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).


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a pharmacopoeia as, ”A book containing a list of drugs, with directions for their preparation and identification; spec. such a book officially published by authority and revised at stated times”. It is used for standardisation and quality control in the preparation of pharmaceutical products.

Frontispiece and title page
of the first pharmacopoeia
published in Sweden,
known as The Stockholm

The Stockholm Pharmacopoeia, Pharmacopoeja Holmiensis Galeno-Chymica, from 1686 was the first pharmacopoeia in Sweden. It was compiled principally by doctor Johan Martin Ziervogel and was based on medical knowledge from other parts of Europe. Much was taken from German medical literature. In it you can find ways of treating ailments and many things which we no longer associate with medicine. What about medicines made of distilled human blood, pulverised cranium or parts of a mummified body? Also medicinal plants that are nowadays simply considered vegetables or fruits are included.

The first Swedish national pharmacopoeia, Pharmacopoea Svecica, was published in 1775. By that time many “magical” items had been removed. Among the remaining medicinal plants were camomile, hops, buckbean and valerian. There are even some other plants, such as berries (e.g., cloudberries, wild strawberries, blackcurrants, bilberries and raspberries) and vegetables (e.g., carrots and parsnips).

Ten editions, with various degrees of revision, were published over the following 175 years. The first seven were written in Latin, but at the beginning of the 20th century Swedish was the language used. After the 2nd World War, work on the pharmacopoeia was co-ordinated with the other Nordic countries and resulted in a common Nordic pharmacopoeia. At the end of the 1960s the first edition of a European pharmacopoeia was published – a co-operative production within the European Community, the EC. Sweden took part in this joint effort from 1976 and the Nordic pharmacopoeia was replaced by the European in 1978. Making an international pharmacopoeia takes time and demands a lot of compromises since each country is anxious to protect its own specialities within the pharmaceutical industry or raw material production. Such work also calls for the same criteria for quality and production to be used and for co-ordination between the laws of the various countries pertaining to pharmaceutical products.

Backman, E L 1924. Om den äldsta svenska farmakopén, dess medicinskt-historiska bakgrund och dess ställning till folkmedicinen. Upsala Läkareförenings Förhandlingar 29:63-98.

Grape, A 1946. Linné, Abraham Bäck och Pharmacopoea Svecica av år 1775. Svenska Linnésällskapets Årsskrift 29:1-34.

The editions of the Swedish pharmacopoeia

Title Edition Year of Publication
Pharmacopoeja Holmiensis Galeno-Chymica. 'nought' 1686
Pharmacopoea Svecica. first 1775
Pharmacopoea Svecica. Editio altera emendata. second 1779
Pharmacopoea Svecica. Editio tertia emendata. third 1784
Pharmacopoea Svecica. Editio quarta emendata. fourth 1790
Pharmacopoea Svecica. Editio quinta. fifth 1817
Pharmacopoea Svecica. Editio sexta. sixth 1845
Pharmacopoea Svecica. Editio septima. seventh 1869
Svenska farmakopén (Pharmacopoea Svecica. ed. VIII). eighth 1901
Svenska farmakopén 1908 (Pharmacopoea Svecica. ed. IX). ninth 1908
Svenska farmakopén 1925 (Pharmacopoea Svecica. ed X). tenth 1925
Svenska farmakopén 1946 (Pharmacopoea Svecica. ed XI). eleventh 1946
Pharmacopoea Nordica – Editio Svecica 1964
European Pharmacopþia, ed. I 1969–1975
European Pharmacopþia, ed. II 1980–1996
European Pharmacopþia, ed. III 1996-
Last modified: 2021-11-08