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300 Years of Growth

Otto Brunfels (1488-1534)

Portrait of Otto Brunfels by Lucas Cranach, the Elder.

Otto Brunfels was born in Germany in 1488 and is known as a theologian, physician and botanist. Brunfels entered a Carthusian monastery in Mainz and later moved to another Carthusian monastery in Strassburg (Strasbourg) in 1514. He remained there until 1521, when, becoming influenced by Reformation thinking, he fled the monastery. He produced numerous theological manuscripts and books; his Catalogi virorum illustrium 1527 is considered to be the first book on the history of evangelical Church. His views later brought him into controversy with Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli. As a result he turned his back on his theological career and began to study medicine at the University of Basel in 1530. In 1532 he became town physician in Bern (Berne), where he remained until his early death in 1534.

Besides his theological works, Brunfels published writings on education, the Arabic language, pharmaceutics and botany. Both his Herbarium Vivae Icones (1530 and 1536, in three parts) and Contrafayt Kreüterbuch (1532-1537, in two parts) contain woodcuts of German plants with their German common names. The 135 original woodcuts are detailed, accurate, and realistic representations of live plants. Brunfels’ work helped move botany away from medieval herbalism, with its encrustation of folklore, toward its emergence as a modern science. However, much of Brunfels' popularity may be attributed to Hans Weiditz, a German Renaissance artist, whose woodcuts set a new technical standard.

Brunfels was considered by Linnaeus to be one of the founders of modern botany, his publications being the first to rely on personal observation of native plants in their natural environment. They also include descriptions that go beyond the medical values of plants. However, although Brunfels’ illustrations were a huge step forward, the main body of his texts is a collection of old and new commentaries on plants, with little lasting scientific value.

Charles Plumier named the genus Brunfelsia, in the family Solanaceae, in honour of Brunfels - a name

References and featured material

Hand-coloured woodcut of White Water-lily (Nymphaea alba) from Contrafayt Kreüterbuch.

Cover page of Herbarium Vivae Eicones.

Pre-Linnaean illustration of Brunfelsia (a species today known as Brunfelsia americana) by Charles Plumier (in Nova plantarum americanarum, 1703).

Page from Herbarium Vivae Eicones showing the Arznei-Schlüsselblume (Cowslip, Primula veris).






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Last updated 24 February 2011 by