When I think of influential herbalists in history, Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654) is one of the first figures to come to my mind. An eccentric, a revolutionary, and an herbalist we can all look towards when we need to remember why herbalism is so important, Culpeper is easily a favorite historical figure of mine. Culpeper was rebellious – he’d dropped out of college and eventually married a wealthy young heiress (who eventually died after being struck by lightning). By this point he’d set up a pharmacy in a halfway house, bringing his medical knowledge to the poor and the needy. He complained that the medical professionals of the day were too focused on keeping the health care too expensive and out-of-reach of the general public; in this way the medical community was able to profit quite heavily. (Sound familiar?) Since he felt “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician”, he gathered his herbal remedies from nearby fields and cared for his patients free of charge.
Of course, all these radical views didn’t make Culpeper a very likable guy in the eyes of his medical peers. They would have liked to stop him from bringing his remedies to the public; he’d already translated some of the standard Latin medical texts into English, quite a threat in the day. But due to a ban on publishing such works in English, he cleverly waited until the English Civil War made it all but impossible for the College of Physicians to enforce the laws. His works, translated into vernacular English and sold at a low price, made it possible for anyone who could read to get ahold of these life-saving works.
Nicholas Culpeper’s most famous work, The Complete Herbal, was published in 1653. Aside from the bible, it is the only text in history to never go out of print! Herbalists today still revere it and find much value within its pages. Thanks to his radical views and determination to bring healing to the masses by introducing them to the wonder of the herbs and plants available to even the poorest of people, Culpeper represents so much of what draws many of us to herbalism in the first place. He recognized the right we all have to good health and the wonder of the plant kingdom which can make that health freely available to all.