Saturday, March 26, 2011

John Gerard - Herbalist and Scoundrel

John Gerard (1545-1612) is the best known botanist published in English. His work has remained popular for over 400 years for its amalgamation of horticultural lore, its collection of medical "virtues" of plants, and, not least, its graceful and delightful English prose.

Gerard was born in Cheshire, England and attended a village school in Wisterson. He was apprenticed for a career of a surgeon in 1562 and achieved eminence in his profession, being elected Master of the Company of Barker-Surgeons. He traveled the Baltic coast to "Denmarke, Swevia, Poland, Livinia, and Russia."

Gerard's reputation, however, rests on horticulture. As early as 1577, he superintended several gardens and plant collections of William Cecil (Lord Burghley, the first minister of Queen Elizabeth) including his residence in the Strand and at Theobalds, Hertfordshire. In 1586 he was appointed curator of the College of Physicians physics garden. In addition, Gerard’s own garden at Holborn, between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane included "all the rare samples" and "all manners of strange trees, herbs, roots, plants, flowers and other rare things ..." 

Gerard’s list of plants in his Holborn garden published in 1596 was the first garden catalogue printed in English and included over 1,000 species including the first English mention of potato. However, Gerard’s most famous work is his Herball or General Historie of Plants, published in 1597.

Gerard was one of the most respected plant experts of his time, but he was not the primary author of his famous "The Herball of Generall Historie of Plantes" of 1597. He plagiarized a manuscript by Dr. Robert Priest that was a translation of the Flemish physician and botanist, Rembert Dodoens’ "Stirpium Historia Pemptades Sex."

Gerard was originally supposed to finish the translation after Priest died, instead he added 182 new plants, revised the arrangement, appended his own observations and claimed the entire work as his own. In a rush to publish, Gerard made a great number of errors in his first edition. However, that first edition held the field without a competitor for more than a generation.

A second edition was published in 1633, edited by Thomas Johnson, who's revision greatly improved Gerard's herbal. Johnson’s edition also used Christopher Plantin's woodblocks which were superior to the blocks in the 1597 edition.

Copies of Gerard's Herbal , The Herbal or General History of Plants, and Gerard's Herbal History of Plants can be found at Amazon. There is also a Kindle edition of Gerard's Herbal.

  • Jules Janick. 1987 Proc. Second National Herb Growing and Marketing Conference, Purdue Research foundation.
  • Wikipedia

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