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W. Bruce Fye Center For the History of Medicine: Selections from the W. Bruce Fye History of Medicine Library: Botany and Herbals

Selections from the W. Bruce Fye History of Medicine Library: Botany and Herbals

The development of botanical knowledge is intertwined with the history of medicine, with the use of plants in medical treatment documented to at least 5,000 years ago in written records and 60,000 years in archaeological studies. “Herbals” are books that identify and describe plants and their usage, both medical and non-medical. They provide guidance for use and help pass botanical knowledge on to new practitioners. As seen here, many also include beautiful illustrations.

This exhibit includes books significant to the history of botany, medicine, and science. It also includes books that have lovely imagery. January in the Midwest is cold and snowy, and spending a cozy evening dreaming of warmer weather with garden seed catalogs is a customary practice. At the very least, maybe this exhibit will serve as a reminder that spring is right around the corner. 

Curated by the W. Bruce Fye History of Medicine Library staff with assistance from the W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine staff.

As you scroll through the author galleries below, click on the images for a closer view.

John Stephenson (1790-1864)

Stephenson, John (1790-1864)
Medical botany, or, Illustrations and descriptions of the medicinal plants of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin pharmacopœias : comprising a popular and scientific account of all those poisonous vegetables that are indigenous to Great Britain
London: J. Churchill, c1831

Stephenson, John (1790-1864)
Medical botany, or, Illustrations and descriptions of the medicinal plants of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin pharmacopœias : comprising a popular and scientific account of all those poisonous vegetables that are indigenous to Great Britain
London: J. Churchill, c1831

Stephenson, John (1790-1864)
Medical botany, or, Illustrations and descriptions of the medicinal plants of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin pharmacopœias : comprising a popular and scientific account of all those poisonous vegetables that are indigenous to Great Britain
London: J. Churchill, c1831

Stephenson, John (1790-1864)
Medical botany, or, Illustrations and descriptions of the medicinal plants of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin pharmacopœias : comprising a popular and scientific account of all those poisonous vegetables that are indigenous to Great Britain
London: J. Churchill, c1831

Stephenson, John (1790-1864)
Medical botany, or, Illustrations and descriptions of the medicinal plants of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin pharmacopœias : comprising a popular and scientific account of all those poisonous vegetables that are indigenous to Great Britain
London: J. Churchill, c1831

John Gerard (1545-1612)

Gerard, John (1545-1612) 
The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes
Amended by Thomas Johnson. London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers, c1633 


John Gerard was an English barber-surgeon and amateur botanist. During his 7-year apprenticeship to a London barber-surgeon, Gerard cultivated a garden near his cottage in the late 16th century. While his primary interest in plants was their medicinal qualities, he also received rare plants and seeds from around the world, including the first potato (solanum tuberosum) grown in England. 

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was one of the most powerful men in England at the time. He was the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, serving her as both Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer. He became Gerard’s patron and installed him as the superintendent of the gardens in the Strand and at Theobald’s in Hertfordshire. Gerard also obtained the position of curator of the garden at the London College of Physicians.    

Gerard, John (1545-1612) 
The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes
Amended by Thomas Johnson. London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers, c1633 


Gerard began compiling a list of the plants in his garden and in 1596 published his first plant catalog, which detailed more than 1,000 species. His best-known work, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, was published in 1597. It is now generally accepted that this book plagiarized an English translation of Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, a well-known herbal published in 1583 by Rembert Dodoes, the Flemish “Father of Botany.” Additionally, of the over 1,600 woodcuts, only 16 are attributed to Gerard, with the remaining illustrations credited to Jacob Theodorus Tabernaemontanus’ 1590 text Eicones plantarum seu stirpium

Despite the accusations and Gerard’s lack of formal botanical education and theory, The Herball became the standard botany text of the 17th century as many found it practical, with useful illustrations, and related to Gerard’s animated writing style. The 2nd and 3rd editions, published after Gerard’s death, were commissioned by Gerard’s heirs. They were edited by Thomas Johnson, a London apothecary and botanist, who added an additional 800 species and 700 illustrations. Johnson also made deliberate corrections and added his own observations to the text. 

Gerard, John (1545-1612) 
The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes
Amended by Thomas Johnson. London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers, c1633 


The inclusion of folkloric and mythical material demonstrated Gerard’s lack of formal scientific education. This page depicts The Breede of Barnakles or The Goose Barnacle Tree, which Gerard says can be found on an island in Lancashire, England. This persistent piece of folklore held that barnacles falling into seawater would grow into geese, while those that fell on the ground did not develop.

Gerard, John (1545-1612) 
The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes
Amended by Thomas Johnson. London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers, c1633 


Anna Pavord noted in her book The Naming of Names that  migration as a natural phenomenon was not well-known. Despite some scholars’ insistence that geese hatched from eggs like any other bird, the barnacle tree provided an equally compelling idea, particularly given the appearance of gooseneck barnacles which have an uncanny resemblance to a goose neck and beak. 

Charles Frederick Millspaugh (1854-1923)

Millspaugh, Charles Frederick (1854-1923)
American medicinal plants : an illustrated and descriptive guide to the American plants used as homœopathic remedies: their history, preparation, chemistry and physiological effects
New York:  Boericke & Tafel, c1887


Charles Millspaugh was a physician and botanist from New York. While he had an interest in botany from a young age, he pursued a career as a physician.

Millspaugh, Charles Frederick (1854-1923)
American medicinal plants : an illustrated and descriptive guide to the American plants used as homœopathic remedies: their history, preparation, chemistry and physiological effects
New York:  Boericke & Tafel, c1887


Within 10 years of graduating with a Doctor of Medicine degree, Millspaugh published the 10-volume American Medicinal Plants which features 180 plates of his own botanical paintings.

Millspaugh, Charles Frederick (1854-1923)
American medicinal plants : an illustrated and descriptive guide to the American plants used as homœopathic remedies: their history, preparation, chemistry and physiological effects
New York:  Boericke & Tafel, c1887


A few years after publication, Millspaugh became Professor of Botany at the University of West Virginia and later the first curator of botany at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. 

Millspaugh, Charles Frederick (1854-1923)
American medicinal plants : an illustrated and descriptive guide to the American plants used as homœopathic remedies: their history, preparation, chemistry and physiological effects
New York:  Boericke & Tafel, c1887

Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566)

Leonard Fuchs is one of the three German “Founders of Botany” along with Otto Brunfels and Hieronymus Bock, who worked in the 16th century to establish botany as a field outside of medicine by creating and publishing herbals, or books about the medicinal uses of plants. 

Fuchs was a self-starter, enrolling in university at 14, founding his own school at age 16, becoming a physician at age 23, and a professor at age 25. He created one of the first botanical gardens at the University of Tubingen in Germany. 

Fuchs, Leonhart (1501-1566) 
De historia stirpium commentarii insignes
Basel: Michael Isingrin, c1543


De historia stirpium commentarii insignes is considered Fuchs’ greatest work. It was first published in Latin and Greek, later translated to German, Dutch, French, and other languages, and totaled 39 printings within Fuchs’ lifetime. The text has over 500 original woodcuts, with 100 depicting different species for the first time, including New World plants like maize and tobacco. This History of Medicine copy is an 18th century Dutch manuscript.

Fuchs, Leonhart (1501-1566) 
De historia stirpium commentarii insignes
Basel: Michael Isingrin, c1543

Fuchs, Leonhart (1501-1566) 
De historia stirpium commentarii insignes
Basel: Michael Isingrin, c1543

Fuchs, Leonhart (1501-1566) 
De historia stirpium commentarii insignes
Basel: Michael Isingrin, c1543

Fuchs, Leonhart (1501-1566) 
De historia stirpium commentarii insignes
Basel: Michael Isingrin, c1543

Fuchs, Leonhart (1501-1566) 
Läbliche Abbildung und Contrafaytung aller Kreüter
Basel: Michael Isinfrin, c1545


Läbliche Abbildung und Contrafaytung aller Kreüter is a 1545 field-guide for plant collectors. It is the German translation of Primi de Stirpium Historia Commentariorum, which Fuchs believed filled a need for botanists to have a portable handbook of botanical illustrations. 

Fuchs, Leonhart (1501-1566) 
Läbliche Abbildung und Contrafaytung aller Kreüter
Basel: Michael Isinfrin, c1545

Jacob Bigelow (1786-1879)

Bigelow, Jacob (1786-1879)
American Medical Botany
Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, c1817-20


Jacob Bigelow was a physician, botanist, and botanical illustrator from Massachusetts. He studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia. There, he established an interest in botany under the guidance of Benjamin Smith Barton, a professor of materia medica and botanical patron. Bigelow joined a successful medical practice but kept up with his botanical interests. He first published Florula Bostoniensis in 1814, with two more editions following. These volumes focused first on plants grown within 10 miles of Boston and each volume expanded the area studied until by the third edition, a wide area of New England was covered. These works brought him to the attention of the leading naturalists in Europe and he was able to grow an extensive scientific correspondence. 

Bigelow, Jacob (1786-1879)
American Medical Botany
Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, c1817-20


In addition to maintaining a medical practice where he was a well-respected and popular physician, Bigelow became a professor of materia medica at Harvard Medical School and was later appointed the Rumford Professor of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts (now referred to as “technology”) at Harvard College. Many credit Bigelow with popularizing the term “technology” in his treatise on mechanics, Elements of Technology (1829). 

Bigelow, Jacob (1786-1879)
American Medical Botany
Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, c1817-20


American Medical Botany (1817-1820) was first printed in six volumes with a print run of 1,000 copies. Bigelow was very careful to choose subjects based on his own study or others he believed to be qualified enough to submit a correct assessment. He wrote: 

“Under the title of American Medical Botany, it is my intention to offer to the public a series of coloured engravings of those native plants, which possess properties deserving the attention of medical practitioners. The plan will likewise include vegetables of a particular utility in diet and the arts; also poisonous plants which must be known to be avoided…Much harm has been done in medicine, by the partial representations of those, who, having a point to prove, have suppressed their unsuccessful experiments, and brought in to view none but favorable facts.”

Bigelow, Jacob (1786-1879)
American Medical Botany
Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, c1817-20


The accompanying plates have been noted for their extraordinary beauty, which was uncommon compared to other typical works of the period. At the time, engravings were published with black outlines and then hand colored, a process used for the first 100 copies of volume 1. Bigelow created a method to speed things along by applying ink directly to the printing plate, with some retouching done by hand. This process, known as aquatinting, was used elsewhere in the world, but this was likely the first time it was done in the United States.

Carl von Linné (1707-1778)

Linné, Carl von (1707-1778)
Systema Naturae
Amsterdam: Houttuyn, c1761-85


Carl von Linné was a highly acclaimed Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, and physician. He is best known for popularizing and consistently using the binomial nomenclature, which was first developed by the Bauhin family two centuries prior. Binomial nomenclature is the system which names the species of living things with a two-part Latin grammatical form. 

Linné, Carl von (1707-1778)
Systema Naturae
Amsterdam: Houttuyn, c1761-85


Though von Linné was the son and grandson of clergymen and expected to follow in their footsteps, he chose instead to research plant reproduction and attend medical school. He later held the Chairs of Medicine and Botany at Uppsala University. The first edition of Systema Naturae was published while von Linné was enrolled in university. Revised editions followed through the rest of his career, evolving from pamphlets into a multi-volume work. 

Linné, Carl von (1707-1778)
Systema Naturae
Amsterdam: Houttuyn, c1761-85


The expansion of his studied materials can be attributed to his students. He facilitated explorations and voyages for them, and they in turn brought or sent back plant materials from all over the world, including North and South America, Japan, Africa, and Australia. 

Linné, Carl von (1707-1778)
Systema Naturae
Amsterdam: Houttuyn, c1761-85


Systema Naturae was an incredibly significant reference source that described the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms, and revised classification systems. It was the first time humans were classified with monkeys and introduced the Linnaeus sexual system for the plant kingdom which grouped plants based on the number of stamens--a now outdated theory. 

Linné, Carl von (1707-1778)
Systema Naturae
Amsterdam: Houttuyn, c1761-85

François Pierre Chaumeton (1775-1819)

Chaumeton, François Pierre (1775-1819), Chamberet, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph-Anne-César Tyrbas de (1779-1870), Poiret, Jean Louis Marie (1755-1834), 
Flore médicale
Paris: Imprimerie de C.L.F. Panckoucke, c1828-1832

Chaumeton, François Pierre (1775-1819), Chamberet, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph-Anne-César Tyrbas de (1779-1870), Poiret, Jean Louis Marie (1755-1834), 
Flore médicale
Paris: Imprimerie de C.L.F. Panckoucke, c1828-1832

Chaumeton, François Pierre (1775-1819), Chamberet, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph-Anne-César Tyrbas de (1779-1870), Poiret, Jean Louis Marie (1755-1834), 
Flore médicale
Paris: Imprimerie de C.L.F. Panckoucke, c1828-1832

Chaumeton, François Pierre (1775-1819), Chamberet, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph-Anne-César Tyrbas de (1779-1870), Poiret, Jean Louis Marie (1755-1834), 
Flore médicale
Paris: Imprimerie de C.L.F. Panckoucke, c1828-1832

Pierre Pomet (1658-1699)

Pomet, Pierre (1658-1699)
A Compleat History of Druggs
London: R. Bonwick, et al., c1712


Pierre Pomet was a successful apothecary and chief druggist to Louis XIV of France, the Sun King. He sold medicinal remedies and foodstuffs, such as ground mummies, indigo, and coffee, imported from distant lands. Pomet sourced materials, collected recipes, and recorded collective knowledge during his extensive travels through Europe as markets grew as a result of Dutch, British, and Spanish colonization.

Pomet, Pierre (1658-1699)
A Compleat History of Druggs
London: R. Bonwick, et al., c1712


His book Histoire generale des drogues was published in 1684, with the English translation A Compleat History of Druggs released in 1712. The History of Medicine Library has the 1712 English translation as well as a 2nd edition dated 1725. The book reflects the knowledge Pomet gathered during his travels and is an example of not only how print transformed how scientific ideas were shared but also the cross-over appeal of science to an audience drawn to the fantastical and exotic information provided. Readers were looking for ways to escape and travel diaries were popular reading material at the time. 

Pomet, Pierre (1658-1699)
A Compleat History of Druggs
London: R. Bonwick, et al., c1712


The book contains information about unusual items like bezoar stones (which are basically goat or llama hairballs), purported to cure plagues or poison--if only you could find a small bit to ingest. Pomet, referencing Ambroise Paré, barber-surgeon to French aristocracy, stated that unicorns could be found in the Arabian Desert and their horns would also cure various illnesses. These “horns” have in modern times been confirmed to be narwhal tusks.

Pomet, Pierre (1658-1699)
A Compleat History of Druggs
London: R. Bonwick, et al., c1712

Pomet, Pierre (1658-1699)
A Compleat History of Druggs
London: R. Bonwick, et al., c1712

Mary Vaux Walcott (1860-1940)

Walcott, Mary Vaux (1860-1940)
Wild flowers of America
New York: Crown Publishers, c1953


Mary Morris Vaux Walcott was a Quaker artist and naturalist from Pennsylvania. Her father had a keen interest in geology and took the family on summer trips to the Rocky Mountains in Canada, where the children studied mineralogy. After Walcott’s mother died, Mary remained at home to care for her father and siblings, losing the opportunity to study at Bryn Mawr College. 

Walcott, Mary Vaux (1860-1940)
Wild flowers of America
New York: Crown Publishers, c1953


The family continued their visits to the Canadian Rockies where Walcott became an active outdoorswoman and was the first woman to summit Mount Stephen, the highest Peak in British Columbia. She later focused on botanical illustration, spending several years identifying significant species. 

Walcott, Mary Vaux (1860-1940)
Wild flowers of America
New York: Crown Publishers, c1953


When she was 54, Walcott met paleontologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian Charles Doolittle Walcott during a trip to the Rockies and they later married over the objections of both of their families. They spent many happy years together, pursuing their mutual interest in natural history. 

Walcott, Mary Vaux (1860-1940)
Wild flowers of America
New York: Crown Publishers, c1953


North American Wild Flowers was first published as a five-volume set between 1925-1928 with proceeds donated to the Smithsonian endowment.

Walcott, Mary Vaux (1860-1940)
Wild flowers of America
New York: Crown Publishers, c1953


Walcott also travelled the American West extensively after her appointment to the federal Board of Indian Commissioners. She was later elected president of the Society of Woman Geographers.

William Meyrick

Meyrick, William
The new family herbal; or, Domestic physician: enumerating, with accurate descriptions, all the known vegetables which are any way remarkable for medical efficacy; with an account of their virtues in the several diseases incident to the human frame
Birmingham: T. Pearson, c1790

Meyrick, William
The new family herbal; or, Domestic physician: enumerating, with accurate descriptions, all the known vegetables which are any way remarkable for medical efficacy; with an account of their virtues in the several diseases incident to the human frame
Birmingham: T. Pearson, c1790

 

Meyrick, William
The new family herbal; or, Domestic physician: enumerating, with accurate descriptions, all the known vegetables which are any way remarkable for medical efficacy; with an account of their virtues in the several diseases incident to the human frame
Birmingham: T. Pearson, c1790

 

Meyrick, William
The new family herbal; or, Domestic physician: enumerating, with accurate descriptions, all the known vegetables which are any way remarkable for medical efficacy; with an account of their virtues in the several diseases incident to the human frame
Birmingham: T. Pearson, c1790

Peter P. Good (Peter Peyto) (1789?-1875)

Good, Peter P. (Peter Peyto) (1789?-1875)
The family flora and materia medica botanica : containing the botanical analysis, natural history, and chemical and medical properties and uses of plants
Cambridge, Mass: Good, c1854

Good, Peter P. (Peter Peyto) (1789?-1875)
The family flora and materia medica botanica : containing the botanical analysis, natural history, and chemical and medical properties and uses of plants
Cambridge, Mass: Good, c1854

Good, Peter P. (Peter Peyto) (1789?-1875)
The family flora and materia medica botanica : containing the botanical analysis, natural history, and chemical and medical properties and uses of plants
Cambridge, Mass: Good, c1854

Good, Peter P. (Peter Peyto) (1789?-1875)
The family flora and materia medica botanica : containing the botanical analysis, natural history, and chemical and medical properties and uses of plants
Cambridge, Mass: Good, c1854

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Credits

This exhibit was designed and curated by the staff of The W. Bruce Fye History of Medicine Library. All books and artifacts are from the Library collection.

To learn more about Mayo Clinic history, heritage and the history of medicine, visit:

List of Current and Past Exhibits