In Effigiam Nicholai Culpeper Equitis (detail) by Richard Gaywood / British MuseumCredit: User:MarmadukePercy / via Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

A Herbalist with a Mission

Nicholas Culpeper is an important figure in the history of herbal medicine.

Born 18 October 1616, he lived as a young boy with his mother, Mary, and grandfather, William Attersoll, head of the local parish, in Isfield, Sussex, England. 

A small village in a country environment of wild flowers and meadows, Nicholas had the task of collecting plants for the household. 

It was in the family kitchen that he first witnessed the use of plants in healing and cooking. Gaining an awareness of the healing qualities that many of the local plants possessed, Nicholas learnt to identify the wide variety of herbs and flowers that grew in the surrounding fields. “In these fields, he pored over the book of nature in the same detail as his grandfather combed the book of God inside.” (Woolley, p. 20)

Wild flowers(109361)Credit: wordspeller

Early Career

At the age of ten, Nicholas was sent for schooling elsewhere in the district and attended Cambridge University in 1632. There, he studied Latin and theology, with his grandfather’s desire being that he follow the same vocation. This was not to be, however. Nicholas decided to abandon his studies in the hope of marrying his fiancée, and was at a loss to learn of her death on the eve of their elopement.

Saddened and disinherited from his grandfather, Nicholas made his way to London and in 1634 became an apprentice with an apothecary, as arranged by the Society of Apothecaries. After an apprenticeship of several years, Nicholas left his training due to a lack of money, and married Alice Field.  

Although unlicensed, he chose to open his own medical practice at age 24, based on the outskirts of London City, and attended the sick, regardless of their financial status. Nicholas knew he wanted to make a difference and valued education to promote healthy living to his patients.

Culpeper and Medicine

Medicine meant more to Nicholas than costly physician fees and prescribing compounds that were artificial or derived from exotic herbs. “When medicines were needed, Nicholas insisted that they should be based on local ingredients simply prepared.” (Woolley, p. 167).

He focused on treating with inexpensive traditional remedies, and understood health had both physical and divine aspects, and would often align these with astrology. “He used it to prove a prognosis, and to post rationalise the outcome but when it came to diagnosis and treatment, he relied upon more obviously medical principles, such as examining the patient and studying the “signs” of the disease.” (Woolley, p. 175)

This was in contrast to the philosophy of the College of Physicians which sought authority over the apothecaries. Fellows of the College would search buildings, test medicines and examine apprentices in training. Regulations were in place that stipulated which toxic substances could only be obtained from the College and that all remedies prescribed from the apothecaries must come from the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis – a Latin medical dispensatory produced by the College. 

It was from this publication that Nicholas was to make his greatest impact, not only for herbal medicine, but the general public. The majority of apothecaries had a very poor knowledge of Latin, and for commoners, this was more so.

Antique apothecaryCredit: Anita Patterson / morgueFile

Medical Publishing

There was minimal information available to help the public empower themselves in their own healing and it was something the College of Physicians strove to control. Nicholas Culpeper grew increasingly aware of this fact and took it upon himself to translate the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis. Along with the list of ‘simples’ and ‘compounds’ found in the original text, many notes were added outlining why a particular remedy or substance was used, and for which ailment. 

Nicholas believed in returning power to the people and sought a new freedom for medical knowledge. In 1649 his English translation of the dispensatory was published as A Physical Directory – a translation of the London Dispensatory made by the College of Physicians in London. It was a success, providing valuable information beyond ingredients and recipes.

Here was a guide that could be understood by far more people and it drew much annoyance from physicians. Nicholas pointed out many inconsistencies and errors made by its original authors, and revealed the actual purpose of medicines, what the ingredients treated.

“When it came to the compounds, he exposed even more of the physicians’ secrets: providing easy-to-flow recipes for each, complete with familiar English names for the ingredients where possible, and adding a description of when the concoction should be used.” (Woolley, p. 293)

Despite criticisms towards the dispensatory and himself, further editions were produced and Nicholas Culpeper began work on other translations, and published an informal pocket-sized guide A Directory for Midwives in 1651. Depicting the anatomy of sexual organs and 
discussing issues of infertility, labour and nursing, it helped to dispel a few of the illusions about reproduction and childbirth at the time.

Herbal flowersCredit: User:Kokabella / morgueFile

The English Physician

Culpeper’s most important contribution however was to be The English Physician: an astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation – more commonly known as Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Published in 1652, it contained a vast number of healing herbs and cost three pence; a price the poor could afford and easily read in informal English. 

Using a simple format, each plant was described by its foliage structure, habitat, time of flowering and seed, and its government and virtues; its ruling planet, its action/s on the organs and body, and how it can best be made into a remedy.

Releasing The English Physician to the public was considered a radical action at the time, with the widespread giving of information, breaking the boundaries of the medical elite in England so self-healing could be known by the individual. 

The English Physician was a breakthrough and many editions were, and continue, to be printed. It is remarkable from the short life Culpeper lived (d. 1654) aged 38, to find his influence still lasts today.

Not only a skilled apothecary and writer, Nicholas Culpeper gave his wisdom and knowledge to others so they might regain their own health, even if their financial or intellectual standing prevented them from doing so.