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People & Institutions

On the historical path from Natura to Informatia, the increase in complexity of social organization and collective learning resulted in a corresponding differentiation and refinement of the role of both plant practitioners and their institutions of study.

It is significant that the study of plants derived from plant medicine rather than the use of plants for food. Food plants connected all people to the economy of daily life, while medicinal plants were associated with specialist knowledge (often related to the spiritual world and sacred ritual) that was possessed and maintained by an elite few.

Plant practitioners

It is possible to trace a path of diversification in the roles of plant practitioners that follows the historical increase in complexity of social organization. From the shaman/medicine man of Natura emerged the priests, priestesses, and physicians of Agraria. In Natura it had been mostly the women who foraged for and processed plant foods while the men would hunt for game. With the advent of agriculture it was men who assumed the role of farmer as the functions of medicine and healing, education, and food production diverged. As Agraria transitioned into Industria, education took on a greater role in society as the development of new technical skills were built on the accumulation of collective learning. (the botanists and academics of Industria, and plant scientists of Informatia).

Shaman-medicine man

We can see the role of modern plant scientist in its earliest manifestation as the shaman-medicine-man of prehistory, a man (or occasionally woman), of wisdom, knowledge, spirituality, spells, magic, potions, ritual and incantations. As an intermediary between the human and spiritual realms, much of the work would be concerned with health, plant-based medicines, and human connections to the spiritual world. Shamanism of various kinds occurred across the world, pre-dating the organized religions.

The possession of specialist Shamanic skills, notably the manipulation of medicinal plants, combined with a highly developed spirituality was a precursor to the roles of academic and priest. The former served mostly small communities or villages, the latter were a product of towns, cities, and more complex social structures.


With the advent of Bronze Age civilizations came more broad-based spiritual and religious practice. Organized religion treated Shamanism as primitive and superstitious. Though the role of shaman/medicine-man persisted in local indigenous communities, in the cities the same functions took on a more formal and regulated character within structured religious rituals that often involved large numbers of people. It was now priests and priestesses in ceremonial attire who served as mediators between the human and divine, presiding over religious ritual in holy temples and, sometimes, serving as advisor-physicians to royal courts.

With the advent of writing, scribes became keepers of knowledge, an ‘educated’ class with high social status.

The word ‘physician’ is frequently used for medical practitioners of antiquity, a word with modern connotations. In antiquity there was little differentiation between science, magic, and religion. In Egypt medical practitioners were well educated and highly respected: they were also often priests. Mummification contributed to a detailed knowledge of human anatomy, and surgery using specially designed medical instruments was used for the outer parts of the body. However, what we would regard as practical empirical anatomical knowledge including, for example, the structure and operation of the heart, was combined with more dubious methods of treatment. ‘Doctors’ were frequently accompanied by ‘witch doctors’ who would supplement any physical treatment with the recitation of incantations, spells, and methods for exorcising demons, in traditions that harked back to earlier animistic times. ‘Sympathetic magic’ associated qualities of animals with treatment practices so, for example, a pig’s eye might be used to treat blindness. Poisoning, deliberate or not, was frequent and often associated with medical treatment.

Temples were hubs of learning and devotion, and it was here that the scribes and priests would learn to read and write, honing their medical knowledge in the temple medical schools. High Priests would pray for the health of their people, the deities including Sekhemet, the goddess of healing, and the minor deities Heka and Serket. Peseshet, who lived in the Fourth Dynasty (2613-2494 BCE, a time of peace and trade), is the first recorded woman associated with medicine, and an overseer of female ‘physicians’.

Undoubtedly the most celebrated of Egyptian ‘physicians’ was Imhotep (c. 2700 BCE) the pharaoh’s chancellor and a high priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis., generally treated as the first pioneer of medicine, a brilliant polymath who would later be deified (one of few non-royal Egyptians deified after their death) and much respected by the later ancient Greeks (who knew about Egyptian healers from Homer’s Odyssey and Herodotus’s visit to the Nile delta region around 440 BCE at the beginning of the Persian occupation, equating him with the Greek god of medicine Asklepios) and their own master of medicine Hippocrates.


Also at this time arose the physicians whose technical expertise lay in treatment by drugs or medications rather than surgery. While priests cared for spiritual needs, physicians assumed the Shamanic skill of manipulating the medicinal powers of plants. Rulers especially, from the time of the first cities, appointed personal physicians to attend to their health, initiating a tradition that has persisted to the present day.

The physician was an educated person so (s)he and/or their scribes sometimes recorded lists of plants and their medicinal properties as remedies for particular ailments, occasionally recording the names of these plants in foreign languages. Many of the world’s leading plantsmen, except in recent times, held the position of court physician.

The administration of pharmacological medicine mediated by the apothecary and physician did not encourage botany since the apothecary would keep his various concoctions secret and the physician would be distanced from the plants themselves.


Through the Bronze Age the study of the medicinal properties of plants became part of the division of labour that characterized Agraria. Ancient Egypt was renowned for its medicinal papyri, gods, temples, even specialist herb gardens in a tradition that would be followed in ancient Greece where a class of herbalists called rhizotomi were renowned for their specialist knowledge of herbal remedies. This form of medicinal knowledge was a feature of cultures across the world at this time with Indian and Chinese medicine both having ancient and rich herbal traditions.

Access to specialist plant knowledge had now become the privilege of a literate and often priestly class of society that was skilled in the creation and interpretation of sacred texts – skills that were acquired during an extended process of education.

At the time of the collapse of the Roman empire medicinal manuscripts – whose tradition dated back to the papyri of the third millennium BCE in ancient Egypt – were now becoming more extensive and detailed. By far the most lauded of the ancient authors was Dioscorides (c. 40 – 90 CE) whose Materia Medica were the most hallowed plant text for 16 centuries, first translated into Arabic, Greek and Latin and then, in the 16th century, into Italian, German, Spanish, French and English – the English version produced by botanists John Goodyer and John Heath over the period 1652 to 1655.

Dioscorides’ work was re-written and slavishly copied through the Middle Ages, treated as the definitive work on plants, and handed down the generations like a holy text revealing the wisdom of the ancients. The oldest known remaining version is the ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ produced in Constantinople, magnificently illustrated with 383 paintings of Mediterranean plants, and presented in 521 to Princess Juliana Anicia, daughter of the Western Roman Emperor Olybrius, but now safely housed in the Austrian National Library.

Dioscorides’s work earned him the accolade ‘Father of Pharmacology’ a title that would have been more appropriately awarded to Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BCE) of Kos. Dioscorides was a Greek soldier with the Roman army

The medicinal tradition then passed to the medical school at Alexandria (the centre of learning in Hellenistic times and after) where its accumulated wisdom was synthesised in the works of Galen that would subsequently comprise the pharmacology taught in Western medical schools during the Middle Ages.

During the Roman Republic medical men were often slaves and essentially low-status faith-healers who worked as best they could with folk-medicine. Gradually Greek medical pracctitioners became established in Italy and the status of physicians rose when Julius Caesar gave citizenship to all immigrant medical practitioners who acquired wealth serving the socially influential. District physicians were also appointed in both the western and Byzantine empires which helped establish the profession within society. However, it was the pharmacology of Dioscorides, copied again and again with mounting errors and poorer illustrations that persisted through the Middle Ages and taken up by the apothecaries who formulated and distributed medicines much like today’s pharmacist.


The distinction between herbalists, apothecaries, pharmacists and physicians is blurred. Apothecaries were medieval plants dispensers while the pharmacist is a more recent term for the more sophisticated dispensers of today, the physician being better known as a medically educated consultant.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire botanical knowledge became focused in European monasteries where monks curated collections of medicinal plants, acting as apothecaries administering plant remedies to the lame and sick who were cared for in the monastery dormitories.

Through the Middle Ages apothecaries became increasingly associated with advance of medical learning and physic gardens associated with the new universities until, in the 16th century, came the appointment of plant professors administrating the curation of plants in the physic gardens that were used for teaching purposes in the medical faculties of universities during the Italian Renaissance. This marked the first return to plant study since the Lyceum of Theophrastus in ancient Athens. However, it would be over a hundred years before the medicinal aspects of plants would finally give way to the study of the plants themselves and their relationships.


With the physic gardens of university medical faculties there was a coalescence of more sophisticated historical traditions. The medicinal properties of plants was still the main focus of attention, but this was now combined with a wider educational milieu of collective learning distributed through the printed word. Plant students now learned their craft from living plants growing in a garden. The way was now open to look beyond the medicinal powers of plants to the properties of the plants themselves.

This academic challenge began with the process of description – with collecting, naming, classifying, and cataloguing. This is how we tend to interpret the word ‘botanist’. But with the proliferation of academic disciplines in the 18th and 19th centuries the old distinction between pure botany and the applied botany, of horticulture and agriculture, would break down as applied subjects made more and more use of scientific knowledge and methods, so that a more broad-based title for plant practitioners – like ‘plant scientist’ – might sound more appropriate.

Plant scientist

Plant study is now a highly fragmented business as the old ‘botany departments’ of universities struggle with the complexity of Informatia. Plant science has diverged into so many subdisciplines that someone working with plants is unlikely to call themselves either a botanist or plant scientist – more likely a plant physiologist, molecular systematist, ecologist, plant geneticist, or conservationist etc.

Plant institutions

Science is, among other things, the development of a shared body of plant knowledge. This demands both places of plant learning and effective means of communication between them. Historically, all science has benefitted from the collective learning embodied in oral, written, printed and electronic traditions. Learning, once local, is now global.

Science and botany flourished in centres of civilization and trade that attracted intellectuals, encouraged written records, and provided the physical circumstances for academic endeavour. The history of learning thus tends to follow the political and economic history of those countries that could provide these resources, these being the dominant cultures and civilizations of their day.


Historical centres of learning waxed and waned as they followed the fortunes of dominant cultures. In the West the torch of enquiry passed from Bronze Age centres of intellectual activity in Egypt (Thebes, Luxor) and Mesopotamia (Babylon, Nineveh) to the Aegean (Crete, Mycenae), then absorbed into the Greco-Roman culture of the Classical era. Enquiry and learning, after an interlude in the monasteries of Europe, followed mostly the history of European colonial powers – first Renaissance Italy, but moving to the countries of the Atlantic seaboard such as Spain and Portugal, Holland, then France and Imperial Britain but including Germany in the 19th century.

Classical era

In the classical era medicine had developed relatively advanced techniques in surgery, pharmacognosy, even psychology, with medical centres on the island of Cos, also at Pergamum, Alexandria, Ephesus and Antioch. These educational centres were also repositories of more general knowledge. To this list was later added Constantinople and Edessa.

State-paid professors of medicine were appointed to teach in Rome. The first of these was Asclepiades (c. 40 BCE) a Greek practitioner who was an Epicurian and atomist. About 80 years later Cornelius Celsus (a scholarly source of medical information at this time) published the first Latin list of 250 drugs shortly followed by a list of 140 plants with both their Greek and Latin names published by Scribonius Largius. Much of Roman medicinal knowledge was based on earlier Greek knowledge derived from the medical centres in Sicily and Southern Italy.

Roman medical centres with medical professors were subsequently established in other Italian cities and, later, other parts of the Empire such as Carthage, Saragossa, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lyon and elsewhere. These provided some continuity with the medical schools that were established in later universities.

The medical school at Salerno was a precursor to the universities of the 12th and 13th centuries. Though the Church was often associated with these new institutions, the early Italian universities had professors who were paid by the city. Medicine was one of the leading subjects and with this came the pharmacology based around plant medicines that was part of the curriculum. The trained doctors would, however, rely on the old herbals for information and apothecaries for their actual supply of the medicines.

The early Christian church hampered medical advance by discouraging any experimentation that did not glorify God, by its refusal of surgery, the collection and dissection of the human body, and by its insistance that illness was a form of divine punishment.

After a dark age following the collapse of the Roman Empire there was a Muslim Golden Age lasting from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries during which intellectual activity was centred in Baghdad, passing to southern Spain in Cordoba and Seville. With the dawn of the European Renaissance intellectual activity was supported by the affluent northern Italian city-states that included Venice, Florence, Genoa, Verona, Pisa and Padua. From Italy the Renaissance spread to north-west Europe passing with political and economic power to Spain (Cordoba, Seville, Toledo) and Portugal (Lisbon). Following a Dutch Golden Age centred in Leiden and Amsterdam there were the competing interests of Britain (academic centres in Edinburgh, London, Oxford and Cambridge) and France (mostly Paris but also Marseilles) with academic learning spreading to other European coutries and cities notably Germany (Berlin), before being dispersed to European colonial centres, first North America but later Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

There is a continuity between the medieval monastic physic gardens and the physic gardens associated with the medical faculties of universities in the early Italian Renaissance. It is the appointment of botany professors rather than the character of the gardens that has fixed the establishment of modern botanic gardens to the mid-16th century. Hamburg claims a municipal Apothekengarten in 1316, Salerno in 1340. Francis Bonafides had a private garden of simples in Padua in 1533 (Hawks p. 146) the same year that the garden in Venice was probably established. Gesner’s garden at Zurich was established in 1560.

Nestorian medical centres at Edessa, Nisbis, Jundeshapur & Baghdad

Nestor was Archbishop of Constantinople from 428 to 431. He and his followers, driven out of Constantinople in 431 for their heretical views,  founded many schools and monasteries in Persian territory. They are now remembered for their translation of Greek and Latin philosophical texts into Persian and Syriac. Prominent among their monasteries was a medical school at Edessa (an early centre of Syriac Christianity), founded in the 4th century and a model for the later medical school at Salerno. Dissolved in 489 the Nestorian teachers from Edessa moved first to Nisibis then to Jundashapur in Persia about 800 km away and here, supported by the Persian Emperor, a medical school and hospital were built, acting as an intellectual hub for Greek, Jewish, Persian (Zoroastrian) and Hindu ideas, all centred on the Syriac language and training physicians that would go out into the Islamic world.

Syrians had quickly accepted Christianity helping to spread the gospel in Asia Minor, Egypt and Mesopotamia. They translated the Old Testament and were interested in Greek partly so that they could study a Greek translation of the Old Testament that had been produced in Alexandria from a slightly different Hebrew text. In this way Nestorians were a connecting link between Greek and Arabic medicine.

Plato’s Academy in Athens had persisted until closed by Emperor Justinian in 529, the Neo-Platonist students fleeing to Jundeshapur establishing a philosophical tradition of thought that would influence Islamic thought.

The main sects of Islam had emerged within the first century after Muhammad (c. 570-632 CE), Sunnis maintaining that all caliphs were his spiritual successors while Shias favoured a line of succession through his cousin Ali (some Shias accepted only the first 5-7 caliphs as legitimate, others the first 12).

An Islamic Golden Age of learning began when its capital was transferred from Damascus (capital during the Umayyad Caliphate of 661 to 750) to Baghdad in the 760s, a circular fortified city. Around 850 CE mathematician al-Khwarizm (source of the word algorithm) and his students combined Euclidian and Hindu maths in the development of algebra and trigonometry, linear and quadratic equations, geometric solutions, along with tables of sines, tangents and cotangents. Prominent among the Baghdad court physicians was Persian Abū Bakr Muhammad Zakariyyā Rāzī (854–925 CE) a polymath and teacher regarded as a major figure in the history of medicine whose enduring and original work was known across Europe and Asia for centuries. Baghdad was for a while the world’s largest city (ranked with Delhi, Beijing, and Constantinople), a flourishing trade centre and capital of the Abbasid dynasty in the 10th century with a royal observatory and magnificent gardens and palaces spreading outside the city walls and across the Tigris river along with its libraries and bazaars.

In 711 there was a division of the Caliphate between Baghdad and Cordoba when Moorish armies captured Cordoba in Spain and academic study returned in an Islamic intellectual Renaissance.  One early indication of this was a medicinal treatise on Hippocrates in 718 (now held in the Laurentian Medici Library in Florence)[12] by Ahmed Ben Ibrahim, physician to Caliph Yazid II.

Caliph Abd al-Rahman I of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus (a dynasty that ruled the greater part of Iberia for nearly three centuries) was the first Emir of Cordoba from 755-788. He established a Botanic garden in Cordoba and encouraged the collection of seed from Syria and other parts of Asia. It was in these gardens where the first date palm was grown in Spain.

By 950 Cordoba had become one of the most populous cities in the world, renowned for its universities, libraries, medical schools, vineyards, orchards, gardens and commerce before its role was taken over by Seville. During this period new crops were introduced and distributed through Muslim gardens managed by leading physicians like Ibn Bassal (fl. 11th century) of Toledo and Seville, and Ibn al-Wafid (997-c.1074) of Toledo.

The school at Jundeshapur had flourished for 300 years before it and its teachers moved to Baghdad, a new centre of learning, when Persia was the victim of an Arab conquest.  The Abbasid Caliphs supported the work of the school.

The significance of the Syrian Nestorians of Baghdad is their fascination with Greek science. Translation of old manuscripts into Syriac and Arabic that had begun in Jundeshapur continued in Baghdad in the 9th century, ancient Greek learning being then passed on to Arab scholars.

From the mid 7th century enlightened and tolerant Islamic leaders, who were also in control of the world’s major trade routes, initiated a revival of philosophy and science.

The Medical School at Salerno

As early as the mid 9th century a small biological revival occurred in a medical school in the central Italian city of Salerno where medical students were awarded the title of Doctor. This medical school was associated with a nearby Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino which held texts of both Greek botany and medicine and this helped to launch medicine once more.

The Medical School of Salerno (Schola Medica Salernitana) on the Tyrrhenian Sea in the south Italian city of Salerno which was a Mediterranean port sharing both Arab and Byzantine-Greek cultures. The school was founded in the 9th century and flourished in the 10th century to be eventually overshadowed by the medical schools at Montpelier, Padua and Bologna. Legend held that the school was founded by four masters: the Jewish Helinus, the Greek Pontus, the Arab Adela, and the Latin Salernus hence the Greek, Latin, Arab and Jewish combination of academic cultures. Women were included as both teachers and students and the school included courses of philosophy, theology, and law. This attracted both students and the sick in large numbers as the school became the most important source of medical knowledge in Western Europe popularly known as the ‘Town of Hippocrates’ (Hippocratica Civitas or Hippocratica Urbs).

Salerno was, in effect, the first university medical faculty, the second was Montpelier est. c. 1137. The botanical significance of this medical centre was at least twofold.

First, the school was no doubt visited by Constantinus Africanus (or Ifrīqiya) in 1077 before he moved to the nearby monastery Monte Cassino where he translated Arabic texts into Latin: Aphorisma and Prognostica of Hippocrates, Tegni and Megategni of Galen, Kitāb-al-malikī (i.e. Liber Regius, or Pantegni) of Alī ibn’Abbās (Haliy Abbas), the Viaticum of al-Jazzār (Algizar), the Liber divisionum and the Liber experimentorum of Rhazes (Razī), the Liber dietorum, Liber urinarium and the Liber febrium of Isaac Israel the Old (Isaac Iudaeus). Though his translations were poor his work drew attention to the scientific legacy of Greece and Islam a century before a burst of translation from Arabic into Latin occurred between 1175 and 1225.

Second, the doctors at the school produced several popular medical treatises that were rational and devoid of superstition. Johannes (d. February 2, 1161) and Matthaeus Plantearius, possibly father and son, lived in Salerno and published the Liber de Simplici Medicina, better known as the Circa Instans which was was a pharmacological list of 273 drugs of which about 229 were plant-based. This was an advance in botanical pharmacology but the botany was still poor. This publication, with illustrations added, replaced the popular Herbarium of Apuleius in the later Middle Ages and provided the text and illustrations for many of the printed herbals that began to appear around 1450.

In the 13th century there was the beginnings of a new dawn in botany in both the Arab and Christian worlds. In the Arab world this occurred in Andalusia, the most prosperous and technologically advanced agricultural region of the Caliphate where there was a meeting of the two cultures. Notable Arab pharmacologist Ibn al-Baytar scoured the Mediterranean looking for new plant medicines. His long-lasting treatise, which was a grand synthesis of Arab pharmacology with 200 new plants and 1000 from traditional sources, remained unknown and untranslated in Europe.


With the Christian Crusades many of the classical texts were returned to Christendom from the Islamic world and from 1175-1225 many were translated from Arabic to Latin. In western Europe during the early Middle Ages learning and the copying of manuscripts had passed to scholarly theologians in monasteries scattered across Europe. These monasteries acted not only as places of devotion but also as community centres where the monks and nuns would care for travellers and the sick. Medicinal herbs, known in English as ‘simples’ (simple medical treatments) or ‘officinals’ (plants of commerce) were cultivated in the monastery physic gardens as remedies for the sick who packed the monastery dormitories. A few herb manuscripts remain from Europe of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, notably the De Vegetabilibus (c. 1256 CE) of bishop Albertus Magnus of Cologne who was educated at the University of Padua (founded in 1222 and one of the world’s first modern universities and where he was educated in the works of Aristotle).

Religious devotion and caring for the needy left little time to satisfy any curiosity about plants. It seems that the combined knowledge of the Bible and what remained of antiquity was sufficient. Time was therefore spent digesting and applying the wisdom of the past. For about 1000 years through the Middle Ages plants were regarded as objects of utility only. Dioscorides work was copied and re-copied but there was little attempt to supplement his findings.


Universities, institutes of higher learning, surely take their point of departure from the gymnasia of ancient Athens like Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum (see Theophrastus). Children of aristocratic Romans were fluent in Greek, the language in which philosophy was taught. We see echoes of the classical education in the monastic schools (scholae monasticae) administered by the monks and nuns in the early sixth century CE although modern universities are usually considered to have originated later, examples being Bologna (1088), Paris (c.1150) Oxford (1167), Cambridge (1209) and Montpelier (1220), many fortunate to have achieved independence from external authorities.

New interest in learning was prompted in part by the recovery of ancient Greek texts especially those of Aristotle returned to the West in about 1100. Latin was the scholarly language and the Greco-Roman influence was evident in the curriculum with an entrance requirement of a trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic or logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). This particular curriculum of liberal arts was a kind of intellectual toolbox to deal with the world rather than a description of the world. Southern European universities specialised in law and medicine, northern on the arts and theology. By the 1800s the curriculum of many had widened to include natural philosophy, logic, medicine, theology, mathematics, astronomy (and astrology), law, grammar and rhetoric. By the end of the 18th century there were approximately 143 universities in Europe and Eastern Europe, with the highest concentrations being in the German Empire, Italy, France, and Spain.

Much of the botany of these times was performed by men trained in medicine and other disciplines with botany just one, often minor, aspect of their studies. The early 12th century medical school at Montpellier, France, was founded primarily by Jewish teachers educated in the Moorish universities of Spain and the school increased in prosperity as Salerno declined (Hawks p. 163). By the mid-16th century medical students were arriving from around Europe attracted by the teaching of Guillaume Rondelet (1507-1566) whose position was similar to that of Ghini in Italy, and here he found time among his diverse duties and interests to teach students about medicinal plants in a small garden adjoining the university. Rondelet was the son of an ‘aromatarius’ (grocer, druggist, pharmacist) becoming Regius Profesor of Medicine at the University as well as its Chancellor (Hawks p. 163. On a trip to Italy he had met many contemporary Italian scholars previously known to him only through correspondence, and including Luca Ghini at Pisa, Antonio Musa Brasavola at Ferrara, Ulysse Aldrovandi at Padua and Cesare Odo at Bologna. A doctor first, he is perhaps best known botanically for successful pupils like Jean Bauhin, Charles de l’Écluse (Carolus Clusius), and Matthias de l’Obel (Lobelius). Among his first students was Jaques Daléchamps’ (1513-1588) who, with the assistance of John Bauhin and John Desmoulins produced the 2-folio Historia generalis plantarum, Lugduni (1586–1587) which described, for the first time, much of the flora growing around Lyons, with crude descriptions and figures of around 2700 species.

In 1551 there arrived at Montpelier the already highly qualified man later to be known as ‘the prince of descriptive botanists’ Charles de Lescluze (1526-1609) and now better known as Clusius, who boarded with Rondelet for several years. The first of his many works was a translation, from Flemish into French, of the Crydeboek of Rembert Dodoens in 1557.

Botanic gardens

Founding dates of physic gardens associated with the universities indicate the passage of learning from southern to northern Europe, no doubt tracking the political fortunes of nations as they passed from Italy to Spain and Portugal, then Holland, followed by France and England. This transition can be traced through the dates of establishment of botanic gardens: Italy – Pisa (1544), Padua (1545), Florence (1545); Spain – Valencia (1567); northern Europe – the Netherlands at Leiden (1587), Amsterdam (1638); Germany – Leipzig (1580), Heidelberg (1593) and Berlin (1672); France was earlier than Britain with Montpellier (1593), Faculty of Medicine Garden, Paris (1597) and Jardin du Roi, Paris (1635); Scandinavia – Denmark, Copenhagen (1600); Sweden, Uppsala (1655). Britain was relatively late with the founding of the Oxford Botanic Garden (1621), Edinburgh Botanic Garden (1670), and Chelsea Physic Garden (1673).

Garden directors were eminent physicians often associated with the publication of printed Herbals.

‘Botanical gardens of the modern tradition were established in northern Italy, the first at Pisa (1544) founded by Luca Ghini (1490–1556). Although part of a medical faculty, the first chair of materia medica, essentially a chair in botany, was established in Padua in 1533. Then in 1534, Ghini became Reader in materia medica at Bologna University. Collections of plants were prepared using a simple plant press, the dried specimens called a hortus siccus (garden of dry plants) and the first collection like this is attributed to Ghini. Buildings called herbaria housed these specimens mounted on card with descriptive labels. Stored in cupboards in systematic order they could be preserved in perpetuity and easily transferred or exchanged with other institutions’


The earliest extant herbarium is that of private collector Gherardo Cibo who began his collection in 1532, while the first institutional herbaria were established in the latter part of the sixteenth century, the first being at Kassel, Germany, in 1569.[6] In 1990 there were about 270 million specimens in 2600 herbaria.[6]

As plant nomenclature, description and classification gathered in importance many of the former physic-style botanic gardens were, by the 18th century, being transformed into ‘order beds’ or ‘system gardens’ that demonstrated the classification systems devised by botanists of the day, one especially famous one being that at the Jardin du Roi in Paris in 1759 depicting the ‘natural system’ of Antoine de Jussieu.[2] Systems gardens demonstrating plant classification systems have been a theme of botanic gardens to this day, one of the best known and earliest in Australia being the system garden of the Botany Department at Melbourne University.

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