The History of Bach Flower Therapy
Much of what we know about Edward Bach’s personal life comes from the biography of his assistant and friend Nora Weeks, The Medical Discoveries of Edward Bach Physician (1940). Bach had hired Weeks as the radiologist for his private practice in London. Later, she devotedly followed him on his journey through the countryside where he sought out his materia medica of flower remedies.
Weeks helped to collect and finalize Bach’s writings and, upon his request, she worked to maintain his legacy after his death. Her biography, The Medical Discoveries of Edward Bach Physician (1940), is quite adoring and probably a bit idealizing. It is nevertheless recognized to be a relatively accurate representation of various aspects of Bach’s life.
Childhood and early life
Edward Bach was born on September 24, 1886, in the English village of Moseley, three miles outside the city of Birmingham. He is described as a sensitive and somewhat sickly child with a great love of nature. Being of Welsh descent, his family went on holidays in Wales, where it is said that Bach spent much time exploring the countryside during his childhood. Perhaps too proud to ask his father for help, in his late teens, he worked in his father’s brass foundry to raise enough money for medical school.
Nora Weeks recounts that, at one point in his youth, Bach had felt conflicted about whether he should become a clergyman or a doctor (Weeks 13). In hindsight, this was an early clue to the kind of doctor he would later become—a doctor with a mission to discover a medicine of the Soul.
Medical school and beyond
In 1906, at the age of 20, Bach went to study medicine at Birmingham University and then University College Hospital in London, from where he graduated in 1912. He continued to work at University College Hospital, first as an emergency room doctor and surgeon, treating the casualties of World War I and the Spanish flu of 1918.
It seems that, from a rather early date, Bach began to have reservations about the medical practices of his day. Like Hahnemann, he was disturbed by many of the treatments because they seemed to add to—rather than relieve—the patient’s suffering. That was the first issue that, in his mind, became a problem to solve.
Weeks also tells us that Bach did not enjoy theoretical, book-based learning nearly as much as practice, so he spent much of his time doing rounds at the hospital, closely observing and listening to his patients. He began to wonder why some people got better from the treatments and others did not. He formed a theory that differences in personality might be responsible for different treatment outcomes. (Weeks 16-17). The role of personality in healing would assume a growing centrality in his thinking over time, and it eventually led to the discovery of his new remedy system.
At this early stage, however, Bach was still working within a materialist model of medicine. He became fascinated with bacteriology, which was promising the medical breakthroughs of the future. He became a bacteriologist and, through that work, discovered a relationship between intestinal toxemia and chronic disease. Through clinical practice and laboratory analysis, he came to realize that people with certain illnesses shared a predominance of certain intestinal bacteria. Could this knowledge offer a path to a cure?
Bach wondered if the answer might lie in that other promise of modern medicine: vaccines. He asked himself, could vaccines made from each of these bacterial strains have a therapeutic effect? The hospital allowed Bach to investigate this question, providing him with a laboratory to continue this work and giving him permission to administer the vaccines. The results were positive. He became absorbed with this research, which started to receive some attention, and by this time, he also had a thriving private practice.
Then, in 1917, Bach had a big wake-up call. He experienced a severe hemorrhage, collapsed, and was rushed into surgery. When he woke up, he was told that he had cancer of the spleen and had, at best, three months to live. What ensued was a period of deep anguish, followed by a resolution to work as hard as he could in his short remaining time (Weeks 21-22). His burning wish was to find the answer to human suffering.
The encounter with homeopathy
Two years after this crisis, Bach was still alive. At this point came the first major change in Bach’s career. In 1919, a post opened up at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital for a pathologist and bacteriologist. Bach was hired.
There he discovered Hahnemann and he was enthusiastic. He read the Organon and resonated with its principles: the minimum dose, the importance of mental symptoms, the idea of treating the patient and not the disease, and the need for individualized treatment, to name a few.
He formed friendships and collaborated with some of the leading London homeopaths of his day. Charles Edwin Wheeler became his friend and housemate. When his work in the lab grew, he was assigned assistants, and his research team included John Paterson, whom we know in association with the bowel nosodes, as well as Wheeler and Thomas Dishington, with whom Bach published and presented at conferences. John Henry Clarke, the distinguished homeopath and author of A Dictionary of Practical Materia Medica (1900) became a friend and a mentor figure to him.
Along with his discovery of Hahnemann’s writings, Bach of course also discovered potentization. This was a light-bulb moment for him because he believed that he had finally found a painless way to deliver vaccines. He therefore abandoned injections in favor of nosodes. With the nosodes, he found that he was getting equally good—if not better—results. According to Weeks, there were even doctors who came from abroad to learn from him, and most of them were allopathic. Bach’s seven nosodes are still used by homeopaths today and you can find information about them in various repertories and materia medicas. They are Morgan (Bach), Dysentery co., Proteus, Gartner, Mutabile, Faecalis alkiligenes, and No. 7.
The twelve universal types
While he was doing his work on nosodes, Bach was still observing human character and reflecting on the role of personality in health and disease. Eventually he had a revelation while attending a dinner party in 1928. Weeks tells us that "To pass the time, he was idly watching the people around him when suddenly he realized that the whole of humanity consisted of a number of definite groups or types" and "by the time the dinner was over he had worked out a number of groups and was busy in his mind comparing them with his seven bacterial groups" (39-40). He referred to the twelve universal “types” by their defining characteristics:
- Indifference or boredom
- Mental torture or worry
- Pride or aloofness
- Doubt or discouragement
Bach believed that each of us, at our core, embodies one of these universal types and, indeed, that we are born into our type. He then spent time relating those types to the nosodes. However, that was not enough for him because another question emerged: Can we replace the products of disease with something better or more innocuous? Was there a superior way with plants?
To find out, in 1928 Bach began to make research trips out to the countryside. He hoped to discover twelve plant remedies that would fit the twelve types. He would eventually call these “type” or “soul” remedies, and we still refer to them in this way. That year, he identified three plants that fit three of the personality types: Impatiens (impatience), Clematis (indifference or boredom), and Mimulus (fear).
Bach potentized them homeopathically and found them to be worthy replacements for some of the nosodes. With this confirmation, Bach’s new quest began. In 1929, he abandoned nosode therapy. In May of 1930, to the shock and dismay of his colleagues, Bach left his flourishing London career and headed to the countryside.
A seeker's journey
Weeks tells a lovely story about Bach’s journey from London to Wales. It seems that, on his arrival, he made a disturbing discovery. He went to open a suitcase that he thought contained his mortars and pestles to make his remedies. To his great dismay, he saw that he had brought the wrong suitcase, which was full of shoes instead. But soon enough, Weeks tells us, he realized the mistake was serendipitous. Although he did not know this yet, his new remedies would require no pestles and mortars. What he did need, however, was to roam the countryside for miles and miles to discover the flowers—and for that, he certainly needed his shoes! (Weeks 45-46).
Bach spent a lot of time researching plants and actually observing them in their habitat for hours at a time, much like a botanist would, seeking to understand their form, function, habitat, and behavior. Bach’s journey of discovery is beautifully told in Julian Barnard’s Bach Flower Remedies: Form and Function (2002). In Barnard’s thoughtfully researched account, we find careful attention to the relationship between form and function for each plant and its corresponding remedy. His work is an enlightening exploration of plant signatures which any homeopath will appreciate. However, it is advanced-level text that is best appreciated after reading Nora Weeks’ biography and gaining a deeper understanding of the remedies.
In addition to his scientific, botanical observations, Bach’s process for discovering the remedies was intuitive and, we might even say, empathic. It seems that Bach could feel the vibrations of the plants and their effects on him. He just needed to put a flower petal on his tongue or place his hand over a plant to experience its healing qualities.
At one point, with the second half of the remedies, the discovery process seems to have become more intense. Bach would enter into a state of suffering—sometimes unbearable—and then felt called to head out into the fields and wander until he found the plant that would relieve his suffering.
Bach’s process of discovery appears to be mystical, even shamanic. It is certainly a far cry from the scientific, empirical process that homeopaths use for their provings. It seems that Bach had some other special abilities as well, as Nora Weeks tells of multiple episodes in which Bach had produced remarkable healings by laying his hands on someone in need.
Yet by all accounts, Bach was also a scientifically-minded and practical kind of guy. No one has described him as a guru type, although by the fictionalized account of his friend and collaborator Mary Tabor in To Thine Own Self (1938), we might assume he was a charismatic and fascinating figure.
Bach was certainly remarkable in his mission to find a medicine that would heal human suffering. We can acknowledge that this is no small calling! His willingness to take on suffering himself to relieve the suffering of others might even remind one, in a poetic way, of the Christ or Bodhisattva archetype, or more prosaically, of our homeopathic provings—which call us to take on suffering to relieve the suffering of others.
In this sense, Bach was following in Hahnemann’s footsteps, even though his suffering was not produced by the plants or the remedies made from them (as the Bach remedies are incapable of producing proving symptoms), but rather spontaneously emerged in his experience. One might also wonder whether this mission was an expression of the cancer miasm, so often associated with the healer’s calling, in a man who had been diagnosed with cancer and eventually died with it.
Discovery of the sun method
Shortly after his move to the countryside, Bach discovered a new way to potentize remedies. He had been observing the early morning dew on the plants, noticing that it seemed to be highly charged with the energetic properties of the plant. We do not know if this was an intuitive discovery or whether Bach had heard of this elsewhere. Certainly it was not a new idea.
The ancient Egyptians seemed to have used dew for healing purposes. The Ramesseum III papyrus scroll dated circa 1700 BC, for example, recommends a treatment for the eyes that involves placing ground celery and hemp in the dew overnight and then washing the patient's eyes with it in the morning (Manniche 82).
The Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) talked about the "sweetness," "strength" and "powers" of the dew (von Bingen 2001, 47, 75, 78). Her cure for "mistiness of the eyes" involves making a paste of fennel juice or seeds and dew (64). For clear vision, she says, one should place the dew of certain plants (interestingly, the leaves of oak and beech among them) on the eyes and eyelids (von Bingen 1998, 51). Elsewhere, she recommends collecting rose leaves at daybreak and placing them over the eyes (2001, 25).
Some modern flower essence authors (Matthews 2013, Hennessy 2020) claim that Hildegard instructed the nuns at her abbey to collect the dew by draping cloths on the plants at night and wrapping them around the sick, but I have not yet located this in original sources. (If anyone has information on this, I would greatly appreciate if you would contact me.)
More recently, the homeopath Robert Thomas Cooper, who had worked at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and passed away before Bach started there, had been thinking about a new way of potentizing remedies in the sun. Cooper had been part of the eponymous Cooper’s Club that met between 1880 and 1900, which initially included Thomas Skinner, James Compton Burnett, John Henry Clarke, and later also Charles Edwin Wheeler. It is not hard to conceive that Bach might have heard of Cooper’s idea from Clarke, Wheeler or others working at the hospital at that time (Morrell).
Wherever Bach’s idea came from, one can imagine that collecting droplets of dew was a completely impractical proposition. Bach therefore tried to recreate what he perceived in the dew by other means. He gathered the flowers of his chosen plants, floated them in bowls of spring water under the sun, leaving them to stand for a few hours at a time. Apparently he was pleased with the results because he abandoned homeopathic potentization and continued to use this method consistently from 1930 to the early part of 1935.
The Twelve Healers
It took Bach from 1928 to 1932 to find the twelve remedies that fit the twelve universal types. He called these “type” remedies and eventually referred to them as “The Twelve Healers.” According to Bach, each type represents the primary Soul lesson that is the reason for our incarnation. It also determines our default response to life, and it is especially noticeable in times of stress. Below is a list of the Twelve Healers with their method of potentization, year of discovery, and corresponding types:
- Impatiens (Sun) (1928) → Impatience
- Clematis (Sun) (1928) → Indifference or boredom
- Mimulus (Sun) (1928) → Fear
- Agrimony (Sun) (1930) → Mental torture or worry
- Chicory (Sun) (1930) → Over-concern
- Vervain (Sun) (1930) → Over-enthusiasm
- Centaury (Sun) (1930) → Weakness
- Cerato (Sun) (1930) → Self-distrust
- Scleranthus (Sun) (1930) → Indecision
- Water Violet (Sun) (1931) → Pride or aloofness
- Gentian (Sun) (1931) → Doubt or discouragement
- Rock Rose (Sun) (1932) → Terror
Bach published his account of these remedies in The Twelve Healers (1933).
The Seven Helpers
Bach initially hoped that the Twelve Healers would be a complete system unto itself. Although he had great success with them, however, he soon discovered that they were not sufficient to address some of the cases he was seeing. He therefore set out to discover additional remedies that would support the original twelve. These additional remedies represent the coping mechanisms that we develop in order to deal with situations as we go through life. He referred to these remedies as "helpers."
In 1933, Bach discovered the first four of these, which he called the “Four Helpers:”
- Gorse (Sun) (1933)
- Oak (Sun) (1933)
- Rock Water (Sun) (1933)
- Heather (Sun) (1933)
In 1934, Bach published an extended version of his text, The Twelve Healers and the Four Helpers. He then discovered three more remedies:
- Olive (Sun) (1934)
- Vine (Sun) (1934)
- Wild Oat (Sun) (1934)
This led him to publishing an extended version of his work, The Twelve Healers and the Seven Helpers (1934). At this point, he seemed satisfied that his work was complete.
The Second 19
In March of 1935, there was a new development. Bach began to experience some unbearable symptoms that told him that his work was not yet done. Nora Weeks shares that he was taken ill with extreme sinus pain and a constant blinding headache, the severity of which made him feel that he would lose his mind. The pain was so intense, she writes, “that he felt desperate, as though life was no longer possible without loss of reason” (Weeks 115). At this point, he realized that he had to find another remedy.
He set out into the fields, where he discovered the blossoming Cherry Plum––and he knew this was the one. The inadequate winter sunlight made it impossible to potentize the flowers as usual, so Bach took the flowering sprigs home with him and boiled them instead, signaling the birth of the boiling method (Weeks 114-115). Bach seemed to have been pleased with the results because he continued to use this method with all but one of the subsequent remedies. Still today, about half of the Bach remedies are prepared with the sun method and the rest with the boiling method.
The discovery of Cherry Plum marked the beginning of a period of prolific activity for Bach. The first 19 remedies had been discovered over the course of six years. The second 19 remedies were all discovered in the same year, over a five-month period from March to July 1935. Julian Barnard points out that this is a staggering average of one per week! (2007)
There was also a significant difference in how these remedies were discovered. As in the case of Cherry Plum, for some days beforehand, Bach would suffer the state for which the remedy was indicated––and by Nora Weeks’ accounts, he suffered quite intensely. She tells us that those around him “marvelled that it was possible for a human being to suffer so and retain his sanity,” adding that, “His tremendous courage and his desire to find the means of relieving the sufferings of others alone sustained him” (Weeks 114).
Below is a list of the Second 19 in their approximate order of discovery. White Chestnut (no. 32) is the only one among them that was made with the sun method, probably to differentiate it further from Chestnut Bud, which was made from the buds of the same plant (Aesculus hippocastanum).
- Cherry Plum (Boiling) (1935)
- Elm (Boiling) (1935)
- Aspen (Boiling) (1935)
- Chestnut Bud (Boiling) (1935)
- Larch (Boiling) (1935)
- Hornbeam (Boiling) (1935)
- Willow (Boiling) (1935)
- Beech (Boiling) (1935)
- Crab Apple (Boiling) (1935)
- Walnut (Boiling) (1935)
- Holly (Boiling) (1935)
- Star of Bethlehem (Boiling) (1935)
- White Chestnut (Sun) (1935)
- Red Chestnut (Boiling) (1935)
- Pine (Boiling) (1935)
- Honeysuckle (Boiling) (1935)
- Wild Rose (Boiling) (1935)
- Mustard (Boiling) (1935)
- Sweet Chestnut (Boiling) (1935)
At this point, Bach felt that his work was complete. His intention was to spend his remaining time treating patients and teaching the system to anyone interested. The following year, in September 1936, he published the final version of his text, The Twelve Healers and Other Remedies.
Bach died on November 27, 1936, shortly after completing his life’s work. He was 50 years old and had outlived his prognosis by almost twenty years.
After Bach’s death, his work was continued primarily by Nora Weeks, whom he had named as sole beneficiary in his will, and his friend Victor Bullen. Together they managed operations from Bach’s house at Mount Vernon, in what is still the home of the Bach Centre today. They made remedies and shared the work with anyone who was interested, including a growing number of practitioners worldwide. They did this in no small part via snail mail correspondence, as well as through The Bach Remedy News Letter, which they started publishing in 1950.
In 1964, Weeks and Bullen co-published the book Bach Flower Remedies Illustration & Preparation, which provides instructions about sourcing and making the remedies. Around that same time, Weeks and Bullen were considering the question of who would succeed them in their work. Weeks began to teach a woman named Nickie Murray, eventually inviting her and her brother John Ramsell to work with them. Nora Weeks died in January of 1978, at which point Murray and Ramsell took over the management of the Bach Centre.
This second generation of leadership significantly expanded the reach of the Bach flower remedies, but it also ushered in a long period of debate about the role of the Bach Centre and the legal status of the remedies. Starting in 1979, the Bach Centre made some controversial decisions, including registering trademarks in connection with the name “Bach,” claiming exclusive authenticity of Bach flowers made at the Bach Centre, and removing references to how to make the remedies from published materials.
These actions were explained as a response to the rise of copycat and inferior products, in an effort to keep intact Bach's original legacy and to respect his wish that no changes be made to his system. On the other hand, they incurred criticism from those who pointed out that Bach had wished that his legacy be shared freely, rather than controlled.
Indeed, as knowledge of the Bach flower remedies spread, people around the world had begun to make Bach flower remedies and new essences from plants indigenous to their area, as well as to develop new frameworks for understanding and prescribing them. New sets of remedies were—and continue to be—developed all around the world. Within this context, one can understand how the Bach Centre's decisions mentioned above created tensions within a growing and diverse international Bach flower community.
Indeed, the seeds of these tensions had been partly sewn by Edward Bach himself, and now they were yielding their problematic fruits. Bach had asked two things of his successors: (1) that his legacy not be altered or developed in any way and (2) that the knowledge and the remedies be shared freely with all who were interested. How to reconcile the two? It is no easy feat indeed to share a body of knowledge freely and widely, and simultaneously ensure that it remain static, unchanged, un-evolving.
We can therefore see how the tension between tradition and innovation, centralized control and decentralized autonomy, restriction and freedom, was Bach's own divided legacy. Painful and embattled as they were, the conflicts it engendered have energized the practice of flower essence therapy and led to much productive dialogue and reflection.
To return to our story, in 1985, John Ramsell’s daughter, Judy Ramsell, joined the Bach Centre and the transition toward a third generation of leadership began. In 1986 Murray resigned from her role there, leaving John Ramsell and Judy Ramsell in charge.
In 1987, Julian Barnard, who had been trained by Nickie Murray, published Collected Writings of Edward Bach, which included Bach's original instructions on how to make the remedies, shortly followed by his own Healing Herbs of Edward Bach: A Practical Guide to Making the Remedies (1988). The following year, Julian Barnard’s operation, Healingherbs, began producing the Bach remedies according to Bach’s original instructions and continues to do so to this day.
The Bach Centre, which had originally been responsible for producing the remedies, with the support of Nelsons Pharmacy for distribution, transitioned packaging and marketing operations to Nelsons in 1991. In 1993, Nelsons purchased Bach Flower Remedies Ltd. and became responsible for production as well. They have successfully launched their brand of Bach remedies internationally and have made Rescue™Remedy into a household name.
In 1997, Julian Barnard's Healingherbs applied to the British High Court to have any trademarks containing the word “Bach” revoked. They were successful. Today “Bach” is considered a generic term that cannot be trademarked.
Although production methods vary, the UK alone now boasts of several producers of "Bach" flower remedies, including Healingherbs, Nelsons, Ainsworths, and Creature Comforters. Bach flower remedy producers can be found in many other countries around the world.
Today the Bach Centre is mainly engaged in practitioner training and education for the general public, as well as the preservation of Bach’s heritage and former house, which serves as a museum and base for their operations. The center now operates under the leadership of co-directors Judy Ramsell Howard and Stefan Ball.
Today millions of people around the world continue to use and explore Bach flower remedies and other flower essences. To all the players involved in this rich history, we should be profoundly grateful.
Bach's legacy has indeed been fruitful—and it continues to blossom and delight us.
Barnard, Julian. After Bach: Another Side to the Story. Hereford: Flower Remedy Programme, 2007.
Barnard, Julian. Bach Flower Remedies: Form and Function. Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Lindisfarne Books, 2002.
Barnard, Julian, ed. Collected Writings of Edward Bach. Flower Remedy Programme, 2007.
Howard, Judy. The Story of Mount Vernon: Home of the Bach Flower Remedies. Albry Printing Co.: Wallingford-on-Thames, 1986.
Howard, Judy and John Ramsell, eds. The Original Writings of Edward Bach. Saffron Walden: C. W. Daniel Company Limited, 1990.
Manniche, Lise. An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. London: British Museum Press, 1989, 2006.
Matthews, Marie. Animal Healing with Australian Bush Flower Essences. Findhorn Press, 2013.
Morrell, Peter. "The Bach Flower Remedies and Homeopathy." http://www.homeoint.org/morrell/articles/bach.htm. Retrieved March 22, 2021.
"Ramesseum III Papyrus." Plate A26. http://antiquecannabisbook.com/chap2B/Egypt/Ram.htm. Retrieved March 22, 2021.
Tabor, Mary. To Thine Own Self. London: The C.W. Daniel Company, 1938.
Von Bingen, Hildegard. Hildegard von Bingen's Physica: The Complete Translation of Her Classic Work. Translated by Priscilla Throop. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1998.
Von Bingen, Hildegard. Hildegard's Healing Plants from Her Medieval Classic Physica. Beacon Press, 2001.
Weeks, Nora. The Medical Discoveries of Edward Bach, Physician. Saffron Walden, Essex: The C.W. Daniel Company Limited, 1973.