GLENCOE, Ill. (October 17, 2013) – Rare books giving insights into the origins of modern medicine will be displayed at Healing Plants: Illustrated Herbals, a special exhibition of selected volumes from the Lenhardt Library’s Rare Book Collection. The event runs from Friday, November 15, 2013, to Sunday, February 9, 2014.
“Knowledge of the healing power of plants dates back to ancient times,” said Stacy Stoldt, public services manager of the Lenhardt Library, who coordinates library exhibitions. “From the first century, this wisdom was recorded in illustrated books known as herbals. These beautiful and fascinating volumes provide a history of the medicinal uses of plants.”
Herbals by first-century Greek physician Dioscorides and Roman officer Pliny the Elder were two of the most highly influential studies of medicinal plants. The works were continuously translated, and were used by medical practitioners for centuries. A glimpse into a sixteenth-century reproduction of Dioscorides’s compendium, De Materia Medica, reveals the benefits of absinthe—or wormwood—wine for expelling roundworms and treating hypochondria.
Pliny wrote continuously about the natural world, devoting five volumes of his 37-book encyclopedia to medicinal plants. A sixteenth-century reproduction of Historia Mundi Naturalis, open to the section on medicine from wild trees, testifies that the Egyptian lotus bean, when boiled in wine, can treat dysentery and slow hair growth.
Renaissance scholars participating in investigations of the natural world from the thirteenth through mid-sixteenth centuries, published new and expanded herbals. On display will be a Czech translation of Commentaries on the Materia Medica of Dioscorides. The work by Italian physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1500–77) describes 100 new plants, including new discoveries from the Middle East and the New World. A popular herbal by Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517–85) presents foxglove (Digitalis pupurea) boiled in wine as an expectorant.
“The remedy is likely to have poisoned many people,” Stoldt said, “but not all the remedies were harmful. Many modern drugs are derived from plants used by ancient healers.”
Plants discovered in the New World proved to have important medicinal properties, leading to the publication of a number of herbals with remedies from nonnative tropical plants. Charles Plumier (1646–1704), royal botanist to Louis XIV, made repeated plant-collecting trips. A copy of his Nova Plantarum Americanarum Genera displays an original unsigned pencil drawing.
The 60 illustrations contained in American Medical Botany by Harvard professor Jacob Bieglow (1787–1879) were printed using a revolutionary new color process developed by the author. The first volume relates the purgative effects of Carolina pink root (Spegelia marilandia). The second states the medicinal value of blue gentian (Gentiana catesbaie), while volume three informs visitors that berries from the common juniper (Juniperus) can be used as a diuretic.
An important work called Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States by William P. C. Barton (1786–1856) includes information gathered from Native Americans in western Pennsylvania. The first volume opens to a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), used as a diuretic and a treatment for acute rheumatism, while volume two presents powerful emetics such as May apple (Podophyllum peltatum).
Hand-colored woodcuts illustrate the mid-sixteenth-century herbal by William Turner (1509–68) who stressed well-known and easily accessible British plants for curing ailments. Images of violets with additional drawings fill the margins.
Ed Valauskas, rare book curator, will give a talk on the exhibition at 2 p.m., Saturday, December 7, 2013, at the library.
The exhibition is presented in collaboration with the New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library and based on The Renaissance Herbal exhibition presented there in the summer of 2013. Healing Plants: Illustrated Herbals is partially funded by the Harriet Kay and Harold R. Burnstein Fund for Exhibits.