A renowned plant medicine herbalist originally from Switzerland, she’s also a former journalist, medical anthropologist and historian. In collaboration with the University of Zurich, she is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury, in which she’s analysing the most comprehensive book on herbal medicine in the Western world.

But during an illuminating chat covering everything from the world’s most powerful plants to the controversy over detoxing, and the differences between man-made medicines and those of the natural world — “plant medicines address the root cause” — Clair says it’s time to open up about a very personal story. It’s a strange tale about how she came to acquire the ancient book at the heart of her work at Artemis, the Dunedin-based natural therapies company she founded 17 years ago.

The story begins in 1992. A young Clair, fresh from completing her anthropology studies, embarked on an apprenticeship with a nun, midwife and plant medicine expert called Sister Pauline. Switzerland has a robust tradition of using plant medicine as a normal part of contemporary medicine, and Clair spent three years learning to harvest and compound plants for remedies under her tutelage. Much of her learning took place at a library attached to a monastery in the Swiss Alps.

“The last time I went with her, she said ‘I’m going to give you this pile of books because it’s really important you continue with this knowledge’. With little more than a backpack, Clair took only the modern texts; the heavy older books were written in a font she couldn’t decipher.

Three years later, she moved to New Zealand, where she opened a body therapy clinic and began developing her range of theraputic teas and remedies, now stocked at pharmacies and health stores around the country. She hadn’t even thought about the books she’d left behind. Then one day she had a daydream.

“This old woman came to me and said, ‘You let the lineage down ... You can’t do without those old books. That’s where the real knowledge is captured. We’ve got a big problem.’”

Her instructions were clear: Clair was to travel to Bern in Switzerland to visit a bookstore called Hegnauer and retrieve the “mother book”. Then she was to start her research and bring its knowledge to life.

Clair says she had never even heard of Hegnauer but when she woke up, her heart was pounding.

“I felt awful. I recognised the mistake I’d made.”

Over the course of the next five, (pre-internet) years, she visited Bern twice, amazed to find Hegnauer did exist. But with no knowledge of the book’s title or author, her vague searches proved fruitless. Near the end of the second trip, Clair discovered the bookstore had two branches. Clair wasn’t able to return to Switzerland for another two, “incredibly anxious” years. What if the book had already sold?

When she finally found the correct store, the owner explained that seven years earlier, around the time she’d had the dream, the previous owner had bought some old medical books and died shortly afterwards.

They’d been stored in the attic and forgotten — until the week before Clair arrived, when he’d received a phone call asking if he stocked any ancient medical books, at which point he’d brought them down from the attic. There were three in total, all of them old and expensive, so Clair’s next challenge was to decide which she was the so-called “mother book”. Cue another odd surprise.

“There was a man in the store who introduced himself as a medical doctor. He saw what I was looking at, and said, ‘I can tell you about each author if you want’. He gave me a lecture about each of the books, then got up and disappeared.”

Trusting in the doctor, and the strange sensation she felt when she laid eyes on it, she selected a rare 16th century tome called Materia Medica.

It was written in early German by botanist and physician to the courts, Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, who had spent 36 years summarising the knowledge of the most significant antique, medieval and contemporary Western herbal textbooks available at the time, including the work of Hippocrates and Dioscorides.

It didn’t take long for Clair to confirm that her quest was worth it. Having learnt to read the early German and ancient font, the translations are now part of her PhD, in which she is tracking how consistently the plants identified as beneficial have been used throughout the 20th century.

“What’s amazing is what we can actually prove. St John’s Wort has been proven as an anti-depressant in over 70 studies for wound care, separate to this it is used for wound care, shingles and pain relief. They’re listed in the medieval textbooks and modern science is now able to validate them.”

She never did discover who made that mystery phone call. But she believes she had the dream for good reason.
“We’re now going back to the old ways, and the reason is some of the big guns are not working anymore, especially antibiotics ... I believe that the modern person has a quick-fix mentality. We like popping a pill and keeping our ways of life instead of thinking, ‘what could I adjust in terms of self care?’”

She says she’s not against pharmaceuticals, but they should be used as a last resort.

“There are lots of things between heaven and earth we don’t understand,” she says. “Plant medicine has been around such a long time and obviously there is a real urge and need for this knowledge to be used contemporarily.”

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