Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Beyond an Apple a Day

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Beyond an Apple a Day

Article excerpt

In my last column, I discussed herbaria and my newfound interest in them (Flannery, 2011). Even though this month's theme is human health, I'm not ready to leave my new love yet, and I think I can justify sticking with the topic, at least peripherally After all, it was human health that for centuries drove the study of plants, and to a certain extent it still does, as botanists travel the world seeking plants with medicinal properties. The first herbaria were tied to medical schools.

Helen Hewson (1999) noted that botanical illustration, botanical gardens, and herbaria all developed at about the same time in the mid-16th century and all met the need of helping botanists compare species from different localities. As printed tomes on medicine became available, there was the concomitant need to ensure that two authors were talking about the same plant. Nomenclature had yet to be regularized, so drawings, dried specimens, and growing plants were a big help in identifying species. But drawings didn't become useful until the publication of the first great printed and illustrated herbals of Brunfels in 1530 and Fuchs in 1542 (Arber, 1912). The first botanical garden was established in Pisa in 1544 by Luca Ghini, who is also credited with creating the first herbarium of pressed plants and with founding the second botanical garden at Padua in 1545. So the mid-16th century was a very exciting time for botany--and for medicine. Anatomy and botany were the two major areas of study in medical schools of that time, and it was at Padua in 1544 that Vesalius published his On the Fabric of the Body, with the amazing illustrations that are still reproduced so frequently today Anatomy aided in understanding what was going on inside the body, and botany aided in a more practical way: providing chemicals that would help right what was wrong in the body.

These two areas of biology were tied together at an even more fundamental level, in that they were both about observing form, understanding structure, being able to detect subtle differences. If a physician was going to prescribe a particular plant product as a medication, he or she had to be sure that the correct substance was actually used: two plants could look similar and yet be very different chemically. Being able to compare the plant in hand with a reliable source--a specimen in a botanical garden, a dried plant in a herbarium, an illustration in an herbal--was a great boon and a new idea that suggested that botany was becoming a science and was contributing to medicine's heading in the same direction.

** Gardens

This linkage between medical knowledge and plant collections extended beyond Italy and remained an important spur to the development of botanical gardens for centuries. The medical school at Montpelier in France founded a botanical garden in 1593, though it had a physic garden for several centuries before that. In this sense, "physic" means healing and refers to plants grown for medicinal purposes. This tradition extends back to ancient times and long predates the term "botanical garden," which was first used for gardens like those at Padua and Pisa that were connected to universities. The distinction is not always clear for some of these older gardens; it often has more to do with the founding body than with the garden itself.

The Chelsea Physic Garden, still flourishing today in London, was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, which kept it as a private preserve until 1983, when it was opened to the public. The land for this institution was originally the garden of John Danvers, who owned the home that had earlier belonged to the British Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, the man beheaded by order of Henry VIII for not acquiescing to Henry's way of dealing with his marital problems. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Chelsea was a suburb of London where the wealthy lived and had lush gardens; More's was right on the Thames. …

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