Nicholas Culpeper (18 October 1616 – 10 January 1654), was a botanist, hebalist, physician and astrologer. Brought up by his mother and his maternal grandparents, he learned Latin and Greek at a young age, and became interested in astronomy, astrology, time, his grandfather’s collection of clocks, and medical texts in his grandfather’s library, and learned about herbs and medicine from his grandmother.
His family intended him to enter the clergy, like his father and grandfather, but although he went to Cambridge University, he left without graduating and became apprenticed to an apothecary. However, he never completed his apprenticeship, but married Alice Field, the 15-year-old heiress of a wealthy grain merchant, which allowed him to set up a pharmacy at the halfway house in Spitalfields, London, outside the City of London. Spitalfields, being outside London, was out of the rigid and draconian jurisdiction of the Society of Apothecaries, so he was able to practise as a herbalist and physician.
He translated The English Physitian (sic) from Latin to English, to the fury of the Society of Apothecaries, so that people other than the apothecaries could read it as a way of freeing them from dependence on the extremely expensive medical practitioners. He also criticised the practitioners for illogical use of herbs based on tradition rather than reason, and their insistance on herbs and spices imported from overseas at great expense.
In 1653, he published his Complete Herbal a catalogue of hundreds of plants and herbs that could be found in gardens, the countryside and woods of England, including a description, where they could be found, the time of year and their Government and virtues. As Culpeper was an astrologer as well as a herbalist, Governance referred to the astrological influence on each plant and disease, thereby determining the use of which plant to treat which disease, it’s virtue.
The publisher Thomas Kelly, in his imprint, first published in 1814, appended this note at the end of the introduction to The Complete Herbal:
This celebrated, and useful Physician died at his house in Spitalfields, in the year 1654. This Book will remain as a lasting monument of his skill and industry.
“Culpeper, the man that first ranged the woods and climbed the mountains in search of medicinal and salutary herbs, has undoubtedly merited the gratitude of posterity.”— Dr. Johnson.
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Image of Nicholas Culpeper by Thomas Cross, line engraving, published 1649, Catalogue NPG D29025. Used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery under Creative Commons licence. Image resized.