It doesn’t look like much of a book. A slim 94 pages, just over five inches high and less than three inches across, it snuggles easily into the palm of your hand. Yet it’s filled with the mysteries of 17th century medicine – and has a few other mysteries wrapped around it as well.
The tiny, leather-bound book in the Reynolds Histor-ical Library at UAB is one of only five surviving copies of The English Physician, published in 1708 in Boston, the first medical book published in the British North American colonies. The book is attributed to Nicholas Culpeper, an English herbalist, and has now been reprinted. The new edition is edited by Michael Flannery, associate director of Historical Collections at UAB.
Culpeper made a name for himself in the mid 1600s by translating Latin medical and herbal texts into English and selling them cheaply, making medical knowledge available to the common people. This put him in conflict with the medical establishment of the day, who were not eager to see their secrets so exposed.
“Culpeper was something of a radical who believed that medical knowledge should be the property of all people, not just the high and mighty members of the London College of Physicians and Surgeons,” Flannery said. “His translation of the London Pharmacoepia, for example, was a practical medical guide for lay people . . .much as we use wellness magazines and Web sites to become more informed about our health today.”
The English Physician opens with a letter to the reader, purported to be from Culpeper himself. “I have here made Publick to the World, some of my choicest Secrets in the Art of Physick, which I had once thought never to Publish; but the Importunities of the Publick Good, has so prevailed with me, above my private Interest, to serve my Age and Station in which I live.”
The publication trail of this book is convoluted. Flannery says the 1708 Boston edition is virtually a word-for-word copy of an earlier version, published in 1690 in London and also attributed to Culpeper. It is known that Culpeper published a work called The English Physitian in 1652, two years before his death in 1654 and 38 years before the London edition. Flannery suggests that subsequent publishers might have been dealing in some savvy marketing.
“Parts of the 1690 London book and the 1708 Boston book match with Culpeper’s earlier writings and other parts do not,” he said. “But in the years after his death, the name ‘Culpeper’ became something of a brand name . . .standing for affordable, easy to understand medical knowledge. It would not be surprising if enterprising publishers simply borrowed his name.”
The new edition by Flannery contains the original material found in the 1708 version, which consists of practical suggestions for dealing with a variety of common ailments, such as cough, aches, consumption and even “fainting heart and weak stomach.” It has an introduction by Flannery that puts Culpeper’s life and times into perspective. Flannery also adds notes to the text to help modern readers understand the often-confusing notions and terminology of 17th century medicine.
“Many of the simple remedies suggested in its pages would be derived from plants first brought from Britain by colonial gardeners only to spread and become commonplace throughout America,” Flannery said. “It is one of those books that literally transformed the American landscape.”
The book, available at UAB Historical Collections, sells for $40. More information is available online . Proceeds of the sale of the new edition will go to the UAB Reynolds Historical Library.