Contributed Papers

Histories of Botany and Medicine

Presenter 1

Challenges to Identifying Ancient Substances in Chinese Materia Medica

Sean T. Bradley

University of Washington


Properly identifying ancient substances in the Chinese materia media is a challenge that has plagued scholars since antiquity. Ancient drugs should elicit actions and effects that are predictable and precise, and when the identification is clear, the use of these substances is consistent and provides modern practitioners with thousands of years of medical experience. The Bencao Gangmu 本草綱目 by Li Shizhen 李時珍 (1518-1593 CE) serves as the culmination of the Chinese materia medica tradition in pre-modern times and thus functions as the primary reference looking into the past for modern scholars. Each entry of Li Shizhen's work gives insight into substance identification, but drug products in this work are especially challenging to precisely identify due to the wide ranges of distribution, trade that has spread non-native plants to new growing regions, hybridization between local and foreign varieties, multiple common and local names in various languages, different names for different plant parts, thousands of years of wild-crafting and cultivation, to name a few. By looking closely at the individual Chinese materia medica entries exemplified by the work of Li Shizhen, we can recognize clues and clarify confusion to identify ancient substances.


Presenter 2

Indigenous Scientific Knowledges and the Archive: Health, Illness, and Healing in the 1577 Relaciones geográficas

Kelly McDonough

University of Texas Austin


This paper centers on methodological challenges and potential solutions for drawing out Indigenous Scientific Knowledges (ISK) from the 1577 Relaciones geográficas (RGs) responses. As a case study, the paper focuses on the contextualized fragments, traces, and conspicuous absences of ISK related to Indigenous health, illness, and healing in the 31 RG manuscripts from the Archdiocese of Mexico RG corpus. The principal aim is to suggest how we might transform the RGs from decontextualized lists of disembodied data to a rich, underexplored, and highly generative index of ISK. The paper is comprised of three parts: first, I outline the limited source materials for the study of early-colonial ISK in general, and of Indigenous health, illness, and healing in particular, in order to address what the RGs can contribute to such studies. Second, I sketch the context of Indigenous health and illness at the time of the RG questionnaire circulation, with an eye toward understanding how the Indigenous responses were inflected by their specific social, political, and economic realities. Finally, I move from an emphasis on illness to one of healing, and from methodological challenges to possible solutions, with a focus on ISK related to plant medicine attestations and medical practices in the RGs.


Presenter 3

Producing and Reproducing Botanical Illustrations in the Horti medici Amstelodamensis (1697-1701)

Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen

Utrecht University


The development of natural history, notably botany, is highly visual. "Copiously illustrated" is a recognizable characteristic of many herbals and botanical publications from the early modern period. Producing and reproducing these illustrations oftentimes involved several figures. For example, although the dynamic could be fluid, a botanist provided a selection of plants to be illustrated; an artist visualized the plants; a printmaker turned the plant drawings or paintings into printing blocks and plates, and a book printer printed the images. How, and to what extent, did each figure contribute to how the final printed images look? This paper seeks to answer this question through the production and reproduction of the botanical illustrations in the Horti medici Amstelodamensis (1697-1701), written by the Dutch botanists Jan Commelin and Caspar Commelin. The Commelins engaged several artists to produce watercolors of plant depictions for the botanical garden in Amsterdam. The collection of more than 400 watercolors is now known as the Moninckx Atlas, and many of which were reproduced as engravings for the two volumes of the book. This paper analyzes how visual plant information is differently depicted in a selection of watercolors from the Moninckx Atlas and compares the images that were reproduced as prints in the Horti medici Amstelodamensis to those that were not. By identifying the common features and deviants in these painted and printed botanical illustrations, this paper addresses the contribution of each role within the larger development of visual botany in the early modern period.


Presenter 4

Time and Culture in Carl Linnaeus' Ethno-racial Classifications

Monica Libell

Lund University, Sweden


In the history of anthropology, Carl Linnaeus is often portrayed as an essentialist and rigid systematist who laid the groundwork for scientific racialism - and by extension racism - by subdividing the human species into four discrete human varieties (races). Whereas such a narrative creates a compelling origin of Western racism and captures valid underlying structural features, it may obscure a more multifaceted complexity. While paying close attention to Linnaeus' writings, this paper aims to deepen the discussion by taking a geo-temporal lens to his ideas on the evolution of race. Accepting heredity, environment, and culture as inextricably entangled in his work, it will discuss how Linnaeus came to perceive human variation as the product of time, geography, and human culture. Despite the construction of an overly simplistic scheme of four races, furnished with color-codes, separate physiognomic characteristics and distributed globally over the four continents, Linnaeus increasingly came to subscribe to a contemporary 18th-century belief in a fluid model of relationships between nature and culture. In this co-operative model, humans were not eternally fixed beings, but were able to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Applying the model to the four races, Americans, Europeans, Asians and Africans, this paper will lastly argue that the co-mingeling of nature and art, in Linnaeus mind, brought cultural maturation and prosperity - as well as instances of over-cultivation - to some continents, most notably Asia and Europe, conjured a promise of hope for the innocent and childlike native Americans in the West, all while a despairing bleakness and degeneration descended upon the dark African continent.