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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

Nehemiah Grew

Nehemiah Grew. The anatomy of vegetables begun. With a general account of vegetation founded thereon. London: printed for Spencer Hickman, printer to the Royal Society, 1672 [Rare Books Collection QK41.G86]Nehemiah Grew. The anatomy of vegetables begun. With a general account of vegetation founded thereon. London: printed for Spencer Hickman, printer to the Royal Society, 1672 [Rare Books Collection QK41.G86]Nehemiah Grew was appointed Curator of Plants at the Royal Society in 1672, and worked closely with Robert Hooke on microscopical investigations. Whereas Hooke’s aim in microscopy was to gather evidence to prove his corpuscular theory of matter, Grew used the microscope to help him establish botany, for the first time, on a firm scientific basis.

Until Grew’s time scientific interest in plants had been confined to their medicinal value. By the late seventeenth century, the great age of herbals was already passing. Although he was a practising physician, he is now remembered for his pioneering investigations on the anatomy and physiology of plants and trees. He was the first to grasp the importance of analysing rings in trees in order to determine their age, and tried to explain the role of chemistry in the physiology of plants.

His importance in the history of biology lies primarily in the principles on which he based his research: his insistence on comparing plants when investigating their internal operations; his explanation of structure in terms of function and mechanics; and his belief that the importance of a plant organ had to be related to the internal economy of the plant itself and not to man, God or some general plan of nature. These assumptions seem familiar to us, but they were novel to contemporaries, as they had not had the benefit of a prolonged exposure to microscopy to help them reformulate their view of nature. The illustration demonstrates his investigations into the anatomy of trees.

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