Leonhart Fuchs’ Famous Herbal Book

Cannabis sativa from Leonhart Fuchs's De De Historia Stirpium.

Cannabis sativa from Leonhart Fuchs‘ De De Historia Stirpium.

On May 10, 1566German Botanist Leonhart Fuchs passed away. Fuchs is best known for authoring a large book about plants and their uses as medicines, i.e. a Herbal Book, published in 1542 in Latin, with about 500 accurate and detailed drawings of plants printed from woodcuts.

Leonhart Fuchs became Magister Artium in 1524 and earned his doctor of medicine degree. During the next years, Fuchs practiced as a doctor in Munich and was appointed professor of medicine at Ingolstadt in 1526. Later on, Leonhart Fuchs became the personal physician of Georg, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach in Ansbach. During the 1530s, Fuchs was called to Tübingen by Ulrich, Duke of Württemberg in 1533 to help in reforming the University of Tübingen in the spirit of humanism. There, Fuchs created its first medicinal garden in 1535 and served as chancellor seven times, spending the last thirty-one years of his life as professor of medicine.

Fuchs is regarded as one of the fathers of botany, as the main representative of New Galenism. Like his medieval predecessors and his contemporaries, Fuchs was heavily influenced by the three Greek and Roman writers on medicine and materia medica, Dioscorides, Hippocrates, and Galen. He wanted to fight the Arab hegemony in medicine, as it had been transmitted by the Medical School of Salerno, and to “return” to the Greek authors. But he saw the importance of practical experience as well and offered botanical field days for the students, where he demonstrated the medicinal plants in situ. He has written over 50 books and polemics. He owes his great fame primarily to his herbal books, early textbooks of pharmacognosy.

Leonhart Fuchs’ probably most famous book is titled De Historia Stirpium comentarii insignes (or Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants) and was published in 1542 after around 30 years of work. Prior to Fuchs’ efforts it was mostly uncommon to base herbal descriptions on scientific observation and rather base them on folk traditions. Fuchs was enthusiastic about illustrating plants and hired three men to help him with his work: Albrecht Meyer who specialized in drawing the plants, Heinrich Füllmaurer who was responsible for transferring the drawings into woodcuts, and Vitus Rudolph Speckle who was appointed to cut the blocks and print the illustrations.

The resulting book was intended as a guide to plant collection and contains 497 plants illustrated, in enormous detail, hand-colored. The plants were ordered alphabetically according to their Greek names, since the botanical Latin had not yet existed. With this work, Fuchs set new standards for botanical illustrations. Due to the level of detail, the illustrated plants could be used in the field of medicine and could be correctly identified in nature. Further, Leonhart Fuchs also included 12 New World plants such as maize, kidney bean, chili pepper, cactus, and tobacco.

Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566)

Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566)

After his death, the extensive manuscript with more than 1500 plant pictures reached the Austrian National Library in Vienna, where it has been preserved in its entirety to this day. On the other hand, only a few copies of his herb book plates have survived. Charles Plumier named the genus Fuchsia of the plant family of the evening primrose family (Onagraceae) in his honour. Carl von Linné later adopted this name,[4,5] The standard author abbreviation L.Fuchs is used to indicate this person as the author when citing a botanical name.

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