General Practitioners   of Australia

connecting GPs across this vast land
Aboriginal Healers

    It is interesting to consider the state of health of Aboriginal people before the English settled in Australia. The Aboriginal people would have been typically very fit as the harvesting of food required much activity. All travel was by foot. Early drawings show them to be lean. Thousands of years of natural selection would mean that genetic illnesses would be infrequent. Those born with a genetic disease would rarely have reached reproductive age and so would not have passed on their genes. In contrast to England, the Aboriginal people did not live in overcrowded communities. Each tribe, although semi-nomadic, had its own territory. The food that could be harvested within this territory limited the population that it could sustain. Again, in contrast to their English invaders, the Aboriginal people did not eat highly processed foods. Their diet was a mixture of meat and plants (mostly fresh). No preservatives, no rotting foods and foods were not infested with weevils. Living within their own tribal lands meant that there was reduced ability for diseases to spread through the community.

Different tribes had different names given to the healers. Some examples are ngangkari in the western desert lands, ngaanyatjarra, marrngitj in north-eat Arnhem Land and garratji in the Sydney district. Most healers were men, although people of both genders could use plants for their healing powers.

Aboriginal healers were typically descendants of healers Those children of healers who showed promise were taught the skills by their forebears. The healers were well-respected members of their communities.

Healers were primarily concerned with a person's spirit, viewing that the spirit had to be well for the person to be well. Disease was often seen as a disturbance of a person's spirit, sometimes because another healer had sent an evil spirit. This spirit would then have to be removed. Or the person's spirit was out of balance with nature (note this is the same as Hippocrates' view of illness).

The medicine man could communicate with spirits who had passed through dreams or trances in order to obtain information about what was troubling a person. The belief was that a person's spirit would go to an underworld. As a consequence, some tribes refuse to speak the name of a deceased person in case this called the spirit back to the world of the living.

Healers would sometimes diagnose that something was stuck inside someone's body, (eg a piece of wood, stone, or shell). The healer would treat this with singing, massage and sucking out the offending item

Note that the Aboriginal healers had no traditional ways to treat diseases that did not exist in Australia before the Europeans arrived. Consequently diseases like measles, smallpox, chickenpox, syphilis, gonorrhoea and influenza were devastating to Aboriginal communities.

Many of the Aboriginal healer's beliefs sound strange to the ears of those in current times. It should be remembered that the European doctors were not much better (if at all) at the time. They had no idea what caused infections, putting them down to some miasma (the concept was that foul odours from rotting organic matter caused the diseases). These miasmas could be of local origin or be over large geographical areas or be associated with a specific area such as a swamp. Malaria for example, could be associated with the "bad air" (mal air) coming from a swamp. The miasma theory did not start to be dispelled until about 1880 when Pasteur's germ theory was starting to become accepted. Another European concept of disease causation at the time was that disease occurred as punishment for immorality (eg syphilis and gonorrhoea occurred as a punishment for illicit sexual behaviour).

The European doctors were infrequently able to treat serious infectious disease despite their practices of cupping and blood letting. Their pharmacopoeia was relatively devoid of useful medicines (quinate, digitalis, strychnine and opium being amongst the few that worked). Both Aboriginal and European doctors were reasonably able to set fractures and treat injuries.

It begs the question as to who was better able to treat their patients in the early 1700s, the Aboriginal medicine men of the English doctors. I expect that it was much better to be treated by a traditional healing in Australia in the early 1700s than to be living in overcrowded English cities and be treated by English dotors.

The ngangkari had a large pharmacopoeia. It consisted of plant and animal products. As learning was by an apprenticeship system, the art of healing could vary from one region to another. What was used as medicine in one region was not always used in another even though the particular plant used existed in both regions.

Note that the British Pharmacopoeia, even in 1788 when the British arrived, contained many substances found in the average British kitchen and contained very few ingredients that we would currently view as effective.

Some of the substances used by are listed below. Please note the words attributed to Paracelsus (1493-1534), a medieval monk, who is regarded as the father of toxicology, "What is there that is not poison? All things are poison and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison". Those items listed below, if improperly prepared or not used the right way can be poisonous.

Scientific Name Common Name Part Used Active substance Usage
Acacia sp. Wattles bark tannins
Atriplex sp. old man saltbush leaves mixed with emu bush leaves, boiled and use to treat infected wounds
Blechnum sp. Ferns rhizome, sap
Casuarina stricta Mountain She-oak leaves, young cones contraceptive
Cissus sp. Native grape fruit, root
Clematis glycinoides headache vine leaves aromatic oils headache
Cyanthea australis tree fern pith, young fronds tonic
Cymbopogon sp. lemon grass used to treat fever, diarrhoea
Cymbopogon obtectus silky heads leaves, root bolied to relieve coughs and colds, liniment for coughs and colds,
a liquid from the root was used to treat earache
Dendrobium sp. rock lily stems chewed stems applied to burns, sores and wounds
Dioscorea transversa long yam sap anti skin cancer
Dodonea viscosa native hop bush leaves boiled and applied to treat earache
Doryphora sassafras sassafras bark infusion tonic
Drosera peltata pale sundew asthma, pertusis
Duboisia myoporoides corkwood narcotic
Exocarpus cupressiformis wild cherry
Ghania sp. Sedges seeds antiseptic
Haemodorum corymbosum blood root anti-venom
Hakea sp. hakea ash healing cuts and sores
Isotoma sp. bluebells narcotic
Lycopodium sp. club mosses coughs, gout, diarrhoea
Melaleuca sp. paperbark bark, leaves bandages, leaves steamed or boiled to treat colds
Pandanus tectorius screw pine inner core of growing tip juice gargled for mouth sores
Persoonia sp. geebung antibiotic
Persoonia falcata geebung fine scrapings from wood mixed with breast milk to treat conjunctivitis
Rubus sp. native reasberry fruit contraceptive
Scaevola sp. fan flower root root for abdominal pains, steamed for respiratory complaints
Smilax glyciphilla native sarsparilla tonic,
Solanum laciniatum kangaroo apple solanum alkaloids used toabort pregnancies or for contraception. Note this plan was grown in cultivation in USSR, NZ, India and Egypt for the production of steroids used to manufacture the oral contraceptive pill.
Sphagnum peat moss wound dressing
Typha sp. bullrush rhizome dysentry
Urtica diocia stinging nettle Arthritis joints were thrashed with the nettle.
Xyris ustulata antiseptic


  • Clarke, P, Aboriginal healing practices and Australian Bush Medicine,, accessed 7/8/2016
  • Cribb A.B., Cribb J.W., Wild Medicine in Australia, Angus & Robertson, 1988
  • Williams, Cheryll, Medicinal Plants in Australia, Vol. 3, Rosenberg Publishing, 2012
  • Lassak E.V. & McCarthy T., Australian Medicinal Plants, methuen Australia, 1985
  • Caton J.M., Hardwick R.J., Field Guide to Useful Native Plants from Temperate Australia, Harbour Publishing House, 2018
  • McBarron E.J., Medical and Vetinary Aspects of Plant Poisions, department of Agriculture NSW, 1976
  • Williams, Cheryll, Australian Medicinal Plants: A complete guide to identification and usage, Reed New Holland, 2011, Vol. 3, Rosenberg Publishing, 2012
  • Everard, P., et al., Punu, Yankunytjayjara Plant Use, Angus & Robertson, 1985

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