Jacob Bigelow’s American Medical Botany, with its sixty color-printed plates, is a pioneering survey of the pharmacological use of plants in North America. The science of botany has never entirely lost its original practical and herbal rationale, and Bigelow (1786-1879), first Rumford Professor of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts (1815-27) at Harvard, was nothing if not practical. His every endeavor applied an innovative scientific outlook to human affairs, from his introduction of landscaping to graveyards to create the modern picturesque cemetery, to his books and lectures on “technology,” a term to which he gave such increased currency that he is often credited with its invention.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of which he was a founding trustee, is in many ways the institutional embodiment of Bigelow’s ideals. Even the production of American Medical Botany prompted certain technological innovations, for Bigelow was obliged to improvise a special process of color printing for the reproduction of his drawings. The text is based on Bigelowˇs firsthand knowledge, both as a field botanist who gathered herbs throughout much of New England, and as a physician whose famous Discourse on Self-Limited Diseases (Boston, 1835) was to set drugs and the patient in a proper perspective for an entire generation. American Medical Botany thus remains not only a monument of American botanical art and color printing technique, but is an enduring record of New England herbal lore and pharmacological practice. This copy of American Medical Botany is from the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
10 1/8 x 6 7/8 inches (257 x 175 mm)
American Medical Botany covers species as various as Datura stramonium (thorn apple, or jimsonweed), Rhus vernix (poison sumac), Conium maculatum (hemlock), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Panax quinquefolium (American ginseng), Juglans cinerea (butternut), Laurus sassafras (sassafras), Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco), and Rhus radicans (poison ivy). The text frequently makes note of practical uses for many of the plants: the berries from Myrica cerifera (wax myrtle), for instance, yield wax that is usable for candles; Solidago odora (sweet-scented golden rod) can be used as an alternative to tea; the young shoots of Humulus lupulus (hops) can be substituted for asparagus, while its vine fibers can be woven into sacking cloth; the downy contents of the Asclepias Syraica (milkweed) pod can be used to make hats and paper as well as beds (Bigelow relates that eight to nine pounds of milkweed silk are sufficient for a bed, coverlet, and two pillows). More than half of the plants mentioned in American Medical Botany continue to be used today in homeopathic medicines.
Although the word “technology" was used as early as the seventeenth century, Jacob Bigelow is often given credit for its invention (“technology” is derived from a Greek word meaning art or craft, as in the Greek saying “Art is long, life is short”). Bigelow was indeed the first to popularize the word, both through lectures on the subject at Harvard and by its use in the title of his 1829 book Elements of Technology. Bigelow’s avid interest in technology, and his solid footing as both a professional physician and an amateur botanist, well qualified him for the task of creating American Medical Botany, a work that summarized current knowledge of its subject matter and was printed in a technologically innovative manner.
This set of Bigelow’s American Medical Botany bears the signature of Gavin Lawson Rose (1797-1867), a physician, on all three title pages, dated shortly after publication. Rose’s handsome bookplate appears on the pastedowns of the second and third volumes; it has been removed from the first. In addition, he added his signature to the 99th page of each volume. Such internal marks served as a rudimentary security system, and were commonplace in public libraries before the era of electronic security devices. Thomas Jefferson was the most famous practitioner of the art, adding his initials to his books by placing a manuscript “T” before the “I” signature mark and a “J” after the “T.” (Technically a “J” is a capital “I”: as part of their system for identifying the sequence of gatherings required to assemble a book, printers used one or the other, usually “I.”)