Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States: or, Medical Botany

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Americans of the colonial period and the early republic interested in the medicinal properties of plants were forced to rely largely on British and European botanical sources. These books were of limited use in North America because they excluded many plants native to the U.S. In 1810, James Thacher published The American New Dispensary offering the first text describing native materia medica, drawing on an earlier 1798 work of esteemed naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton.

Building on this publication are these two volumes, the Vegetable Materia Medica, by Barton’s nephew, the botanist William P.C. Barton. Published 1817-1819 in an edition of 500 copies, the set contains fifty beautifully hand-colored plates. Along with Bigelow’s American Medical Botany (1817-1821), the Vegetable Materia Medica offered the first illustrated book depicting medicinal plants native to America, allowing for their identification, and facilitating their use.

The text of Barton’s volumes explain the appearance, the habitat, and the genesis of each plants scientific and vulgar names, as well as their medical properties. The exceptionally-beautiful illustrations were hand-painted by Barton’s wife, Esther (the grand-daughter of David Rittenhouse, renowned astronomer, inventor, and first Director of the U.S. Mint.)

Among the plants pictured and described are ginger, magnolia, winter-green, Indian cucumber, spice-wood, snake root, butterfly-weed, and tobacco. In many cases, Barton offered multiple depictions of each plant, the first illustrating the plant as you might come upon it, in situ, and others showing the roots and the parts of the flower or leaves in detail. One plate illustrating purple skunk-cabbage (Symplocarpus var. B. Angustispatha) is brilliantly-rendered “a beautiful shining dark purple colour” as described by Barton in the text, with an eggplant-colored bloom and satellite figures depicting the plate’s seed, globose pericarp, spathe, and spadix. The plant is described as “exclusively a native of America,” though other variants (and possibly this one) were introduced in England as early as 1735. Barton enumerates the plant’s virtues as a respiratory aid for asthmatics, as an expectorant, and as a useful antispasmodic. Barton treats each plant described similarly.

Barton published widely on both botanical and medical topics. After the death of his uncle B.S. Barton, he assumed his position as Professor of Botany at the University of Pennsylvania. He also lectured at the Jefferson Medical School, where he made the acquaintance of the eminent surgeon Samuel Gross. Gross, who was his student, described Barton’s irrepressible enthusiasm for his subject, after accompanying him on nature excursions along the Schuylkill River: “He experienced as great delight in the discovery of a new plant as Audubon did at the sight of an undescribed bird.”

As an undergraduate, Barton had studied classics at Princeton and medicine under his uncle, (B. S. Barton), at the U. of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1808, he was a surgeon at the Pennsylvania Hospital, and later, in the Navy. Barton had a reputation as an adept surgeon and a fine clinician skilled in the treatment of diseases. Both Barton’s classical background and his extensive knowledge of medicine are on display in this book.

Barton, William Paul Crillon. Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States: or, Medical Botany. Volumes I and II. Philadelphia, 1818-1817.

Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of George Blumenthal.