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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Culpeper's Pharmacopoiea

The works of the apothecary and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) illustrate the 17th century physician’s reliance on plants in the concoction of his remedies. The Pharmacopoiea Londinensis begins with detailing the ‘physician’s library’, that is, the stock of ingredients on which he could draw, and this includes sections on roots, herbs, flowers and fruit.

Opening showing descriptions of useful medicinal plants, including CalendulaDescriptions of useful medicinal plants, including CalendulaCulpeper, whose radical and egalitarian leanings led him into conflict with the closed shop of the College of Physicians, produced the Pharmacopoiea Londinensis as a deliberate attempt to put medical remedies within reach of the common citizen. Until Culpeper’s English translation appeared, the Pharmacopoeia existed only in a Latin version produced by the College of Physicians, and its members not unnaturally resented Culpeper’s breaking of their monopoly.

Culpeper’s Pharmacopoiea was more than a translation, however; he added detailed guidance on the making and use of remedies, so that those unable to afford the services of a physician or apothecary could try to treat themselves.

As he stated in a work of 1650, A physical directory:

My pen (if God permit me life and health) shall never lie still, till I have given them [his poorer readers] the whole model of physick in the native language.

Culpeper’s Pharmacopoiea proved an immensely popular work and new editions continued to be published for many years after the author’s death, as this 1672 edition shows. Many of the plants listed by Culpeper are still used in medicine today. Calendula, or marigold, for example is commended by him for its use in reducing inflammation and loosening the belly. Today calendula oil is widely used as both an anti-inflammatory treatment and a laxative.

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