Medical herbalist who pioneered the joining up of Western and traditional Chinese and Bhutanese phytotherapeutic and spiritual practices.
Dragana Vilinac, who has died after a four-year experience with cancer, was for 14 years Head Herbalist at Neal’s Yard Remedies. Naturalised British but born in Yugoslavia, she always mourned the loss of her homeland, and particularly its tolerant and multi-religious ways of life, having spent her childhood flitting among Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish families and places of worship with her friends in Sarajevo. She studied nursing and then journalism there in 1975-1980, before the city’s unique spirit was crushed by siege and snipers in the wars of the 1990s.
After journalism, she quickly gravitated back to her family tradition in herbal medicine, her father being a renowned herbal healer. She studied phytotherapy at the British School of Herbal Medicine in 1982-1985, and developed herbal healing products, alongside clinical work, at a series of companies between 1986 and 1995, first in Sarajevo and then in England, where she co-founded The Herbal Apothecary in Leicester. Meanwhile she studied in China at the Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and obtained further clinical experience there, spending the first half of the 1990s with East West Herbs, pioneering links between Chinese traditional medical and western phytotherapeutic practices, and continuing to develop her high accomplishments in botanical art.
In 1995 an opportunity arose for her to spend four years in the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, as traditional medicines consultant on an EU project. For her, this was a transformative experience, and she returned to Bhutan many times, building deep friendships among the Bhutanese people, including the royal family which led to her attending as their guest both the coronation in 2008 and royal wedding in 2011. In 2012, Dragana described Bhutan as “the place where I feel most at home, where I found my Bhutanese self and melted into the society as one of them and not as a chilip (foreigner)”. For those who knew Dragana, this makes sense, since her unique personality called out for a focus on bodily, ecological and spiritual harmony, while the Bhutanese culture does likewise for social, ecological and spiritual harmony, and both shared a profound respect for, as she put it, “the awakened state of the human spirit” in the Buddhist tradition.
In 2000, Dragana began her long relationship with Neal’s Yard, first as a consultant alongside other assignments with other clients, including the International Finance Corporation in the Balkans and FAO in Afghanistan, focusing always on finding ways to improve the quality of herbal medicines and other wild and cultivated products. In Bamyan province of Afghanistan, for example, she worked with women whom she described as “complex, beautiful and creative”, to re-envision their despised ‘famine food’ (talkhan), made of wheat flour, ground rhubarb, walnuts, almonds and mulberries, as an energy bar to be marketed and promoted across the country.
Having published The Chinese Herbal Cookbook in 2000, by the next year Dragana was writing good advice on the relative strengths and dangers of gingko, thyme and fennel in caring for what she called “the mind/heart entity”, and at the end of that letter observed “I think I have found the pet subject to write a book about” – a pet that a dozen years later gave birth to an encyclopaedic work called Healing Foods. Meanwhile, her role at Neal’s Yard was consolidated as she managed the production of all extracts and tinctures and led the development of new products. She was still doing the latter, with a new range of healing teas, in the last months of her life.
Dragana’s work contributed to helping people value wild biodiversity and traditional knowledge, which are essential factors in conserving both nature and culture worldwide. But her impact on those who knew her almost eclipses these accomplishments at an individual level. She mentored many aspiring herbalists, and managed to combine an extraordinary strength of will (spending 13 years hunting for a house with the correct feng shui, for example), with a spectacular outspokenness when she noticed someone doing, eating or even thinking something ‘wrong’ (and she always turned out to be right), a passion for dancing (spending weekend after weekend at it), and a compassion that meant one always felt cherished and inspired in her company (and her hugs always felt like she meant it).
While she eventually did succumb to cancer, Dragana treated her illness with typical strength and clarity. She refused standard treatments (other than pain relief later on) in favour of taking the opportunity to understand cancer’s meaning, to control its path, and to determine how she wanted to live with it. When at last she openly acknowledged her illness, she was overwhelmed by the power of love that surged to her support. Her last year was spent in deep connection with her friends and family, having previously been a rather private person. She chose when, where and how she died, having surpassed all the expectations of the medical profession. From long before she became ill, she consistently advised others that “there is not much time to waste: crystallise what you came here for, and give it to the world”.
Dragana Vilinac, medical herbalist; Born Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, 7 July 1957; Died Salisbury Hospice, Wiltshire, 6 March 2014; Survived by a brother and nephew in Croatia and a goddaughter in Dorset. See obituary notice in The Independent here.