Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature: Medical Botany

By Robin Naughton, Head of Digital and Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian
Cross-posted at The Biodiversity Heritage Library blog.

The New York Academy of Medicine Library has contributed nine digitized titles (11 volumes) on medical botany to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) as part of the Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature project.   It is very exciting to share some of the Academy Library’s botanical resources with the wider public.

While the Library’s collections include a large number of printed botanical books dating back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, for this project we were interested in identifying resources that could be sent to the Internet Archive for external digitization, which meant that we concentrated on our holdings from the second half of the 19th century forward through 1922.  After generating lists from our online catalog, we checked to see if any of these resources had already been digitized by the BHL, Internet Archive, or HathiTrust.  For this process, we developed a set of simple guidelines.

  • Resources not available via BHL, Internet Archive or HathiTrust remained on the list.
  • Resources already available via the BHL were eliminated from the list.
  • Resources already available via the Internet Archive were eliminated from the list because BHL harvests content from the Internet Archive, so there would be no need for us to digitize that content.
  • Resources already available via HathiTrust could still potentially be digitized for access via the BHL based on whether our copy provides additional information for the public once digitized. For example, the Indian Medicinal Plants (Kīrtikara & Basu, 1918) has been partially digitized by HathiTrust, but the volume with the images was missing. As such, it became important for us to digitize so that it would be fully available.

We went through multiple lists and rounds of de-duplication to narrow down our potential submission.  Once we finalized the list, Scott Devine, Head of Preservation, conducted a conservation assessment to determine which resources could be sent out for digitization and which were so fragile that they could only be digitized in house.  We separated these into two lists.  The first list was sent to the Internet Archive for digitization and is our contribution to BHL.   The second list will be a project for our new digital lab and we hope to make them available at a future date.


Indian Medicinal Plants (1918), plate #256 showing Leea Sambucina.

The Indian medicinal plants (Kīrtikara & Basu, 1918) stood out as a resource to digitize and share widely.  It documents the medicinal plants found in India.  The authors describe a need to provide a text that reproduces illustrations of Indian medicinal plants from other works since there were few prior to this publication.  Dr. W. Roxburgh’s text, reprinted in 1874, was used as a reference throughout.

Although Indian medicinal plants did not focus on the use of plants in the development of drugs, this theme can be seen throughout the resources submitted to the BHL. Each author grapples with the role of plants in the creation and production of drugs.


A course in botany and pharmacognosy (1902), plate #1 showing organized cell-contents.

In A course in botany and pharmacognosy (1902), Henry Kraemer, Professor of Botany and Pharmacognosy, defines pharmacognosy as the “study of drugs of vegetable origins.” Kraemer devotes the first part of his text to plant morphology and the second part to pharmacognosy.  In addition, he provides illustrations to aid in the study of both parts so that students can connect the descriptions throughout the text to the visual representations.


Pharmaceutical Botany (1918), fig 57 showing leaf bases, species and compound leaves.

Youngken’s Pharmaceutical botany, 2nd edition (1918) was expanded to take advantage of the growing area of botany, including a section on drug-yielding plants.  The text focuses on the morphology and taxonomy of plants used in drug development.

In Pharmacal plants and their culture (1912), Schneider argues that the majority of imported plants used in medicine could already be available in the United States.  He focuses on California and outlines what can be cultivated and grown in the state.  Schneider provides a list of uses and common names.

The medicinal plants of Tennnessee (1894) is an observational inventory of Tennessee’s plants and their descriptions based on a similar project conducted by North Carolina.  Published by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the report emphasizes the importance of documenting and understanding the native plants of Tennessee and how they can help increase usage and revenue.

Overall, readers of this collection can begin to understand the role of plants in the creation, development and economic viability of drugs.  Many of the resources provide some form of inventory, index or list that documents the plants and associated drugs.

All titles submitted by the Academy Library to BHL:

The BHL Expanding Access project is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

“How Many Stamens Has Your Flower?” The Botanical Education of Emily Dickinson

By Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts

So unsuspected violets
Within the fields lie low,
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago.

Emily Dickinson (1858)1

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, from the collection of Amherst College.

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, from the collection of Amherst College.

Emily Dickinson fell early and fast for flowers. Her poetry is full of the blooms and buds that signal the awakening of spring. There’s her crocus, “Spring’s first conviction” (Letter 891) “stir[ring] its lids,” (J10) her May-Flower, “pink small and punctual,” (J 3) and her “chubby” daffodil with its “yellow bonnet” (J 10 and J4), among an army of many other blossoms that decorate her pages.

As her biographer Alfred Habegger has noted, the poet spent hours as a girl in the 1840s roaming the woods and fields near her Amherst, Massachusetts home, looking for flowers. In many cases, these were sent to friends, but the poet also kept some for herself. Her first assembled collection was not, as one might expect, a collection of writing, but a collection of plant specimens.2

Dickinson likely began her herbarium when she was 14, in 1845.3 It has been fully digitized by Harvard’s Houghton Library (all 66 pages can be viewed here). Several of the texts that influenced Dickinson’s flower collection are available in our library.

A page of Dickinson's herbarium, courtesy of Harvard University's Houghton Library.

A page of Dickinson’s herbarium, courtesy of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, including specimens of Liriodendron tulipfera and of the rare Chenopodium capitatum (strawberry blite).

In 1845, Dickinson was enrolled in both botany and Latin at Amherst Academy. Coursework in both subjects was instrumental in her identification and labeling of plants.

In use at Amherst during Dickinson’s time was Almira Lincoln Phelps’ textbook, Familiar Lectures on Botany, first published in 1829.4 Phelps, a pioneer educator and only the second woman elected a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was the sister of the American education reformer Emma Willard.5 Phelps probably taught at Amherst Academy for at least one term, using the Familiar Lectures. Her textbook was certainly known and used by Dickinson.6

Our copy of Phelps’ Lectures on Botany contains a sweet floral treasure pressed within, with the ghost of its outline visible on its pages. If you can identify the flower, please let us know.

Our copy of Phelps’ Familiar Lectures on Botany (1838) contains a sweet floral treasure pressed within, with the ghost of its outline visible on its pages. If you can identify the flower, please let us know. Click to enlarge. [N.B.: Thanks to Julie Shapiro, Curatorial Associate and Herbarium Plant Specimen Technician at Harvard University Herbaria for her canny ID of the pressed flower in our 1838 copy of Phelps’ Familiar Lectures on Botany as a geranium.]

In the prefatory note to Familiar Lectures, Phelps describes how as a teacher of botany she struggled to find suitable textbooks, and composed the lessons within to fill this gap.7 Benjamin Smith Barton’s The Elements of Botany, while beautifully illustrated, was very out of date by the late 1820s, and written in an archaic language unsuitable for young students.8

Plate VI from Phelps, Familiar Lectures on Botany, 1838. Click to enlarge.

Plate VI from Phelps, Familiar Lectures on Botany, 1838. Click to enlarge.

Familiar Lectures, sometimes called Mrs. Lincoln’s Botany, became the standard textbook for young students, and went through at least 39 editions. The volume contains a prefatory note directed at teachers that tells us about Phelps’ pedagogical style, and what Dickinson may have experienced in her classroom:

Each member is presented with a flower for analysis….The names of the different parts of the flower are then explained; each pupil being directed to dissect and examine her flower as we proceed. ..After noticing the parts…the pupils are prepared to understand the principles on which the artificial classes are founded, and to trace the plant to its proper class, order, & c. At each step, they are required to examine their floors, and to answer simultaneously the questions proposed; as, how many stamens has your flower?9

Phelps taught her students the Linnaean system of identifying specimens: the number of stamens in a flower would determine its class, and the number of pistils, its order. Successive editions of Phelps’ text acknowledged the new “natural” system of classification, a system that moved away from stamen and pistil counting, but discarded the new method as too complex for students.10

“Of leaves.” In Phelps’ Familiar Lectures on Botany, 1838. Click to enlarge.

Dickinson’s biographer Alfred Habegger emphasizes Phelps’ belief that botany was a subject well-suited to females, and that Dickinson herself characterized plants most frequently as female, and, by extension, as central to the role of playing female:

That the poet thought of flowers as female suggests her love of plants owed more to culture than science….Pressed between the pages of a letter, they became a medium of exchange between her and her friends, those of her own sex especially. Cultivated indoors, especially after a conservatory was added to the Dickinson Homestead, they became a consuming avocation.11

Emily Dickinson seems to have consulted another book for the organization of her specimens. That book was Amos Eaton’s Manual of Botany, for the Northern and Middle States of America.

Title page of Eaton, Manual of Botany, 1822.

Title page of Eaton, Manual of Botany, 1822.

Eaton, a botanist and geologist, had mentored Phelps during her time at Emma Willard’s Female Seminary in Troy. It was Eaton who had first encouraged the publication of Familiar Lectures.12 Dickinson likely used Eaton’s manual to identify the specimens she gathered on walks in the woods. She labelled her specimens in accordance with Eaton’s Linnaean numbering system, in which the class and order correspond to number of stamens and pistils, probably unaware that by this time, the method had been largely discounted.13

Dickinson also consulted Edward Hitchcock’s Catalogue of Plants growing without cultivation within thirty miles of Amherst College in the creation of her herbarium. The text Dickinson used was published in 1829, but our copy, revised by Edward Tuckerman, dates to 1875. Hitchcock was president at nearby Amherst College, and the area’s most eminent naturalist. He’s especially remembered for his geological contributions (Hitchcock led the first geological survey in Massachusetts after studying dinosaur footprints). “Hitchcock’s guide includes many rare plants native to Massachusetts also collected by Dickinson, including the very rare strawberry blite, cancer root (found near Mt. Holyoke), and verbena (found in South Hadley).14

Title page of Tuckerman and Frost's A Catalogue of Plants, 1875.

Title page of Tuckerman and Frost’s A Catalogue of Plants, 1875.

Dickinson refers to Hitchcock in an 1877 letter to T.W. Higginson:

When Flowers annually died and I was a child, I used to read Dr Hitchcock’s Book on the Flowers of North America. This comforted their Absence–assuring me they lived.” (Letter 488)15

Dickinson seems to have confused the authorship of the book she mentions above; here, too, she’s likely referring to Eaton’s Manual of Botany for North America.

Phelps, Eaton, and Hitchcock’s texts all influenced Dickinson’s impressions of the natural world in girlhood. As a mature poet, as her physical reach and exploration of the natural world became more and more limited, the plants familiar to her from girlhood stuck, fixing their roots all the more deeply in her mind.

Perhaps you’d like to buy a flower?
But I could never sell.
If you would like to borrow
Until the daffodil

Unties her yellow bonnet
Beneath the village door,
Until the bees, from clover rows
Their hock and sherry draw,

Why, I will lend until just then,
But not an hour more!16


1. Johnson, Thomas ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. 7; Johnson, Thomas and Theodora Van Wagenen Ward, eds., The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard, 1958.

2. Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid Away In Books The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

3. Habegger, 154.

4. Habegger, 155.

5. Rudolph, Emanuel. “Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884) and the Spread of Botany in Nineteenth Century America.” American Journal of Botany, Vol. 71, No. 8 (Sep. 1984), pp. 1161-1167.

6. Habegger, 155.

7. Phelps, Almira Hart Lincoln. Familiar Lectures of Botany. New York: Huntington, 1839. Pp.8-9.

8. Rudolph, 1162.

9. Phelps, 8-9.

10. Rudolph, 1163-1164.

11. Habegger, 156.

12. Rudolph, 1163.

13. Habegger, 158.

14. Habegger, 158-159.

15. Johnson, Thomas and Theodora Van Wagenen Ward, eds., The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard, 1958.

16. Johnson, Thomas ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. 4.

A Finer Sight Can Scarcely Be Imagined: Curtis’ Botanical Magazine (Item of the Month)

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist

It’s been a cold and snowy January, and with almost two months of winter still to come I’m drawn to the botanical selections in our collection. My choice for item of the month is a periodical, the Botanical Magazine (most commonly known by its later title, Curtis’ Botanical Magazine).

“Elizabeth Christina, one of the daughters of Linnaeus, is said to have perceived the flowers to emit spontaneously, at certain intervals, sparks like those of electricity, visible only in the dusk of the evening, and which ceased when total darkness came on.” (Plate 23, volume 1 reissue, 1793)

“Elizabeth Christina, one of the daughters of Linnaeus, is said to have perceived the flowers to emit spontaneously, at certain intervals, sparks like those of electricity, visible only in the dusk of the evening, and which ceased when total darkness came on.” (Nasturtium, plate 23, volume 1, 1793.) Click to enlarge.

In addition to being a very beautiful publication, the Botanical Magazine is notable for being the longest running botanical periodical featuring color illustrations of plants.1 The first issue of the magazine was published in 1787 by William Curtis (1746-1799) and today it is published by Kew Gardens.1,2 Curtis, an apothecary turned botanist, was the botanic demonstrator to the Society of Apothecaries at Chelsea in the 1770s.2,3 He also gave public lectures and maintained a botanic garden in London.2 Before the Botanical Magazine, Curtis began publishing the Flora Londenensis, a grand, folio-size work documenting local plant life. This proved too costly and Curtis gave up the venture in 1787.2,3

The Botanical Magazine; or, flower-garden displayed : in which the most ornamental foreign plants, cultivated in the open ground, the green-house, and the stove, will be accurately represented in their natural colours was smaller and more affordable than the Flora Londenensis; Curtis created it in response to demand for a publication concerning foreign plants.2,3 Most of the plants represented in the early volumes are from Europe, Eastern North America, and the Cape of Good Hope.   According to Hemsley, author of A new and complete index to the Botanical magazine, “Scarcely any very striking or noteworthy subjects appeared, and new species . . . were exceedingly rare,” but this did not hinder the magazine’s sales. The work was quickly a success, selling 3,000 copies a month. Volumes 1-6 were later reissued, presumably due to their popularity (some of our volumes are reprints).2

Each monthly issue contained three hand-colored plates accompanied by descriptive text.2 An exception, Strelitzia, had a fold-out plate and more in-depth description. As you will see below, variation in format was not something Curtis took lightly. The majority of the early illustrations were drawn by Sydenham Edwards.2,3 While the plates are the highlight of the magazine, Curtis’ enthusiasm for the plants is also engaging, and so each image is accompanied by a quote from the plant’s description.

Click on an image to view the gallery of plates. Enjoy, and stay warm!


1. Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Available at: http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/research-data/publications/curtis-botanical-magazine. Accessed January 23, 2015.

2. Hemsley, W. Botting. A new and complete index to the Botanical magazine. London: Lovell Reeve, 1906. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=OlhNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed January 23, 2015.

3. Curtis Museum Alton. William Curtis the Botanist. Available at: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/curtis-museum/alton-history/william-curtis.htm. Accessed January 23, 2015.