Medicine in Early Modern Britain: John Gerarde and Robert Burton

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John Gerard

John Gerard was born in Nantwich, Cheshire in 1545. Gerard attended school close to home at Willaston. At the age of 17, he became an apprentice to Alexander Mason who was a prominent barber-surgeon in London. Barber-surgeons' job during the middle ages was to perform surgery on wounded soldiers. On December 9th, 1569, Gerard was permitted to open his own practice. He used this opportunity to travel the globe as a ship surgeon on a merchant's ship. Through his travels, he learned a lot about and developed a love for plants. Despite his travels, the amount he traveled was over-exaggerated which led people to question his knowledge. While studying plants he created the tenement garden in Holborn, London.

In 1577 Gerard began to work as the superintendent at the gardens of William Cecil, at the Strand and Theobalds, Hertfordshire. In 1586, the College of Physicians created the physic garden of which he became the curator. These positions, combined with his travel, gave him credibility as a great herbalist. Queen Elizabeth held Gerard in high regard. He received a lease on a garden at Somerset House, by Anne, Queen Consort to King James I.  Some of Gerards’ most famous work includes Catalogue of Plants, 1596, and The Herball, 1597. Due to Gerards' lack of scientific knowledge, many of the plants described in The Herball came with folkloric, rather than scientific explanations. Gerard passed away in 1612 (Smolenaars, ODNB).

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The Herball by John Gerard

John Gerard was an English herbalist most well known for his work The Herball, a massive collection of information about plants. Gerard’s career started with the Barber–Surgeons' Company and eventually culminated in his illustrious career as an herbalist. In the Herball, Gerarde not only provides significant information on a worldwide array of plants, but he focuses heavily on how each of the plants he discusses holds medicinal value, claiming many of the plants in the book to cure numerous ailments (Cox). 

One of the plants discussed in The Herball is the turnip. Specifically, Gerard discusses the health benefits of the turnip. Gerard claims that among these benefits are relief against the common cold, and that the turnip can even be used as an antidote to poisons. Modern science tells us that what Gerarde claims is not entirely true. The turnip has little to no value as a counterpoison, but Gerarde was correct in telling us that it has numerous health benefits. The turnip is a tremendous source of antioxidants, which are necessary for prevention of many common ailments. While the turnip may not be a significant medicinal asset like Gerard claimed, it still may be very important for a proper diet (Cao, Wang, and Peng).

- Conner Hein

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RaD, CU Boulder Libraries


RaD, CU Boulder Libraries

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Burton Robert

Burton Robert (1577-1640) was an English writer and fellow of Oxford University, best known for his encyclopedic book The Anatomy of Melancholy.  It was first published in 1621.  J.B. Bamborough noted that Burton “was not happy as a schoolboy. It was a digressive and labyrinthine work, he wrote as much to alleviate his own melancholy as to help others” (Bamborough, ODNB).  The book is mostly filled with classical and contemporary quotations and paraphrases from different authors. For example, as Robert Burton said in the book, “All my griefs to this are jolly, Nought to damn'd as melancholy” (Burton, Frontispiece).

The title page of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy was engraved by Christian Le Blon.  As Henry Cripps described, “Title border with a portrait of Robert Burton; half-length, frontal view, in an oval cartouche below the title field; also seven fields with various male figures and landscapes with animals; the male figures including a kneeling monk representing superstition; a mad man; a man in love and a hypochondriac (British Museum). According to William R. Mueller, “the first two plates on the top represent Jealousy and Solitude; the four plates below it represent Love Melancholy, Hypochondria, Superstition, and Madness; and the bottom two plates represent the herbal cures for diseases, Borage, and Hellebore” (Mueller, ODNB).

-Elena Zhuo