John Gerard and His Herbal

In the 16th and 17th centuries, barbers performed surgery as well as cutting hair and shaving men. The red-and-white barber's pole is believed to represent blood and bandages associated with their merged calling, and in Britain surgeons are still addressed as “Mr.” rather than “Dr.” This arrangement began in 1163, when a papal decree forbade priests and monks from shedding blood. Up to that time, monks acted as physicians and performed minor surgery, but the decree compelled them to pass their surgical duties over to the barbers. Monks had to be clean-shaven, so every monastery employed one or more barbers.

John Gerard (1545–1612) was a barber-surgeon who lived in Holborn, London, where he had a garden either in the grounds of his house or on ground he leased in nearby Fetter Lane. In 1596 he published a list of more than 1,000 plants that he cultivated in his garden.

These included culinary herbs such as Gibraltar mint (Mentha pulegium), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), saffron (Crocus sativus), and thyme (Thymus vulgaris), and medicinal herbs such as foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), and wormwood (Artemisia absinthum). Gerard also grew the apothecary's rose, also known as the red rose of Lancaster (Rosa gallica). Gerard's list is the earliest catalog of all the plants in a single garden. A copy of it still exists in the British Museum. He was also superintendent of the gardens belonging to William Cecil, Lord Burleigh (1520–98) in the Strand, London, and at Theobalds House, near Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, from 1577 until Burleigh's death in 1598.

When Dodoens's Stirpium historiae pemptades sex appeared in 1583, John Norton, a London printer, commissioned Dr. Robert Priest to prepare an English translation. Priest died before completing the task and Norton asked Gerard to take over. He completed the translation, but made a number of alterations to it and added 182 plants and other observations of his own, based on the plants in his own garden, some of which were native to North America and had been given to him by friends.

Gerard also added previously unpublished information from Matthias de L'Obel, also called Matthaeus Lobelius (1538–1616), a French botanist living in London who had been physician and botanist to James I and VI. To illustrate the book, Norton had obtained the woodcut blocks that had been used in the Eicones plantarum seu stirpium by the German botanist Jacob Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, published in Frankfurt in 1590. A further 16 woodcuts were added to Gerard's book. These included the first illustration of the potato (Solanum tuberosum), captioned “Potatoes of Virginia” to distinguish them from the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). He grew potatoes in his garden. At that time they were considered a great delicacy and only the rich could afford them. Gerard also included some mythical plants, including the barnaclegoose tree—“The breede of Barnakles”—which he claimed to have seen and informed his readers that it could be found on an island in Lancashire.

There was a folk belief that goose barnacles (Lepas anatifera) began life as growths that appeared on logs floating in the sea, so they were plants, and that as they grew they changed into barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis). Gerard described what he believed to be the tree that produces barnacles. It was a persistent myth. Gerald of Wales (ca. 1146–ca. 1223) repeated it in his book Topographia Hiberniae (Description of Ireland). Frederick II (1194–1250), the Holy Roman Emperor, was an authority on falconry and birds in general. He sent an expedition to northern Europe to check the story, which he thought dubious. Frederick's envoys returned with barnacles clinging to rotten wood, but these were quite unlike any bird. Albert the Great performed an even more thorough test. With some friends, Albert bred a barnacle goose with a farmyard goose and found the resulting eggs hatched into perfectly ordinary goslings, establishing beyond doubt that barnacle geese reproduce in exactly the same way as other geese. Nevertheless, the belief was a long time dying, and Gerard helped prolong its decline.

Gerard's work appeared in 1597 with the title The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes gathered by John Gerarde of London, master in chirurgerie. In the preface Gerard described the work as “the first fruits of these mine own labours” and included the following rather curious reference to Dr. Priest: “Doctor Priest, one of our London Colleagues hath (as I heard) translated the last edition of Dodonaeus, which meant to publish the same; but being prevented by death, his translation likewise perished.” Gerard's book described more than 2,800 plants and contained approximately 2,700 illustrations. It had three volumes. Volume 1 covered grasses, rushes, reeds, cereal grains, irises, and bulbs (all of which are monocotyledons). Volume 2 described plants valued for food, medicine, or their sweet smell. Volume 3 dealt with roses, trees, bushes, shrubs, plants grown for their fruit, plants producing gum and resin, heaths and heathers, mosses, and fungi. The work also had an index. Thomas Johnson, a London apothecary, corrected and expanded Gerard's work, publishing the result as a second edition in 1633. This was reprinted in 1636. John Gerard was born in Nantwich, Cheshire, in 1545. He was educated locally and then became a ship's surgeon until 1562, when he moved to London and apprenticed himself to a barber-surgeon.

After completing his seven-year apprenticeship, he was permitted to set up his own practice. This was successful, and Gerard became well respected. He became a member of the Court of Assistants in the Barber-Surgeons Guild in 1595 and subsequently held various offices. In 1608 he became the Guild's Master. In 1596, the year he published his garden catalog, the Barber-Surgeons Guild commissioned Gerard to create a “fruite-grounde” for their London premises, which he did. Gerard died in London in February 1612 (in the modern calendar, 1611 in the old calendar when the year began on March 25).