Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 47.djvu/372

This page has been validated.


THE offer of Captain Donnell Smith to Johns Hopkins University of his valuable herbarium and library gives us an excellent opportunity to consider what such herbaria are, how they are brought together, and what is their purpose. We intend, furthermore, to show what they accomplish in botany and what botany does besides.

The importance of Captain Smith's gift will then be evident, and the value of a well-equipped botanical department to the Johns Hopkins and to the community at large will also be clear. The references to flowers and trees in ancient poems show that the beauty of vegetable Nature was fully appreciated at an early period, and agriculture requires the rudiments of a scientific knowledge of plants; but the first systematic attempts to study botany scientifically owe their origin to the desire to know more of plants in their relation to medicine. There are few plants which have not at some time been supposed to have great medicinal value, as the number of those designated officinalis clearly indicates.

The first systematic study of plants in their relation to medicine was in the Athenian Republic, and Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen are especially known for their writings on this subject. During the middle ages the science of the Greeks was forgotten, and interest in their investigations was not revived till the sixteenth century. By this time the old Greek texts had become greatly obscured by imperfect translations, and it required much patience and care to recognize plants from their descriptions. The botanists of the sixteenth century, like Bock, Fuchs, and Mattioli, working in Germany, found another difficulty in the circumstance that plants of their country differed widely from those in Greece. This, together with the imperfect state of the old descriptions, gave rise to frequent mistakes in identification. Some other authors, however, would notice the error, and disputes often arose, which sometimes became violent. The great value of this work to us is that it showed the necessity for more exact descriptions of plants, and this, combined with the occasional finding of new plants of a supposed or real value to medicine, gave rise to those large parchment-bound, queer-looking old volumes on botany which, besides the descriptions, often contained very beautiful pictures of the plants. These were then called

  1. Read before the Scientific Association of the Johns Hopkins University, February 21, 1894.