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Medicinal Botany

( Originally Published 1912 )

With the Revival of Learning, the speculative botany of the ancients began to lose its hold upon thinking men. This may be attributed to the curious lack of vitality, and the absence of the power of active development, manifested in this aspect of the subject since its initiation at the hands of Aristotle. It had proved comparatively barren, because, though the minds which engaged in it were among the finest that have ever been concerned with the science, the basis of observed fact was inadequate in quality and quantity to sustain the philosophical superstructure built upon it. It might have been supposed apriori that accurate observation of natural phenomena needed a less highly evolved type of mind than that required to cope with meta-physical considerations, and hence that, in the development of any science, the epoch of observation would have preceded the epoch of speculation. In actual fact, however, the reverse appears to have been the case. The power of scientific observation seems to have lagged many centuries behind the power of reasoning, and to have reached its maturity at least two thousand years later.

Aristotle and Theophrastus arrived by the subtlest mental processes at a certain attitude towards the universe, and at certain ideas concerning the nature of things. They attempted a direct advance in scientific thought by extending these conceptions to include the plant world. It was an heroic effort, but one which could not ultimately form a basis for continued progress, because, in its inception, preconceived ideas had come first, and the facts of Nature second. It seems to be almost a law of thought, that it is the indirect advances which in the end prove to be the most fertile. The progress of a science, like that of a sailing boat, more often proceeds by means of " tacking " than by following a direct course.

In the case of botany, the path which was destined to lead furthest in the end was the apparently unpromising one of medicine. Various plants from very early times had been used as healing agents, and it became necessary to study them in detail, simply in order to discriminate the kinds employed for different purposes. It was from this purely utilitarian beginning that systematic botany for the most part originated. As we shall show in later chapters, nearly all the herbalists whose work is discussed in the present volume were medical men. The necessity for some means of recognising accurately the individual species of medicinal plants led in time to a sounder and more exact knowledge of their morphology than had ever been acquired under the influence of thinkers such as Albertus Magnus, who regarded with some contempt the idea of becoming acquainted in detail with the countless forms of plant life.

The mass of observations relating to herbs and flowers, accumulated during a period of many centuries, largely for medicinal purposes, is to-day serving as the basis for far-reaching biological theories, which could never have arisen without such a foundation.

It is not systematic botany alone that we owe in the first instance to medicine. Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712), one of the founders of the science of plant anatomy, was led to embark upon this subject because his anatomical studies as a physician suggested to him that plants, like animals, probably possessed an internal structure worthy of investigation, since they were the work of the same Creator.

In Ancient Greece there was considerable traffic in medicinal plants. The herbalists' and druggists' who made a regular business of collecting, preparing and selling them, do not appear however to have been held in good repute. Lucian makes Hercules address AEsculapius as a root-digger and a wandering quacks."

The herbalists seem to have attempted to keep their business select by fencing it about with all manner of superstitions, most of which have for their moral that herb-collecting is too dangerous an occupation for the uninitiated. Theophrastus draws attention to the absurdity of some of the root-diggers' directions for gathering medicinal plants. For instance he quotes with ridicule the idea that the Peony should be gathered at night, since, if the fruit is collected in the daytime, and a wood-pecker happens to witness the act, the eyes of the herbalist are endangered. He also points out that it is folly to suppose that an offering of a honey-cake must be made when Iris foetidissima is rooted up, or to believe that if an eagle comes near when Hellebore is being collected, anyone who is engaged in the work is fated to die within the year.

The herbalists' knowledge of plants must have been in the first place transmitted from generation to generation entirely by word of mouth, but as time went on, written records began to replace the oral tradition. The earliest extant European work dealing with medicinal plants is the famous Materia Medica of Dioscorides, which was accepted as an almost infallible authority as late as the Renaissance period.

Dioscorides Anazarbeus was a medical man who probably flourished in the first century of the Christian era, in the time of Nero and Vespasian. Tradition has, however, sometimes assigned to him the post of physician to Antony and Cleopatra. His native land was Asia Minor, but he appears to have travelled widely. In his Materia Medica he described about five hundred plants, with some attempt at an orderly scheme, though, naturally, the result is seldom successful when judged by our modern standards of classification. The actual descriptions of the plants are very slight, and it is only those with particularly salient characteristics which can be recognised with any ease. Careful research on the part of later writers has however led to the identification of a number of the plants to which he refers.

There is a famous manuscript of Dioscorides at Vienna, which is said to have been copied at the expense of Juliana Anicia, the daughter of the Emperor Flavius Anicius, about the end of the fifth, or the beginning of the sixth century. The character of the script settles the age within narrow limits. Juliana lived into the reign of Justinian, and was renowned for her ardent Christian faith, and for the churches which she built. The manuscript which bears her name is illustrated by a number of drawings, which are in some cases remarkably beautiful, and very naturalistic. A facsimile reproduction of this manuscript was published in 1906, and it is thus rendered accessible to students. Examples of the figures are shown on a reduced scale in Plates I, I I and X V.

The botanists of the Renaissance devoted a great deal of time and energy to the consideration of the writings of Dioscorides. The chief of the many commentators who dealt with the subject were Matthiolus, Ruellius and Amatus Lusitanus, and a discussion of the botany of Dioscorides formed an integral part of almost every sixteenth-century herbal.

One of the contemporaries of Dioscorides, Gaius Plinius Secundus, commonly called the Elder Pliny, should perhaps be mentioned at this point, although he was not a physician, nor does he deserve the name of a philosopher. In the course of his ` Natural History,' which is an encyclopędic account of the knowledge of his time, he treats of the vegetable world. He refers to a far larger number of plants than Dioscorides, probably because the latter con-fined himself to those which were of importance from a medicinal point of view, whereas Pliny mentioned indiscriminately any plant to which he found a reference in any previous book. Pliny's work was chiefly of the nature of a compilation, and indeed it would scarcely be reasonable to expect much original observation of nature from a man who was so devoted to books that it was recorded of him that he considered even a walk to be a waste of time !

The writings of the classical authors, especially Theophrastus and Dioscorides, dominated European botany completely until, in the sixteenth century, other influences began to make themselves felt. As we shall see in the following chapter, the earliest printed herbals adhered closely to the classical tradition.

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