A Toronto tradition rooted in family
Interview with herbalist Evelyn Dorfman
by Sonya Weir
A visit to Thuna Herbals on Danforth Avenue in Toronto is like stepping back in time. The herbal dispensary looks much as one would expect a store of its kind to look like in the 20s, with rows and rows of huge glass apothecary jars full of helping herbs. Dr. Max Harriman Thuna founded the family business in 1888 after arriving in Toronto from New York, where he had initially settled after emigrating from Austria. Both an osteopath and an herbalist, Dr. Thuna established 28 retail herbal stores across Canada. His original store, which he ran at 436 Queen Street West in Toronto, is the subject of the photograph pictured here; the store window is a visual testament to the latitude that retail sellers enjoyed back then in pitching their products. Dr. Thuna died in 1937, leaving a legacy of an herbal tradition that carries on to this day. The store at 298 Danforth Avenue is currently run by Dr. Thuna’s granddaughter herbalist Evelyn Dorman, and herbalist Roger Lewis. For more than 100 years Thuna Herbals has been dispensing advice and herbal products to the community. It is both an herbal tradition and a family affair.
Sonya Weir: How long have you been involved with Thuna Herbals?
Evelyn Dorfman: I got involved very late in life, specifically at this store, when I decided to take an herbal course that became
The following family members have all worked with Thuna Herbals:
available in Toronto. I had always felt close to the business and admired it, but I had never been involved. Other family members were, of course. The direct people involved were my mother and father. I was a child with parents who were involved in a store such as you see here. I started 20 years ago. I was ready to make a change in my life and I started working here at Thuna’s helping out. My brother was here. I wanted to see if I could get a job here and he said, “Sure, come down.” I said, “Look, I’m not an herbalist obviously, but let me be helpful,” which is what I started doing.
Evelyn Dorfman at Thuna Herbals, 298 Danforth Avenue
Soon after that, I learned that Dominion Herbal College [from Vancouver] was setting up in Toronto to do courses. That was, of course, made for me and I took the course. It took me about four years to get through it. At that point, I felt sufficiently comfortable to be able to function here as an herbalist. I knew that this meant herbalism and herbalists were going to develop in this area and flourish. There are medical doctors today who are opening their minds not only to herbs, but to all kinds of concepts of nutrients and how best to apply other applications than the usual pharmaceuticals.
SW: You must have seen many changes over the last 20 years.
ED: Yes, but they are slow changes. The situation in the store has not changed very much. We are dealing with the same subjects and people are still looking for the same kind of help – herbs. What has changed slowly and for the better is the growing attitude of the medical community toward the possibility of some benefit or value with herbs. At the time my parents were involved, and my grandfather, there were a lot of acidic, harmful and destructive attitudes medically, and that was the time when science was starting to become an active part of the community. Therefore, anything the medical people could not specifically say was scientific was going to be [for them] less than worthy, and obviously quackery.
SW: Have you found that mainstream, allopathic medicine has embraced alternative medicine to a larger extent?
ED: I wouldn’t say “embracing” at all. I would say there has been a softening in the attitudes. There has been strong support in some cases, but those cases [doctors] had to be careful with their own practices because if the College of Physicians and Surgeons were to tune in to the fact that a doctor had suggested that someone go and try a certain herb he had heard about, he could be called up on the carpet and actually punished. There is more possible thought of it today. The medical people have had so many clients talk to them about someone in their family – or they themselves – trying something and doing well, they cannot ignore it totally. To some extent, they are allowing themselves to hear the words, but they daren’t move ahead and investigate it the way things are now because they will be punished. There have been some excellent Toronto doctors who have had to leave the city because they dared to include natural herb medicines as a treatment. That is slowly changing and that’s what counts.
SW: Doctors have to stop merely treating people’s symptoms.
ED: The doctors themselves are getting a lot of input from their customers and if they’ve done any reading, they see that there is another dimension that they were not taught. They were not taught about nutrition, for sure, and they were only taught about drugs in a general sense. Of course, they were taught anatomy and all the basics. Therefore, they’re excellent at diagnosis. But when it comes to how best to deal with that diagnosis, they turn to the synthetic forms, which originally come from herbs. The herbs are the right answer to certain problems, but they daren’t use herbs. Therefore, they use a synthetic form of the herb making it a pharmaceutical and something they can then point to and tell you to go and get this medication. But if they were to examine it, so many of them [drugs] are based on herbs. But these are distortions of herbs; they’re synthetics.
SW: Has the herbal industry been affected by stringent government legislation as other natural products have been?
ED: No, it hasn’t. They [herbs] could have fallen into that. That was a possibility, but there has been so much reaction on the part of the public demanding that they not be denied their herbs and the things they can get from their natural doctors and homeopaths – demanding that the government not take that away from them – that I think the tone influenced the government to say, “Now, well, wait a minute, that doesn’t have to be.” There is a separate category that permits the functioning of natural products and even if it’s imperfect, it’s at least a category that didn’t exist before. It’s a natural product category, separate from the drug category. They had been trying to include anything and everything; even foods that were highly nutritive could have been included. It shows that nobody’s thinking. There’s a power grab in some way. Fortunately, there have been individuals in the government as well as the public who saw this as a road down to something they wouldn’t want to see happen in Canada.
SW: This was the essence of Bill C51 in the previous Parliament.
ED: I think the public feels they want to examine anything that the government is laying on them. They are encouraged by the fact that they were vocal in the early part of this whole process and seem to have gotten some of the benefits they made the effort for. I think that come autumn, if they examine what the government is offering or proposing – or even has passed – if they want to react against it, they can do so.
SW: Where do your herbs come from?
ED: We choose to buy organic or wildcrafted herbs, the highest quality of growth you can buy. We have to choose what we carry carefully because every country has its own standards: Canada, the States, South America and Europe. We carry some Chinese herbs. Some things are only grown in certain climates, obviously, so if we want them we have to see who we can trust in those climates. Just as with the Chinese herbs, we also sell ayurvedic herbs because they too have a long history of helping so they belong here.
SW: What does the term wildcrafted mean?
ED: Wildcrafted means it’s not necessarily developed by people. It can be out in the woods somewhere where there has been no pollution and no changes made in the soil and therefore the product it produces is wildcrafted. It’s harvested that way. That’s as good as it gets.
SW: So organic herbs can be grown in a greenhouse or another controlled situation.
ED: That’s right – in a controlled situation where people are producing it for their livelihood, but they’re doing a service. Whether it’s wildcrafted out there or properly controlled in another setting, it’s good quality.
SW: Thuna Herbals is a real gift to the community.
ED: Yes, because it really helps. It’s very satisfying because you know from experience, from people coming in – we have a lot of repeat customers – saying, “My grandparents brought me in when I was just a little kid and here I’m back,” and he’s bringing in his grandchildren.
SW: Do you get referrals from alternative practitioners?
ED: Yes, definitely. We have a lot of communication with naturopaths and other health-oriented practitioners. We also have to recognize that there are definitely times when the medical capacities are needed. There are some medical doctors today – I believe there are some in Canada but I know more about a few in the States – who are excellent in their medical field, but who are wise enough to have investigated other health approaches. They are now experts in when to use both. Other medical doctors will be inspired. I really believe there must be a lot of medical doctors who see that, with the best of their intentions, they didn’t get where they wanted to get with their clients. Their clients are still needful and no matter how much honest effort they have made, they didn’t have the right answers – whatever they were – for those people and it must be very disappointing and frustrating. The more they learn about other medical doctors who have opened up to the other possibilities and who are starting to learn about them and apply them, they too will have the satisfaction these people have.
SW: Is this type of business rare – the old-fashioned dispensary?
ED: It is less rare than in the past. It is kind of a unique place. When people come in, we spend time talking to them. It is a kind of consultation, but we don’t charge for that aspect. We want them to relax and tell us everything we need to know so we can make our judgements and our best choices.
SW: Is it necessary for you to keep abreast of new herbs that are identified?
ED: There are many, many herbs that we don’t know about and many that the Native community knows about that we don’t know. We have brought several excellent herbs into the store because we learned about them. That’s also why we’re open to ayurvedic herbs because that wasn’t taught to us as Canadian herbalists. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to do but there’s a lot of satisfaction for us here because, by and large, when people come in, we are able to give them some good benefits. We’re able to help them.
SW: Is there someone in line after you to take over the store?
ED: Well, I have people next in line, but no family members at this point have shown an interest. What matters is not that there will be more Thunas, but that there be more herbalism and herbalists. And that is what is developing. People are not going to walk away from this because the customers see that they get helped and it is important to them, and people they love are being helped by this field – just as they are being helped by the naturopaths and the homeopaths.