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A Brief History of Natural History: Botany

An introduction to the holdings of L. Tom Perry Special Collections


Botanical research was at the forefront of scientific studies during the 16th and 17th centuries. Scholars devoted themselves to compiling descriptions of known and newly-discovered plant species. Many of these early botanists engaged in what we might call fieldwork, travelling to local fields and forests to observe nature firsthand. Some, like Flemish professor Carolus Clusius, travelled throughout Europe to observe and collect specimens. Scholars would often cultivate specimens in their own gardens in order to study species over extended periods. Gardeners were also experimenting with plants from the New World and Asia; rhubarb, potatoes, peppers, and tulips were all introduced into Europe in the 1500’s. 16th century botanists also invented the herbarium – collections of preserved plant specimens which afforded study away from the field.

Many early botanists published their descriptions of plants’ characteristics – especially their medical properties – in books called herbals. These works were often illustrated with woodcuts and wood engravings of varying quality. Some of the earliest herbals contained descriptions taken from Pliny or Theophrastus, but other authors, including Leonhart Fuchs, Hieronymus Bock, and Rembert Dodoens, provided readers with detailed and accurate descriptions based on personal observation.

With an expanding body of literature describing plant species, many scholars attempted to develop ways to classify plants based on their physical characteristics. Early on, schemes for classifying and naming plants tended to vary from scholar to scholar. In the 1600’s, botanists began to apply more rigorous scientific methods to studying plant anatomy, but not until the 18th century was a single taxonomic system (that of Carl Linnaeus) widely adopted.

Selected Special Collections Holdings

Rembert Dodoens. Cruydeboeck (in English). Second edition. London: Ninian Newton, 1586.

Dodoens, a Flemish botanist and physician, first published his Cruydeboeck (Herbal) in 1554. It became one of the most-translated books of the 16th century. Dodoens grouped plants together by their characteristics rather than adopting the usual scheme of ordering them alphabetically by name. Dodoens’ herbal emphasizes the medical uses of many plants. This English edition was translated by botanist Henry Lyte and published with the title, A new herball, or historie of plants.

  • Call number: Vault Collection 582.12 D667n 1586

John Gerard. The herball, or Generall historie of plantes. First edition. London: John Norton, 1597.

Gerard’s Herball is actually an example of plagiarism, since he based his work in part on a translation of Dodoens’ Stirpium historiae pemptades sex without acknowledging its translator, one Dr. Priest. Gerard did add many of his own observations, including information on exotic plants like the potato which he cultivated in his own garden. Special Collections also owns a copy of the second edition of Gerard’s herbal, issued in 1633.

  • Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 582.12 G31 1597

John Parkinson. Theatrum botanicvm: the theater of plants. First edition. London: Thomas Cotes, 1640.

Parkinson, who served as King Charles I’s royal botanist, wrote the largest herbal in the English language. His work covers approximately 3,800 plants – about 1,000 more than mentioned in Gerard’s herbal. Parkinson grouped the plants into “tribes” based on their habitats and medicinal qualities.

  • Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 581 P229t 1640

John Ray. Catalogus plantarum Angliae (Catalog of English plants). First edition. London: J. Martyn, 1670.

This work on the flora of the British Isles contains entries in Latin and English. Ray is considered the father of English botany, but he also wrote extensively on such topics as zoology, language, and cosmology.

  • Call number: Vault Collection 581.942 R212c 1670

Selected resources in facsimile

Hieronymus Bock. Kreütterbuch (Herbal). Facsimile of 1577 illustrated edition. Munich: Konrad Köbl, 1964.

When he first published his herbal in 1539, Bock couldn’t afford to commission illustrations. Instead, he provided detailed descriptions in German to represent the plants. Bock’s work is considered a landmark in the field of botany because of the quality of his descriptions, his classification system, and his discovery of new regional flora.

  • Call number: Rare Book Collection QK 99 .B63 1964

Leonhart Fuchs. De historia stirpium comentarii insignes (Notable commentaries on the history of plants). Electronic facsimile. Oakland: Octavo, 2003.

A facsimile of the 1542 Basel edition of Fuchs’ famous herbal on CD-ROM. Fuchs, a German physician, wrote his work specifically to increase knowledge of the medical uses of plants in the medical profession.

  • Call number: Rare Book Collection AC 1100 .A1 no. 30