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How Nicholas Culpeper Brought Medicine to the People

His 17th-century text is still in print today

Nicholas Culpeper fought against the medical establishment of the time by taking the radical action of writing in English, not Latin. (British Museum, London)
smithsonian.com

Nicolas Culpeper, born on this day in 1616, took a radical approach to medicine in a way that would probably seem boring to anyone today. Rather than writing and publishing in Latin, the accepted language of knowledge, the doctor and apothecary published in English. This dedication to spreading knowledge, which was motivated by politics as well as altruism, helped him become an author whose principal work, The English Physician (also known as Culpeper’s Herbal) is still in print today, according to the Science Museum, London.

For all that, you’d probably want to consult your doctor before listening to any of his advice. Culpeper’s work popularized astrological herbalism—that is, an understanding of “herbs and their uses… tightly intertwined with readings of the stars and planets,” writes the University of Virginia’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. He also subscribed to the doctrine of signatures—that is, the unscientific belief that plants contain some physical sign of what they are meant to treat. For example, the belief that walnuts are good for your brain because they look like little brains. Some people still think this, according to Matt Simon writing for Wired.

These beliefs, however, weren’t so uncommon for seventeenth-century academics and physicians, and, as Simon notes, some plants were identified as useful before being assigned their “signature,” so they did work. In an era before doctors washed their hands and when anatomists still made grisly art out of their subjects, Culpeper's advice probably wasn’t any worse than anyone else’s—even though he got a reputation as a quack because he fought with the College of Physicians, writes physiologist Olav Thulesius.

Culpeper’s medical beliefs went along with his political ones, writes the library. Culpeper was a Puritan, rather than an Anglican, and he was a Parliamentarian, while most of the College were Royalists, which put them on opposing sides in the English Civil War. He “wrote pamphlets against the king, all priests and lawyers, and licensed physicians,” writes the Science Museum, and in 1644 set out to make medical knowledge more accessible to healers who weren’t university-trained physicians by translating and writing medical books in English.

His political perspective also helped to make his work popular with those who shared his views–The English Physician was a staple of the New England Puritan household, writes the library. But his impact is also hard to call, writes historian Benjamin Woolley in his biography of Culpeper:

Whether or not [Culpeper] saved many lives is debatable; but whether or not the discovery of the circulation of blood, or indeed any medical knowledge from that period, saved many lives is open to question. Most medical historians agree that mortality rates stayed at the same level for at least a century after [William] Harvey’s De motu cordis and Culpeper’s Herbal appeared.

What is true, Woolley writes, is that Culpeper challenged “the principle that medical knowledge belonged solely to physicians–indeed that expert knowledge of any sort belonged to the experts. He helped to reveal a division that has yet to heal, between orthodox and alternative medicine.” 

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