John Gerard, name also spelt as John Gerarde (1545-1612), was a renowned English herbalist, who was distinguished for his personal herbal garden as well as writings on botany. Way back, in 1597, Gerard published a voluminous and heavily illustrated book on herbals titled 'Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes', which afterward turned out to be the most extensively circulated book on botany in the English language during the 17th century. Besides incorporating numerous plants grown in his personal herbal garden as well as those grown in North America, Gerard's 'Herball' is basically an English translation of another text titled 'Herbal', which was written and published by Rembert Dodoens in 1554. In effect, Rembert Dodoens' 'Herbal' was itself extremely popular and was available in several languages, including English, Dutch, French and Latin. A few decades following the death of Gerard, his 'Herball' was modified or corrected as well as expanded by a different author and this actually gave the position a superior position in the 17th century botany book market.
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It may be said that John Gerard was among the most well known botanists whose works have been published in the English language. In fact, Gerard's work has remained popular for over four centuries for its incorporation of horticultural lore, its collection of remedial 'merits' of plants and, not the least, for its elegantly as well as charming English prose.
Born at Nantwich, John Gerard received his initial and only schooling there. At the age of about 17 years, Gerard became an apprentice to a barber-surgeon. While he himself claimed that he learnt several things regarding plants while traveling to various regions of the world, his actual voyages seem to be rather limited. For instance, during some point of time in his later youth, it is known that Gerard made a trip abroad - probably traveling by sea in the capacity of the surgeon on a merchant ship, which sailed in the region of the North Sea.
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In the year 1577, John Gerard began supervising Lord Burghley, William Cecil's gardens in London. By the time it was 1595, Gerard had already been promoted to be an associate of the Court of Assistants in the company of Barber-Surgeons. By this time, he spent plenty of time traveling from the court to his gardens located in the suburb of Holborn to take care of his responsibilities for Lord Burghley, William Cecil. Two years later, in 1597, Gerard was appointed as the Junior Warden of the Barber-Surgeons, and a few years afterward, in 1608, he also became the Master of Barber-Surgeons.
Going by his works, it may be said that Gerard was actually a doer, rather than being a thinker. During his time, Gerard was practically considered to be an outsider as far as the community of naturalists of Lime Street in London was concerned. Although the perspective of a number of his contemporaries was that Gerard's 'Herball' was slightly flawed, he had dedicated his works to his patron or benefactor Lord Burghley.
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During 1596, John Gerard published a list of some exceptional plants that he had grown in his personal garden at Holborn. In fact, Gerard had some unusual plants brought from the New World, comprising a plant that he had wrongly named the Yucca. It is unfortunate, that the Yucca did not produce flowers during the lifetime of John Gerard, but a seed taken from this plant bloomed afterward for one of his contemporaries. It is interesting to note that till this day, Yucca continues to bear the name given to the plant by John Gerard. A copy of the list of plants grown in Gerard's personal garden that was published in 1596 can still be found in the British Museum.
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As aforementioned, John Gerard published his now famous book 'Great Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes' in the year 1597 and, in the same year, this edition re-utilized several hundred woodblocks used in an earlier book titled 'Eicones Plantarum', published by Jacobus Theodorus, known as Father of Botany in Germany, in 1590. In effect, the publication 'Eicones Plantarum' itself has been re-used from the earlier printed works in the 16th century by a number of botany writers, including Carlos Clusius, Rembert Dodoens, Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli and Lobelius. The illustrations or drawings of the plants that were used in the editions of 1633 and 1636 utilized of several hundred woodblocks that were originally made for another edition of the 'Herbal' by Rembert Dodoens. It may be noted that for this purpose, the woodblocks were shipped all the way from Antwerp to London.
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Since John Gerard's 'Herball' was an extremely practical and useful text that was not only loaded with numerous useful illustrations of plants and, but also owing to the fact that he possessed a smooth and vivacious writing style, this book was extremely popular with the common literate individuals in England during the 17th century. There is evidence that this book has been used or referred by several people even till the early 19th century.
Thomas Johnson, an apothecary (pharmacist) as well as a botanist, who lived in London, did the edition of John Gerard's 'Herball' that was published in 1633. In fact, Johnson was commissioned to perform the job by the heirs of John Gerard's estate. The edition done by Thomas Johnson comprised several modification/ corrections as well as fresh information founded on experimental observation. By means of circumstantial remarks, Johnson cautiously disassociated himself from the original work done by John Gerard. For instance, vis-à-vis the listing on the saffron crocus, Johnson had written that in this particular chapter, their author was in 'many minds'.
All said and done, while John Gerard is regarded as a pioneer of botany writers in the English language, he was not highly educated and had never been an exceptional botanist, vis-à-vis the technical know-how or expertise during his own period. This is a summary of the views of his work and performance as a botanist that have been expressed by Gerard's critics.
The skill to empirically portray or depict the natural world actually creates a division between the natural historians of the Renaissance period from their predecessors in the Medieval period, whose practitioners adhered by the ancient texts on herbal medication. First, the earliest printed works in Renaissance natural history may be divided into two categories - the lately retrieved, translated and modified editions of the earliest texts, and, second, the herbal texts founded on experimental knowledge of the early botanists. While the renowned English philosopher, statesman, scientist, and author Francis Bacon promoted inductive thoughts founded on the observation or depiction as the means to comprehend as well as describe the natural world, the initial Renaissance printed texts on herbals were somewhat corrected alterations of the works of their predecessors from the medieval period. In general, such early scientists categorized plants and, at times even other things, such as animals and minerals, and described their medicinal worth.
The works of John Gerard are included in the initial wave of Renaissance Natural Historians, who wanted to organize or classify natural history, while, at the same time, preserving the works of the ancient herbalists. For instance, the basis of 'Herball' by John Gerard incorporated Materia Medica of the early Greek writer Pedanius Dioscorides (whose writings are deemed as ancient text) and also the works by his contemporaries, such as the Flemish botanist Matthias de l'Obel (Lobelia is named after him) and German botanist Leonard Fuchs (Fuchsia is named after him). In effect, l'Obel as well as Fuchs was primary botanists who worked experimentally with plants. Both these botanists were highly educated, similar to the other members of the London community (Lime Street), but unlike Gerard. Actually John Gerard and Matthias de l'Obel were close friends too and sometimes toured together. However, Gerard, who was not as educated as l'Obel and Fuchs, inhabited the Holborn suburbs and was regarded as an outsider by the Lime Street community of London.
John Gerard breathed his last in London, England, in February 1612.