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An Herb For That

On October 18, 1616, English botanist and herbalist physician Nicholas Culpeper was born. Receiving early lessons in Latin and Greek, he read widely in his grandfather’s library. He learned about the application of medical plants from his grandmother. Culpeper attended Cambridge but discovered sports and conversation and did not graduate.

He apprenticed to a London apothecary whom he taught Latin and from whom he was motivated to identify and collect medicinal herbs. Culpeper became so knowledgeable that he began a successful practice as a physician and inherited the apothecary’s business. He used the common English names of plants rather than Latin names with his poorer patients. In that way, he empowered many to collect personal remedies free of charge from their own countryside.

Over the next years, he acquired an interest in astrology (considered part of astronomy in his day), lived through the English Civil War, and lambasted the Royal College of Physicians that he accused of neglecting the poor and mistreating the rich. This trailer for the BBC4 documentary The Rebel Physician: Nicholas Culpeper’s Fight for Medical Freedom gives a sense of Culpeper’s bravery and determination.

He was so determined to make herbal medicine available to everyone and end the closed knowledge monopoly of physicians that Culpeper published a translation of their Pharmacopoeia into English. The College of Physicians did its best to attack this work because Culpeper, although faithful in his translation from their Latin to the people’s English, had commented about the pros and cons of each drug and let readers know exactly what he thought of most physicians! Charles Paparella, WBOC, explains the side effects of Culpeper’s whistleblowing info-leak to the population at large!

A few years later, Culpeper published The English Physician.

The next year, he completed his handbook of common herbs and other plants found in England. This work, now retitled Culpeper’s Complete Herbal has served with enduring impact for over three centuries. The two books provide an historical record of medicine available in Culpeper’s time and a primer in alternative medicine. The “Complete Herbal” continues to be reframed and edited for readers up to this day. That’s 360+ years in print!

Cover page of The English Physician Nicholas Culpeper ‘s complete holistic guide to caring for the sick.
Cover page of The English Physician Nicholas Culpeper ‘s complete holistic guide to caring for the sick.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage