Botany Before Linnaeus: Investigations of Vegetal Life in Europe, c. 1660-1740

Postdoctoral Project of Justin Begley

Historical studies of botany have tended to jump from the Renaissance, when plants were predominantly studied for medicinal and culinary purposes, to Carl Linnaeus’s field-shaping taxonomical work in the mid-eighteenth century, which formed the basis of more recognisably modern modes of plant classification. But the transitional period, from c.1660-1740, remains poorly understood, even though it was in this epoch, I argue, that botany broke from medicine and began to acquire status as an independent academic field. The foundation of major professorships in the subject, including in Cambridge (1724) and Oxford (1734), reflects botany’s newfound institutional reputation, while the profusion of botanical texts in the vernacular, the growth of the sub-genre of ‘plant poetics’, and the emergence of an international Respublica botanica speak to the efforts to which botanists went to promote and advance non-medical approaches.

Concentrating on the output of Nehemiah Grew, Stephen Hales, Johann Jakob Dillenius, John Martyn, and William Sherard, each of whom made important contributions either to the study of plants or to the institutionalisation and proliferation of such studies, my research at LMU seeks to explain why botanists began to move away from the practical and anthropocentric concerns of their Renaissance forbears and to ask more fundamental questions about the nature, origins, and physiology of plants. In doing so, it hopes to account for why even philosophical luminaries such as Leibniz pondered the development of a ‘botanical method’, and for why there was, more generally, an explosion of interest in botany, such that John Flamsteed, the first English Astronomer Royal, complained in 1704 that associates of the Royal Society of London ‘understand little but vegetables’.

The research has been generously funded by a Humboldt Research Fellowship and hosted by Professor Kärin Nickelsen.

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