The Father of Botany

Posted by Sarah Jane Humphrey on

Botanical Illustration is one of the earliest Art forms

If you can imagine a time before tapping a query into 'Google' or reaching for a book in search of answers, how would you have gone about finding a simple answer to a question? Well it was more than likely from word of mouth passed down by generations. However this leaves much room for human error, particularly for physicians trying to obtain specific plants for medicinal remedies. This is where the very first scientists and botanical illustrators crossed paths. Making accurate illustrations for informative references, to be used to correctly identify plants from one another.


Plant identification 

Scientific illustrations first appeared in Alexandria, as long ago as the third century BC. Rendered on individual sheets of papyrus, these Hellenistic illustrations covered a variety of anatomy, obstetrics, surgery and botanical illustration of a medicinal value.  Theophrastus (c.371–286 BC), known as the ‘father of botany’, wrote many books, including the 10-volume set, Historia Plantarum (‘Enquiry into Plants’). His curiosity led him to research and findings on germination, cultivation and propagation – amongst many other discoveries, which included the grouping of plants into categories. He was a student of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and scientist, and is probably deemed as one of the earliest founders of botanical research.

Theophrastus (c.371–286 BC)

Later on, in the first century AD, the first known copies of De Materia Medica (‘On Medical Material’) were produced, translated into both Latin and Arabic. These were written by a Roman physician of Greek origin called Pedanius Dioscorides. In this illustrated book he covered 600 plants with around a further 1,000 medicines made from them. It was widely read for thousands of years and was regarded as a pharmaceutical ‘bible’ for those in practice, becoming the most influential work on medicinal plants in both Christian and Islamic cultures. Astonishingly, a copy of the illustrated manuscript, dating back to the sixth century, is still in existence, held in Istanbul, Turkey.


An illustrated entry from 'De Materia Medica' by  Pedanius Dioscorides


For further reading on the history of Botanical Illustration please read my latest book, 'Botanical Art with Scientific Illustration'.

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