Supplements and Herbs

The history of amygdalin therapy in the treatment of cancer

Plant foods rich in "vitamin B17" used against tumors since ancient times

Copyright © 2019 Healing Cancer Naturally

Amygdalin exists in a greater or lesser concentration in some 1,200 foodstuffs.

It is striking to note the correlation between foods that are rich in amygdalin and those that have been used as treatment for cancer over the past 2,500 years - an insight we owe to Dr Jonathan L. Hartwell's research.

Dr Hartwell worked at the US National Cancer Institute from 1938 until his retirement from the NCI’s Natural Products Section in 1975. Born in 1906 and educated at Harvard, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1927, a masters in 1929 and a doctorate in 1935.

While researching chemical agents responsible for anticancer activity in mice he increasingly became aware of the extensive use of plants throughout history in the treatment of cancer. What began as a survey eventually resulted in a compendium of over 3,000 plant species.

He writes: "It was of interest ... to note how completely the history of the herbal treatment of cancer has been identified with the history of medicine, indeed of civilization. ...To cite the best documented instance, this treatment has been the concern of medical writers beginning with one of the two origins of Western medicine – Egypt – and continuing through ancient Greece and Rome and on to the Arabians, the School of Salerno, medieval and modern Europe and finally the Americas."

Similarly, Dr Hartwell noted that the "history of amygdalin therapy in the treatment of cancer, in whatever form, can be traced back to the earliest written records of human history."

While this in itself does not of course provide conclusive proof of amygdalin's efficacy in the way that perhaps a double-blind study would but it does remove it from the realm of quackery and shows amygdalin to be worthy of serious study.

The following references to treatment of cancer using plants containing amygdalin are taken from Dr Hartwell’s book, unless otherwise stated. The list by no means includes all of the plants containing amygdalin which are mentioned in his book but is presented as a reasonable cross section.


The earliest of herbal compendiums, the Great Herbal of China, Pen T’sao Kang Mu, generally credited to the mystical Emperor Shen-Nung (or Shennong, 2838 – 2698 BC) listed preparations of almond kernel as helpful against tumors.

Aulus Cornelius Celsus of ancient Rome compiled a number of encyclopaedias including his only surviving work, De Medicina in about 30 AD. This mentions the use of the bitter almond in treating ‘putrid flesh’.

The Roman physician Scribonius Largus was the court physican to the emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54). In 47 AD he compiled a list of some 271 prescriptions including the administration of almonds for the treatment of bladder tumors.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79) is one of the best known writers of the ancient world and his greatest work, the Naturalis Historia, is an encyclopedia containing much of the knowledge of his time. He discussed the use of bitter almond oil in the treatment of ‘condylomata’.

Claudius Galenus (Galen) was a skilled 2nd century physician who pioneered a number of surgical techniques including the removal of cataracts from the eye. He wrote extensively and eventually became the court physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He advocated almonds in the treatment of ‘scirrhus of the liver’.

The Roman physician Theodorus Priscianus of the 4th century used almond oil to treat the ‘callus ulcer’.

Marcellus Empiricus, a medical writer from an area in Roman Gaul (now Bordeaux, France) in the 5th century, wrote De Medicamentis (On Medicines). He mentions the treatment of tumors of the bladder with almonds.

Avicenna, the 10th century Arabian physician and philosopher, served as physician and adviser to several Persian potentates. His "Canon of Medicine" mentions the use of the oil of the bitter almond in the treatment of tumors of the uterus, spleen, stomach and liver.

Henrik Harpestraeng, the 12th century Danish physician, used almond oil mixed with honey to treat a ‘hard spleen’.

Nicholas Myrepsos, the Byzantine physician of the 13th century, powdered the shells of the almond and used the mixture in the treatment of carcinoma of the mouth.

Ibn al-Baitar, the great 13th century Muslim physician of Damascus, used almonds in the treatment of breast cancer.

Conrad Gessner, the Swiss physician, biologist and philologist of the 16th century, wrote of the use of almonds in the treatment of ‘putrid cancers’.

The great Herball of John Gerard (1545–1612), first published in London in 1597 and in an expanded version in 1636, discusses at length the medicinal properties of amygdalus, the almond, and states, "Bitter almonds doe make thinne and open, they remove stoppings out of the liver and spleene, therefore they be good against paine in the sides…" This is one of the earliest references to the analgesic properties of amygdalin, well documented in cancer patients in recent times.

The great Flemish herbal of the same period as Gerard, compiled by Rembert Dodoens, recommends the use of bitter almonds for ‘rotting tumors’. (Rosenberg )

In 1845, a Russian Professor of surgery, Dr T. Inosemtzeff of the Imperial University of Moscow, published a case history of metastasized cancer in the Gazette Médicale de Paris. In this case, the further development of the illness was successfully halted via amygdalin treatment (plus some other medications such as narcotics).[1]

Fava or Faba Beans

Quintus Serenus Sammonicus was the Roman author of a didactic medical poem in the 2nd century containing a number of popular remedies that were much used in the Middle Ages. These included faba beans cooked in wine for tumors of the testes.

Similarly Scribonius Largus recommended faba beans boiled in vinegar for testicular tumors. Marcellus Empiricus referred to the beans with pods for tumors of the genitals.

Paulus Aegineta (Paul of Aegina), the 7th century Byzantine Greek physician, wrote a medical encyclopedia in several books. He refers to faba beans for the treatment of tumors.

Bald's Leechbook is an Anglo-Saxon compendium written about 900 AD. It contains local folk remedies as well as citations from classical works and refers to faba beans for the treatment of hard tumors or swellings.

Odo, the bishop of Meung is an 11th century French physician who based his writings on classical authors. He mentions Faba beans for parotid tumors.


Scribonius Largus suggested cooked lentils for intestinal cancer. Pliny the Elder mentions lentil beans for tumors and indurations. Similarly, Theodorus Priscianus refers to lentil beans for glandular tumors.

The lentil bean was cooked to treat tumors on the outer part of the ear according to Oribasius, the Greek encyclopaedist and healer and friend and doctor to the emperor Julian.

Ibn al-Baitar described the whole lentil plant being boiled in vinegar for indurated glands and hard tumors.

The Codex Sangallensis, a 9th century German manuscript on various subjects, discusses the whole lentil plant boiled in water to treat tumors of the genitals.

Similarly, Walafrid Strabo, the abbot of Reichenau in the 9th century, is the earliest medical writer on German soil. He also describes the whole lentil plant being boiled in water for tumors of the mouth.

Lentil seeds boiled in vinegar was used for indurations and tumors of the eyes, according to the Herbal of Rufinus, a 14th century Bolognese physican.

Dodoens (1517-1585), the Flemish physician and botanist, mentions lentils being made into a poultice to treat cancer as does William Coles (1626–1662) the writer of "Adam in Eden", a book of practical information about "those more wholesome Herbs and Plants that he hath growing at his own doore which are more consonant and proper for his Body." He omits "those Outlandish Plants and Ingredients which are almost if not altogether impossible to be obtained."

Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer wrote the "Complete Herbal" in 1653 in London. He describes lentils boiled in water for cancers.

Lentils ingested in form of ghees or powders were used for abdominal tumors in India according to the Charaka Samhita, published in Calcutta by Corinthian Press, 1888 – 1909 (and available in modern editions).


Hippocrates (460–370 BC), the Greek physician, is one of the outstanding figures in the history of medicine. He was the founder of the school of medicine which sought to separate practice from superstition and divine origin. He authored or collected numerous works. He discussed flax or linon as an emollient or ointment for indurations and hard tumors of the neck.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) referred to linseed with barley meal, with salt for tumors and linseed boiled in wine for inflamed tumors. In the 4th century, Theodorus Priscianus described the use of linseed or linum as a paste for an ointment for glandular tumors.

Alexander of Tralles (which is now in Turkey) was born in about 525 AD and practised medicine with success in Rome. He described flax seed used in an ointment for tumors of the parotid glands.

Abu Mansur Muvaffak Harawi, the 10th century Persian physician, wrote a book containg some 585 remedies, the majority of which were from plants. He describes the "bazr ul-kattan" seed with honey and violet oil used for external tumors.

Similarly Avicenna includes flax seed as an ointment or salve for the treatment of hard tumors. William Coles also refers to flax seeds for the treatment of tumors.

The "Botanicum Officinale" was published in 1722 in London as a "Compendium Herbal, Giving An Account of all such plants as are now used in the Practice of Physick. With Their Descriptions and Virtues." It includes linum or flax seed as an ointment for tumors.

The "New Family Herbal" published in 1790 in Birmingham, England refers to flax seed used in poultices for inflammatory tumors. Similarly, Thornton’s Herbal of 1810 referred to flax seed oil for use on breast tumors.

The "American Medical Family Herbal" published in 1814 in New York described flax seed oil as used on a cancerous lump on the breast. The Botanic Physician published in 1830 in New York describes linseed oil used as a plaster against cancer. The American Medical Association of 1922, in ‘Cancer, cures and treatments’ describes flax seed used as a paste against cancer.


The 1935 edition of the book "Folklore from Adams County, Illinois" lists cranberries as a treatment for external cancer and the 1845 "American Vegetable Practice" by the homoeopathic physician Morris Mattson lists cranberry poultice as used for a cancerous tumor in the cheek. The "American eclectic dispensatory" of 1854 lists cranberries as treatment for cancerous ulcers.


The extracts from leaves of the elder tree have been mentioned by Soranos in Ephesus in 2nd century AD as treatment against scirrhous tumors in the hard uterus and mentioned by Roger of Salerno in the 12th century as boiled in red wine to treat ‘cancer of the fleshy parts’.

An ointment made from the leaves of the elder tree were a Baden folk remedy (Baden is a historical territory in South Germany) for tumors of the thigh. There are records of the berries from the elder tree being used against cancer of the stomach in Chile.

The roots of the elder tree as an extraction were used to treat tumors according to Matthaeus Platearius and an ointment made from the roots was used against sclerosis of the spleen and liver and tumors according to Nicholas of Salerno (both authors from the 12th century).


Marcellus Empiricus referred to the juice of the mulberry plant being incorporated into an ointment for treatment of cancer of the mouth.

Constantinus Africanus was a medical translator and Benedictine monk in the 11th century. He translated various Arabian manuscripts and helped introduce ancient Greek medicine to Christian Europe. He also mentioned the juice of mulberry fruit, known as mora celse or mora matura, for cancer of the mouth.

Dioscorides was a Greek physician, botanist and pharmacologist who practised at the time of Nero. He travelled extensively throughout the Roman world collecting medical substances. In his work "De Materia Medicina" he mentions mulberries, known as sycomora, for the treatment of tumors of the spleen.

Peach, Plum, Prune

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) describes seed oil from plums as used against tumors. Abu Mansur Muvaffak Harawi refers to peach or chuch seed oil as used for tumors.

The leaves of peaches were used in native medicine for cancerous ulcers, according to the French doctor François-Joseph Cazin (1788-1864) who authored "Traité pratique et raisonné des plantes médicinales indigènes" (Paris, 1858). Nicholas Culpepper describes the fruit pulp of prunes being made into an electuary, or a paste, as treatment for cancer.


Quince fruit were used for treatment of tumors of the liver according to Dioscorides. Similarly quince known as cydonium malum was used for tumors of the uterus according to Pliny the elder.

The quince flower mixed with water and honey, white wine and alum cerate (a type of salt) was used against cancer according to the Thesaurus Euonymi Philiatri (written by Conrad Gessner) published in Zurich in 1552.

The quince seed made into a cerate, which is a hard paste applied to the skin directly or on dressings was used for cancer according to E.D. Kirby, Violets and Cancer, British Medical Journal, 1902


Rufinus, the Bolognese physician of the 14th century, describes strawberry, or fragulla, transformed into an ointment for sclerosis of the spleen and liver and tumors.

A Russian publication in 1953 describes extracts from the leaves of strawberries used for cancer of the larynx. (Shishova N.I.)

A physicians book published in Wales in 1861, the Meddygon Myddfai, describes the strawberry leaf being made into an unguent, or ointment, for the treatment of cancer.

Fraise mixed with water was used against open cancer according to Les Remèdes Charitables de Madame Fouquet, 1685.

Fragola, or wild cherries, were mixed into a pomade, or ointment, for inflammatory tumors, according to Giberto Scotti's Flora Medica della Provincia di Como, 1872.


Cassava has been cooked in grease to treat tumors in San Domingo, stewed and pulped to treat tumors in Nigeria and an extract has been used for cancerous affections in Brazil.[2]

Avicenna mentions bamboo sugar used for tumors of the liver, stomach and spleen. Ointment from bamboo roots has been used for hard tumors and cirrhosis in Vietnam. Ghees and powders have been used for abdominal tumors in India and as ointment for hard tumors and scirrhus in China.

Paste made from millet seeds was recommended for mammary cancer by John Prevotius.


Plants Used Against Cancer: A Survey (Bioactive Plants, Vol 2)

by Jonathan L. Hartwell

Initially published in a series of articles in a scientific magazine (Lloydia, published in eleven installments from 1967 to 1971), Dr Hartwell's findings were later gathered together into this book published in 1982 in Massachusetts.


1 More on the more recent history of amygdalin under Vitamin B17 (Laetrile/Amygdalin): Some historical background.

2 A cassava compound, linamarin, has been found to be cytotoxic to cancer cells, see Cytotoxicity of purified cassava linamarin to a selected cancer cell lines. Like Amygdalin, linamarin (found inter alia in plants such as cassava) is a cyanogenic glycoside.

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