Prunus spinosa in the organic gardens at Uriel Pharmacy.
It's late August, prime allergy time for Wisconsinites who suffer from hay fever. Many turn to drugs like Claritin or Allegra for relief. But a follower of anthroposophic medicine might try a lemon and quince remedy in nasal spray or pellet form from southern Wisconsin's Uriel Pharmacy.
Uriel, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last fall, produces remedies called for in anthroposophic medicine, a practice with some similiarities to homeopathy. It's a holistic approach to wellness based on the work of Rudolf Steiner and Dr. Ita Wegman in the 1920s. In short, anthroposophic medicines and remedies are meant to support the body in being well. They "stimulate the body to heal from the inside out, instead of dealing with symptoms," says Uriel staffer Megan Brady. "If there is an imbalance in the body, the medicine will help the body rebalance on its own."
Located in idyllic farmland between Whitewater and East Troy, Uriel Pharmacy is on what looks to be a standard-issue Wisconsin farm, albeit one with an unusually crowded driveway. Behind the farmhouse are a couple of small gardens, neatly kept like the kitchen gardens of many a farmer. But these modest plots aren't growing the usual bounty of tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. Instead, you'll find plants like mercurialis, calendula, yarrow, plantain, echinacea, and Prunus spinosa in carefully tended rows. The plants supply ingredients for Uriel's naturally made and hand-compounded medi-
cines and home remedies.
While the philosophy of anthroposophic medicine may be unfamiliar even to those who favor alternative and complementary medicine, Uriel Pharmacy's organic products hark back to traditional cures from before there was a medical establishment, at the same time that they aim to aid people who are coping with the stresses of the 21st century.
Americans have grown used to the idea of drugs coming out of a large factory. But on this four-acre parcel, 15 staff members farm ingredients and compound, package and market some 1,800 different products, from nonprescription lotions to individually specified treatments for problems as varied as dry socket after tooth extraction and autism.
"Everything is made by hand here," says Brady. "It's like making vitamins from whole foods. This is one step further."
"We don't shun technology, but we try to make things as simply as possible," says Tom McCormack, a pharmacist on staff at Uriel.
Uriel was started in 1996 by pharmacist Mark McKibben. He had previously worked in anthroposophic pharmacies in Germany and California and was looking for a location to start his own. Southern Wisconsin appealed in part because it would make a good central location for a national mail-order company.
Uriel is small enough that the pharmacists can focus on what doctors request. Most companies, McKibben notes, make only 20-30 products. Uriel's 1,800 products include some made in very small batches. McKibben wants to respond to what doctors want even if Uriel sells only a half-dozen units a year. "Nobody does that," McKibben says. Yet he would rather "listen to what the doctors want, and not push something," McKibben says. "It's a creative place to be as a business."
Many of the essential ingredients in Uriel's remedies come from the organic, biodynamic gardens out back. (The gardens are fully organic; to be fully "biodynamic," according to Steiner's philosophy, they would have to be fertilized with manure from animals also kept on site, and currently Uriel has no farm animals on the premises. But the farmers do make compost with manure from nearby organic farms.) The fields are hand weeded.
Uriel doesn't grow everything it uses in its products, but it tries to. Farmer Andrea Weimer has been overseeing the gardens for two years. She's also been a student at East Troy's Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a learning center for sustainable agriculture practices, and runs her own organic cut flower business. She's also a customer - swears by the Arnica/Nettle Gel for the bug bites which are, for her, an occupational hazard.
Among the plants in the early summer harvest are mercurialis, calendula, yarrow, plantain, and echinacea. Properties of the plants are thought to work in a similar way in the human body to combat analogous problems. Like will cure like, in other words. "What are the qualities needed to help cure a problem?" is the basic question that anthroposophic medicine asks. "What is some material in nature that would solve it?"
The bright orange calendula soothes irritated skin and is "good for wounds in general," says pharmacist McCormack. Plantain is used in cough syrup. The shrubby Prunus spinosa, or blackthorn, is used in different ways at different times of year. The pharmacy uses its bitter berries, its flowers and its new growth.
Inside Uriel's greenhouse is Bryophyllum crenatodaigremontianum, a pretty succulent sometimes known as "Mother of Thousands," which generates offspring all along the leaf. It's used to make a tincture to combat insomnia - it's seen as a counterbalance to the thinking-too-much that may exacerbate sleeplessness.
Uriel's best-selling product is an Aurum/Lavender/Rose Cream that's rubbed over the heart to relieve stress and anxiety. It's made from peat extract, lavender oil, rose oil and St. John's wort, and has a soothing, subtle fragrance. The peat is included as "a mantle of warmth and protection around the body, strengthening the ability of the skin to act as a permeable but definite border between our inner life and the outer world.... We process and include fresh peat for its warming, buffering qualities," Uriel's product description reads. I rubbed some into patches of my skin that were itching and irritated after I picked tomatoes in my own garden, and the slight rash went away pronto.
Uriel's nonprescription home remedies include capsules, creams, gels, liquids, oils, pellets (meant to be dissolved 10 or so at a time under the tongue), sprays and tablets made to respond to most of our everyday ailments, such as sore muscles, allergies, indigestion, bedwetting, nausea, morning sickness, yeast infections, stress, exhaustion, colds, diaper rash, mosquito bites, poison ivy and even hemorrhoids.
Arnica/Nettle Gel, for instance, is used to soothe burns, bites, stings, rashes, or anything that irritates the skin. The gentle detoxifier Chicory/Ginger Bitters (which can be mixed with sparkling water) helps with digestion, headaches, acne and menstrual problems by stimulating the liver, gall bladder and intestines. Wild Yam/Ginger Spray is used to prevent snoring. Reading Uriel's home remedy catalog is a crash course in learning to think about your body's ailments and sensitivities in a different way.
Rooms at Uriel are soothing and quiet, from the dimmed stock room to the customer service desk to the compounding room. Tom McCormack, who previously ran his own pharmacy in East Troy, started work at Uriel two years ago. "You need a quiet room free from distraction to make the stuff. Everything is hand-done, meditative. You should have your mind focused on who the medicine is for."
The pharmacist starts with making ingredients for the remedies using special processes to allow the plant material to be preserved without alcohol. Plants are harvested, chopped and mashed, then exposed to the sunrise and the sunset, "to get energy into it," pharmacist Mark McKibben explains, for seven days. That way the substance works with the forces of the earth and sun, light and dark. It's cooled and warmed; giving it those contrasts helps it stabilize. Some ash from the original plant is added at the end.
One product is produced at a time, and several types a day might be made. This small-batch approach makes it possible for the pharmacists at Uriel to respond to specific needs as well; for instance, for a researcher who is doing work with autistic children, and needs various formulas in pleasant-tasting capsules.
Uriel is the only anthroposophic pharmacy in the U.S. that makes, rather than imports, its medicines. It's also a compounding pharmacy; that is, it will make customized medicines for a specific individual.
About half of Uriel's products go to doctors' offices; another quarter fill prescriptions that are sent in, and another quarter are nonprescription products. It sells products in a few retail stores across the country, but business has grown largely by word of mouth. The company has a toll-free order line, and hopes to launch a website soon.
Compounding pharmacies, once the standard in the 1900s, are making something of a comeback. The whole handmade process has elements of the very roots of pharmacy, yet also looks to the future.
Although the Madison area has no anthroposophic practitioners (there is one in Sheboygan and another in Delafield), Uriel's many nonprescription remedies for common ailments are a good starting point for those interested in looking into the anthroposophic attitude toward wellness.
To learn more:
Toll-free line: 866-642-2858
Prices for home remedies range from $13.25 for a 10 gram tube of Berberis/Prunus ointment to $33.50 for a 240 milliliter bottle of Chicory/Ginger Bitters.
Anthroposophical Society in America
Quarterly magazine focusing on "anthroposophical approach to life" with regard to medicine, Waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture, etc.