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Jacob Bigelow's American Medical Botany: Digital Reissue Illuminates Access to Rare Work

The digital age affords an extraordinary opportunity for history to be resurrected from rare book rooms and then made available to a wide audience. One such digital publishing event is Jacob Bigelow’s landmark three volume American Medical Botany, published in Boston from 1817-1820. Octavo Editions ( has recently released a CD-ROM facsimile of this major early nineteenth century work from a very clean copy in the Cary Graphic Arts collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The digital facsimile is presented as if the book lay before the viewer imaged as uncropped page spreads. In addition to the crisp digital facsimile, an introductory commentary work titled “Jacob Bigelow and American Medical Botany” by special collections librarian Philip Weimerskirch, describes the book’s significance and Bigelow’s diverse career. A searchable transcription of the entire three volumes adds to the facsimile’s user friendliness and utility.

Bigelow’s American Medical Botany represents not only a milestone in the history of North American medicinal plant literature, but also an important landmark in printing technology, as the first American book with printed color plates produced by a method of Bigelow’s own ingenuity.

Jacob M. Bigelow was born in Sudsbury, Massachusetts, on February 27, 1787; he died just prior to his ninety-second birthday in January of 1879. After a short stint as a teacher following his graduation from Harvard College in 1806, Bigelow studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia, where he developed a passion for botany under the tutelage of Benjamin Smith Barton, botanical patron and professor of materia medica. Bigelow joined a successful consulting medical practice, while pursuing botanical interests. In 1814 the first edition of his Florula Bostoniensis was published, which describes plants growing within 10 miles of Boston. Two more editions of his Florula Bostoniensis followed, including an expanded 1822 edition and an 1848 edition which extended coverage to a much wider area of New England.

In 1815 he became professor of materia medica at Harvard Medical School. In 1816 he was also appointed Rumford Professor of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts at Harvard College. The “useful arts” are what we now call technology. The word technology has its origins in the seventeenth century, but Bigelow is credited with lifting the term out of obscurity and being the first to popularize its use both in his lectures and in a book of collected lectures, Elements of Technology (Boston: Hilliard, Gray & Co., 1829).

At the dawn of the era in which materia medica was to separate from medicine into the academic discipline of pharmacy, the incorporated state medical societies of the United States organized to convene a general convention on the first day of January 1820. The goal was to compile an American Pharmacopeia. Among the five individuals selected to serve on a committee to prepare the work for press was Jacob Bigelow. The first national pharmacopeia of America, The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America, was published in Boston in December of 1820. Noting, however, that a pharmacopeia by its nature is “circumscribed and technical” in 1822, Bigelow authored a commentary on the pharmacopeia, A Treatise on the Materia Medica Intended as a Sequel to the Pharmacopeia of the United States (Boston: Charles Ewer, 1822), a work which conservatively described how substances were used in practice.

In theoretical medicine, Bigelow is best remembered for an address delivered to the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1835 on self-limited diseases—a plea for his colleagues to refrain from using bloodletting, purging, and other treatments in health conditions that would resolve themselves without treatment. This and other essays were collected in a volume published in 1854, Nature in Disease and Other Writings (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854). His words remain tireless, reminding his colleagues, “It [our profession] brings with it the humiliating conclusion, that while other sciences have been carried forward, with our own time and almost under our own eyes, to a degree of unprecedented advancement, Medicine, in regard to some of its professed and most important objects, is still an ineffectual speculation.”

Bigelow’s crowning literary jewel was American Medical Botany. Originally issued in six parts, they were later bound in three volumes dated 1817, 1818, and 1820. One thousand copies of the work were published. Each volume consists of twenty plants, accompanied by a full-page color plate (all but three of which were produced by drawings original to Bigelow’s hand) and descriptive text. There is no systematic arrangement to the plants in each volume. However, since the drawings were rendered from live plant material, it somewhat follows a phenological (flowering time) sequence or perhaps Bigelow’s available time to get to the field and collect the plant to illustrate.

“In a work like the present,” he wrote, “although we cannot hope to supply all the desiderata of an indigenous Materia Medica; yet it will be satisfactory to have done something towards an investigation of the real properties or our most interesting plants, and to have facilitated a knowledge of them in those, to whom they may be useful.” He continued. “In a pursuit of this kind, the botanist has views even beyond the physician. To him it is important not only to know what plants have properties, that are eminently useful, but also to know, what are the properties and uses of all the plants which surround him.”

“Under the title of American Medical Botany, it is my intention to offer to the public a series of coloured engravings of those native plants, which possess properties deserving the attention of medical practitioners. The plan will likewise include vegetables of a particular utility in diet and the arts; also poisonous plants which must be known to be avoided. In making the selection, I have endeavoured to be guided by positive evidence of important qualities and not by the insufficient testimony of popular report. . . I am by no means ambitious to excite an interest in the subjects of this work, by exaggerated accounts of virtues which do not belong to them. Much harm has been done in medicine, by the partial representations of those, who, having a point to prove, have suppressed their unsuccessful experiments, and brought in to view none but favorable facts.”

Bigelow’s approach was a conservative one. He chose plants with potential merit based on his own observations or others “qualified to form correct opinions on the subject.” In the accompanying text he provides a botanical description, “more diffuse than is necessary for exclusive botanists,” chemistry with a view toward pharmaceutical preparations, medical history, and positive evidence of important medical qualities.

The plates have an aesthetic quality not common to works of its day. Produced with copper plates through a process called aquatinting, it is immediately noticeable that the image of the plant is not outlined in black. Published engravings produced in America at that time were printed in black outline with the plates colored by hand. This method was used for the production of the first 100 copies of the first issue of volume 1. But the speed of his colorists did not please Bigelow, so he devised a method by which the ink could be applied directly to the printing plate for the color impression, eliminating the need for hand coloring. This limited the plates to one or two colors with retouching by hand, but made for much more efficient printing of the book. Although this method was used elsewhere in the world, Bigelow seems to have used it for the first time in the United States. Contemporary reviewers praised the beauty of the plates which were said to resemble original artwork more than printed engravings. The original three volumes, which bring prices in excess of $7500 for a complete set in good condition, is not collected just for its medical or botanical merit, but also as a landmark work in printing as the first American book with color plates.

Bigelow simply hoped to make a contribution to the American materia medica, perhaps revealing new drugs which could replace foreign imports. In doing so he combined the skills of an artist, teacher, botanist, pharmacist, physician, scholar, and technologist. He knew the plants of which he wrote. He observed them, collected them; touched, smelled, and tasted each plant part; attempted to distill, decoction, or triturate them; and finally, if judiciously warranted by his own opinion coupled with the scientific consensus of the day, use these plants in his medical practice. He illustrated the plants with his own eye and hand, then brought technological innovation to bear in developing a suitable method of color printing, a first for America. Bigelow brought a scientific depth and aesthetic pleasure not only to the subject of which he wrote and illuminated but also to the publishing and printing process itself. All these factors combine to make American Medical Botany rare in the broadest sense, beyond the mere scarcity of today’s physical copies.

The following pages contain 10 plates, reproduced through the generous permission of Octavo Editions. Brief commentaries on the plates follow. Names in parentheses represent common or scientific names used by Bigelow as chapter headers.

Steven Foster is an internationally known author of 45 books on herbal medicine and a renowned photographer of medicinal plants. His various areas of interest include native American medicinal plants, plant conservation and sustainable production of medicinal plants, and nineteenth century herbal literature. Among his many other activities Steven is a Trustee of the American Botanical Council and his photography regularly illustrates the pages of HerbalGram. More at


Gray A. Dr. Jacob Bigelow. The American Journal of Science and Arts, Third Series. 1879;17(100):263-266.

Kelly HA. Jacob Bigelow. In: Some American Medical Botanists. Troy, New York: The Southworth Company Publishers; 1914.


Poke (Phytolacca decandra L.) Phytolacca americana L., Phytolaccaceae, Vol. 1, Plate III, pp. 39-51.

Bigelow’s account of poke speaks not only of its use in America, but in Europe, where it had become naturalized at least a century earlier. In Portugal and France, Bigelow wrote, the berries were used to improve the color of red wines until those countries’ governments banned the practice. Today, the young shoots are eaten in the South as an early spring green known as “poke salat.” This practice dates to Bigelow’s day. “The young shoots of this vegetable are destitute of medicinal qualities, and are eaten in the spring in some parts of the United States, as substitutes for asparagus,” he wrote. Eating two or three poke berries a year is still a common folk remedy for rheumatism in the South. He devotes a good deal of space to the berries, including a description of how a berry preparation can be used as a more sensitive indicator of acidity than litmus. Bigelow described the use in rheumatism along with the reputation of the root in external preparations as a cancer treatment. In his time, professional use focused on poke root as an emetic, which Bigelow confidently and frequently employed in his practice.


Prickly Ash (Xanthoxylum fraxineum Smith) Zanthoxylum americanum Mill., Rutaceae, Vol. III, Plate LIX, pp.156-162.

With its distinct numbing sensation produced upon chewing the bark, this shrub undoubtedly caught the early attention of those interested in the medicinal flora. Like citrus, prickly ash is a member of the Rutaceae (Rue Family), and Bigelow describes the lemony fragrance of the leaves as well as the distinct citrus fragrance of the tiny fruit rind. He distilled the essential oil of the fruits and leaves, but found that the pungent principle of the bark was not extracted by distillation, rather by decoction. In addition to exploring the literature on each plant, we find Bigelow is observed thoroughly smelling, tasting, and testing each plant part, dissecting it from a botanical perspective, rudimentary chemistry, experimental pharmacy, and then deducing the therapeutic potential based on this wealth of experience and knowledge. As explorers were discovering new territories, Bigelow was exploring the nuances of American medicinal plants. He wrote of prickly ash’s reputation, both by popular appeal and professional prescription as a much employed treatment for chronic rheumatism, hence its being stocked in apothecaries. Bigelow, a stickler for correct nomenclature, stated, “signifying yellow wood, was originally given by Mr. Colden. The spelling has since been unaccountably changed to Zanthoxylum in a majority of the books which contain the name.”

American ginseng (Ginseng; Panax quinquefolium) Panax quinquefolius L., Araliaceae, Vol. II. Plate XXIX, pp. 82-96.

Clearly Bigelow is fascinated with the potential of American ginseng, if for no other reason than to understand why the Chinese held it in such high esteem while from the nineteenth century American physician’s perspective, the root seemed benign at best. Bigelow devoted pages to Jartoux’s now famous early eighteenth century account of ginseng in China. “Father Jartoux became so far a convert to the virtues of the plant, that he tells us that after having taken half of a root, he found his pulse quicker and fuller, his appetite improved, and his strength increased so as to bear labour better than before.” He concluded, “As far as Ginseng has been tried medicinally in this country, and in Europe, its virtues do not appear, by any means, to justify the high estimation of it by the Chinese...Ginseng is principally sold by our druggists as a masticatory, many people having acquired an habitual fondness for chewing it. It is certainly one of the most innocent articles for this purpose.”

Bloodroot (Blood Root) Sanguinaria canadensis L., Ranunculaceae, Vol. 1 Plate VII, pp. 75-82.

Bigelow described the medicinal properties as those of an “acrid narcotic.” “It occasions heartburn, nausea, faintness, and frequently vertigo and diminished vision.” Enumerating the views of his contemporaries, root preparations found to be of utility in acute rheumatism, jaundice, diseases of the lung and liver, influenza, and whooping cough among others. In the hands of a cautious practitioner he extolled it as “a stimulating tonic, capable of increasing the appetite and promoting digestion.” In recent years, one of its chief extracted principles (i.e., sanguinarine) found use in dental products for antibacterial and antiinflammatory activities in gingival inflammation and plaque. However, use has been curtailed since data emerged showing that the compound may cause leukoplakia (precancerous lesions caused by irritation on the tongue or inside of the cheek). It is also used in a topical folk cancer remedy “black salve.”


Sweet Goldenrod (Golden Rod, Sweet scented Golden rod.) Solidago odora Aiton, Asteraceae, Vol. 1, Plate XX, pp. 187-191.

Here the words of Bigelow stand the test of time. “The claims of the Solidago to stand as an article of the Materia Medica are of a humble, but not despicable kind. We import and consume many foreign drugs which possess no virtue beyond that of being aromatic, pleasant to the taste, gently stimulating, diaphoretic and carminative. All these properties the Golden rod seems fully to possess.” It is noted, too, as a tea plant, pleasant and aromatic, with a flavor similar to anise and sassafras, “but different from either.” Today, the herb is still somewhat of a sleeper (marketwise) as a medicinal tea or extract, but it has become more widely available in the horticultural trade.

Butterflyweed (Butterfly Weed, Pleurisy Root) Asclepias tuberosa L., Asclepiadaceae, Vol. II, Plate XXVI. [pp. 59-66]

Bigelow and his contemporaries extolled the use of the root as an expectorant and diaphoretic. This is a plant drug that has never left the dust of historical literature for the modern laboratory. What is now known of its virtues comes from a historical context. Bigelow provided interesting comments on the seed’s silky fibers. “ has been substituted for fur, in the manufacture of hats, and for feathers in beds and cushions. When attached by its ends to any woven fabric, this down forms a beautiful imitation of the finest and softest fur skins, and is applicable to various purposes of dress.”

Jimsonweed (Thorn Apple) Datura stramonium L., Solanaceae, Vol. 1, Plate 1. pp. 17-32.

“In common with some other narcotics,” Bigelow explains, “it seems first to have been introduced freely into practice by Baron Storck of Vienna, as a remedy in Mania, epilepsy, Convulsions, &c. Many subsequent physicians have given testimony to its efficacy in certain forms of these disorders, yet the instances of its failure have doubtless been more frequent than those of its success.”

Bigelow was a pragmatist. He was loath to accept a plant’s medicinal value short of his own proof in observation or that of respected colleagues. He dismissed its use in epilepsy, though he was interested in the drug’s use in the treatment of asthma. Bigelow also dismissed more ancient traditions. “Many stories have been related of the power of this and other species of Datura to produce mental alienation, without at the same time materially affecting the body. [Note C.] These accounts are generally of somewhat ancient date, and not correspondent with the observations of later physicians.” Bigelow’s “note C” at the end of the first volume is a quote from Beverly’s History of Virginia with an account of soldiers who ate Datura as a spring green, which turned them into “natural fools” for several days.

Mayapple (May Apple) Podophyllum peltatum L., Berberidaceae, Vol. II. Plate XXIII, pp. 34-40.

Bigelow ranked mayapple among sure and active cathartics, and thought it could serve as a substitute for imported stimulant laxatives such as jalap, aloes, and rhubarb, and considered it “more safe and mild in its operation.” However, in the appendix in Volume 3 to which Bigelow had promised in the introduction to add any new information, he quoted an account of Mayapple use by a Dr. Burgon, who warned, “My experience enables me to state, that it is more drastic than jalap [Ipomoea purga (Wender.) Hayne, Convolvulaceae], and of course occasions more active catharsis, more severe griping, and makes a more permanent impression on the system.” He took a dose of 20 twenty grains then described “…when its operation commenced and produced continual motions all that day and part of the next night together with severe tornina.” Such strong cathartic action might warn against its use, but Burgon adds, “its effects being so decided, I have since prescribed it in a multitude of cases, and for the most part with similar result.” Apparently, the stronger the purge the better in the days of professional purging and bloodletting! Modern interest in mayapple focuses on semisynthetic derivatives of podophyllotoxin (primarily extracted from the root of the Himalayan mayapple, P. hexandrum) and its use in chemotherapy for small cell lung cancer and testicular cancer, among others.

Fragrant Waterlily (Sweet Scented Water Lily) Nymphaea odorata Aiton., Nymphaeaceae, Vol. III, Plate LV, pp. 134-140.

Bigelow’s ability to weave his love of technological discovery with his keen delight in beauty in nature is revealed in the treatment of Waterlily. “The flowers have a delicious odour, hardly surpassed by any perfume with the summer produces....I have several times attempted to separate this perfume by distillation both with water and spirit, but have never succeeded in preserving it in the faintest degree.” Now rare in the herb market, in Bigelow’s day the use of the roots as a folk medicine and an alternative to then conventional treatment was explained. “The roots of the water lily are kept by most of our apothecaries, and are much used by the common people in the composition of poultices....They are occasionally used by physicians in cases where astringent applications are called for, and answer a purpose somewhat analogous to that of lead poultices and alum curds.”

Sassafras (Laurus sassafras L.) Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees., Lauraceae, Vol. II. Plate XXXV, pp. 142-147.

Bigelow largely dismissed the many virtues once attributed to the bark. “Its reputation...has fallen into deserved oblivion.” Instead his fascination focused on the pith of the twigs. “The bark and pith of the young twigs abound with a pure and delicate mucilage. A very small quantity of the pith infused in a glass of water gives to the whole a ropy consistence, like the white of an egg. This mucilage has the uncommon quality that it is not precipitated, coagulated, or rendered turbid by alcohol....Some eminent surgeons have employed it as a lotion in the most inflammatory stages of ophthalmia, to which its softness renders it extremely well suited.”