Linnaeus and the medicines

Medicinal plants then and now

Many important medicines come from nature. In the 18th century all doctors needed to have knowledge about healing plants.

Linnaeus was not only a botanist. He was also a doctor and he knew what a patient needed. That which was classed as "folk medicine" during Linnaeus' time is the origin of modern medicine. With the help of chemistry new medicines can be found in healing plants and in other organisms in nature.

Here you can learn more about medicinal plants in Linnaeus' time, and also about healing plants used today, about poisonous plants and natural remedies. We also tell you about chemical compounds in nature and how they are used by humans, plants and animals.

Medical plants and Linnaeus

In the 18th century you couldn’t choose to study botany as a subject at any Swedish university.  If you were interested in botany, your only way to learn more was to study medicine.  That’s what Linnaeus did.  He practised as a physician for several years during the 1730s and 1740s and amongst his patients he treated the Swedish queen Ulrika Eleonora.  When he became a Professor of Medicine in 1741 he interrupted his medical practice and started teaching medicine and botany for the students in Uppsala.  In that way he learnt about medicinal plants, both as a result of his interest in botany and through his medical studies.  Many of the medicines used in those days were medicinal plants.

Materia medica – plants, minerals and animals useful in medicine

Frontispiece and title page of Linnaeus’ Materia medica,
a compilation of useful medicinal plants.

In 1749 he published Materia medica.  That’s a Latin term for medicine and the book is a list of plants, minerals and animals that Linnaeus considered could be used in medicine.

During the first half of the 18th century in Sweden a book from 1686, known as Stockholm Pharmacopoeia, was used as a list of known medicines.  It was based on similar medical books mainly from Germany and Austria.

Since Linnaeus thought much of the contents of the Stockholm Pharmacopoeia was useless for treating ailments, he modernised the list and motivated his choices in his Materia medica. This and his two subsequent books were used in the teaching of medicine and pharmacology for several decades all over Europe (which at that time was considered the whole world).  Linnaeus also wrote several theses on medicines and pharmaceutical control, for example how to determine the quality and usefulness of medicinal plants by using taste and smell and also to make sure that the product was not too old.

Pharmacopoea Svecica – the first national pharmacopoea of Sweden

Linnaeus’ Materia Medica also acted as a jolt to the Swedish medical authorities that it was time to modernise medicine and just over twenty-five years later the book Pharmacopoea Svecica was published in 1775 – it was the first national Swedish Pharmacopoeia.

The Academic Garden – a place to demonstrate om medicinal plants

Linnaeus’ old medicine cabinet is today
kept at the Linnaeus Museum in Uppsala,
Sweden. It contains some of the most
important medicines of that time and was
used for demonstrations to the medical

In his botanical garden, Linnaeus kept all the important medicinal plants that could be grown in Sweden as well as many plants that he wanted to observe as a botanist.  He used the garden to demonstrate medicinal plants and botany to the medical students.  Among the plants that he cultivated for medical purposes, the following are worth mentioning: the opium poppy, valerian, deadly nightshade, sweet wormword and camomile.

Some of those that couldn’t be cultivated in Sweden were kept as dried powders in a medicine cabinet.  In this cabinet there are still many exotic plant powders such as jesuit bark, senna, seneca snakeroot, and bitterwood, and spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and bitter orange. The cabinet is kept at the Linnaeus Museum in Uppsala

Reference (in Swedish):
Linné, C von 1725 Örtabok. Stockholm. (Nytryck: 1957, Almqvist&Wiksell, Uppsala).

Last modified: 2022-12-01