From The Library: Two More Botanical Treasures

This article follows on from the talk I gave back in March 2018 and then the descriptions of two further books on Botanic Illustrations that were emailed out to proprietors on 4th March.

Both of today’s books have been written by 17th century Englishmen. The first is by the plant anatomist and physiologist known as the “Father of Plant Anatomy” and the second by a man whose ambition was to create the first systematic recording of the entire Natural World!

Nehemiah Grew (1641 – 1712) graduated from Pembroke College in 1661; ten years later he gained his Medical Doctorate from Leiden University in the Netherlands. He began observations on the anatomy of plants in 1664, and in 1670 his essay, “The Anatomy of Vegetables”, was communicated to the Royal Society (aka “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge”, formed in 1660 under the Royal Charter of Charles II) by Bishop Wilkins of Chester, on whose recommendation he was in the following year elected a fellow. In 1672, when the essay was published, Grew settled in London, and soon acquired an extensive practice as a physician. He also became a Fellow of the College of Physicians.

In 1677 Grew became the secretary of the Royal Society during Christopher Wren’s Presidency.

Grew was one of the first to use the microscope for the study of plant morphology. Hooker, the technician for the Royal Society, was a vocal proponent of this new technology.

Linnaeus named a genus of trees in his honour: Grewia, in the Mallow family.

The book we have is his “Anatomy of Plants with an idea of a Philosophical History of Plants”, which was published in 1682 with 82 illustrations. It is a collection of his lectures read before the Royal Society and published as four books:

  • Anatomy of Vegetables
  • Anatomy of Roots
  • Anatomy of Trunks
  • Anatomy of Leaves, Flowers, Fruits and Seeds

Appended to this book were seven papers mostly of a chemical character.

Some of his noted firsts were:

  • A description of the differences of morphology between stems and roots
  • Showed flowers of Asteraceae are built up of multiple units, that is, the flower head is made up of many small individual flowers. E.g., Sunflower
  • Correctly hypothesized that stamens are the male organs of a flower
  • Provided the first microscopic description of pollen leading to the discovery that although all pollen is roughly globular, size and shape is different between species; however, pollen grains within a species are all alike.

This first illustration I have chosen (Tab 5) shows a variety of roots, clockwise from the top left: Primrose, Wood Sorrel, Devils-bit (Scabious), Dandelion, Crocus, Dragon (no idea, not Dracaena!), Iris. They are clearly sketched freehand.

The next picture is a complete contrast, it is exquisitely drawn from viewing the stem cross-section under a microscope. What patience! This is the cross-section through a Sumach (Rhus).

Finally, I have chosen his illustration of the structure of young Borage leaf:

My second book was written by John Ray (Joanne Raio) (1627 – 1710) who left Cambridge in 1662 so that he could dedicate his life to produce the first systematic recording of the entire Natural World! He was one of the earliest of the English parson-naturalists.

He held many college offices at Trinity, becoming successively a lecturer in Greek (1651), mathematics (1653), and humanity (1655). Talk about a polymath!

In 1663 he left England, accompanied by three of his former pupils, to tour the Low Countries, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, Malta, Sicily, England, Wales and Scotland. During the course of this 3-year journey, he observed not only different species of plants but fish, birds, animals and insects.

His greatness was: “in a time of transition and universal turmoil, he saw the need for precise and ordered knowledge”. He was among the first to attempt a biological definition for the concept of species and built on the work of Robert Morison that I described in my last article.

Before Ray, flowers were ‘coloured leaves’; however, he used the word ‘petal’ in the way we understand it today.

His lengthy trip provided all the material he needed for our book “Historia Plantarum”, which was published between 1686 and 1704.

The 1st two volumes, published in 1686 and 1688, described 6,900 species of British and European plants. Whilst the 3rd volume was published in 1704 with a further 11,700 entries; with tropical plants from Philippines, Maryland (US), Africa, Far East and Jamaica.

Each week for 6 months, manuscripts were sent by stage coach from Black Notley, the family home in Essex, to London and back, with his friend Samuel Dale checking them in Black Notley and another friend, Tancred Robinson, revising them in London.

Ray received £30 per volume, which is less than two pence a page! The work on the first two volumes was supported by subscriptions from the President and Fellows of the Royal Society.

There do not seem to be any botanic illustrations, just pages of botanic descriptions all in Latin! I did not think it worth including these, but if anyone wants to investigate the plants that the books covered, there are comprehensive indices.