Teacher background information


Year 7 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Scientific knowledge has changed peoples’ understanding of the world and is refined as new evidence becomes available (ACSHE119 - Scootle )

  • investigating the contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples' knowledge in the identification of medicinal and endemic plants (OI.9)

This elaboration provides students with opportunities to investigate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ sophisticated knowledge of the medicinal properties of some endemic Australian plant species contributes to refining scientific understanding of the plants’ broader pharmaceutical potential. Students learn about a variety of modern medicines and how they have been sourced from First Nations Australians’ pharmacopeia. 

Around the world there are myriad examples of modern medicines that are derived from traditional botanical and medicinal knowledge. Morphine and aspirin, artemisinin (an antimalarial medicine), teniposide (an anti-cancer agent) and digoxin (a cardiac medicine) are all examples of medicines that have their origins in traditional knowledges and practices 

Australia has a rich and diverse flora, with as much as 84 percent of the plant species being endemic to Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long possessed a vast knowledge of the pharmaceutical properties of this flora. This knowledge includes understanding the phytochemical activity as well as delivery methodologies, for example, by ingestion, inhalation or transdermal delivery.   

Based upon powerful observation and expert botanical knowledge, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, over millennia, trialled plant and non-plant substances for evidence of their healing values culminating in a large body of medicinal knowledge. To this day, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue their therapeutic investigations with previously unused phytochemical materials. 

Pharmaceutical knowledge remains highly prized by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. As in Western medicine today, only certain people are entrusted with responsibility for the knowledge of existing medicines and the exploration of new ones. This traditional knowledge, accumulated and refined over thousands of years, is highly detailed and specialised for the specific areas in which the people live. It targets the common ailments they may suffer from and injuries they are likely to sustain.    

Since the beginning of colonisation in Australia, there has been extensive interest in the medicinal properties of native Australian plants and First Nations’ peoples’ use of them, which has helped create numerous treatments and medicines that are widely used today.     

As early as 1788, surgeon Dennis Considen wrote to Joseph Banks claiming that, “This country produces five or six species of wild myrtle [species of Melaleuca, Kunzea and Leptospermum], some of which I have sent you dried. An infusion of the leaves of one sort is a mild and safe astringent for the dysentery (Clarke, 2008, p.16).  

In the early 1920s, scientific research was conducted into the antimicrobial properties of tea tree oil, based on observations of Aboriginal peoples’ uses for this purpose. Its traditional use was reaffirmed when this research quantified its properties and found it to be a highly potent remedy of greater efficacy than many Western antimicrobial agents (such as phenol) existing at the time. Over the past century this has led to a thriving industry based on the production of tea tree oil. The oil is commonly used in the treatment of bacterial and fungal infections.  

Aboriginal peoples on the east coast of Australia had long been observed treating stomach pain using a medicine derived from a particular species of tree, now known as Duboisia myoporoides or corkwood tree. During the 1940s there was a shortage of a previously widely available Western medicine prompting a large-scale search for a replacement. Scientists were quick to recognise traditional Aboriginal treatments for gastric dysfunctions and began to assess the active chemical constituents of the corkwood tree. This resulted in the successful identification and isolation of the important anti-spasmodic compound hyoscine butylbromide. Today, this drug founded on a traditional Aboriginal medicine remains an important commercially produced pharmaceutical used internationally in the treatment of ailments such as abdominal pain, oesophageal spasms, renal colic and bladder spasms. 

Through investigating the context suggested by this elaboration, students have opportunities to develop an understanding of how scientific knowledge about the pharmaceutical potential of endemic Australian plants has been refined through the investigation of the traditional medicinal knowledges of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Students gain an appreciation of the contributions of First Nations’ Australians to the development of modern medicines based on the rich pharmacopeia of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Boehringer Ingelheim Pty. Ltd. (2012). Duboisia. A special plant: Dubosia bush. Retrieved from http://www.buscopan.com.au/how_it_works/duboisia.html

Bradley, V., Collins, D. J., Crabbe, P. G., Eastwood, F. W., Irvine, M. C., Swan, J. M., & Symon, D. E. (1978). A survey of Australian Solanum plants for potentially useful sources of Solasodine. Australian Journal of Botany, 26(6), 723-754.

Clarke, P. (2008). Aboriginal healing practices and Australian bush medicine. Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, 33, 3-38.

Claudie, D. J., Semple, S. J., Smith, N. M., & Simpson, B. S. (2012). Ancient but new: Developing locally driven enterprises based on traditional medicines in Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju Homelands, Cape York, Queensland, Australia. In P. Drahos & S. Frankel (Eds.), Indigenous Peoples' Innovation: Intellectual property pathways to development. Retrieved from http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p154251/pdf/ch02.pdf

Foley, P. (2006). Duboisia myoporoides: The medical career of a native Australian plant. Historical Records of Australian Science, 17(1), 31-69.

Locher, C., Semple, S. J., & Simpson, B. S. (2013). Traditional Australian Aboriginal medicinal plants: An untapped resource for novel therapeutic compounds? Future Medicinal Chemistry, 5(7), 733-736.

Patel, S. S., & Savjani, J. K. (2015). Systematic review of plant steroids as potential anti-inflammatory agents: Current status and future perspectives. The Journal of Phytopharmacology, 4(2), 121-125.

Seed Skincare. Australian clays & native botanicals. Retrieved from http://www.seedskincare.com.au/australian-clays-native-botanicals/

Stack, E. M. (1989). Aboriginal pharmacopoeia. Occasional Papers (Northern Territory Library Service), 10.