The First United States-New England/New York “Herbals”


In 1781, two years before the end of the Revolutionary War, Reverend Manasseh Cutler produced An Account of Some of the Vegetable Productions Naturally growing in this Part of America.   Focused on New England culture and life, this book includes descriptions of the local plants, along with some recounts of earlier European uses for these plants published by earlier physicians.  Cutler’s work added a few local American discoveries and notes on experiments regarding heir use, but for the most part Cutler’s work provides us with limited insight regarding the discovery of any new botanicals. 

In 1783, Johann David Schopf wrote and had published Materia Medica Americana, a treatise written totally in Latin.   Ironically, this first descriptive review of the New York-area herbs since Cadwallader Colden’s publication by the Linnean Society, which was also in Latin thesis . Although cited by many as being mostly focused on medicinal herbs, the writer failed to describe much about the medicinal uses for these plants.  In essence this book was, again like Colden’s work, a standard flora in Latin produced in accordance with most of the Linnean botanical publications for the time.  It is possible that due to the limited understanding of the medical uses for American flora at the time, Schopf managed only to produce a list of these plants, with the intent of later delving more into the details of their medicinal uses once this information became more available. 

Benjamin Smith Barton

One of the better, more detailed, and thorough review of the local plant medicines was produced between 1798 and 1804 by by Benjamin Smith Barton.   Collections for an Essay towards a Materia Medica of the United States (Philadelphia, 1798 and 1804) consisted of a variety of short essays on specific plants with a locally known history of medical use.  Many of these plants were already documented before the Revolutionary war, and Barton’s work was an attempt to pull this information together in order to produce a more concise and useful presentation of the local materia medica.  This information was presented to the Phildelphia Medical Society on February 21, 1798, by which time, it served as .an important source of information mostly to the physicians in training and those not completely informed about the uses of plants elsewhere in the United States.  It would take botanists and physicians another several years to pull the information together in such a way as to produce  a book that was very much a full-fledged materia medica, with descriptions of the plants, their natural habitat setting, the parts to be used for medicines, and how to make the medicines from these natural resources.  For the next ten to twenty years, most of this information would be made available to the public by the unofficially trained physicians or “Indian Doctors.”  Very little of these uses would really become standards for most members of the medical profession.


 True Herbals

The first American herbal devoted to medicine was published in 1801 and authored by John Stearns (1747-1819),   THE AMERICAN HERBAL, OR MATERIA MEDICA. WHEREIN THE VIRTUES OF THE MINERAL, VEGETABLE, AND ANIMAL PRODUCTIONS OF NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA ARE LAID OPEN, SO FAR AS THEY ARE KNOWN; AND THEIR USES IN THE PRACTICE OF PHYSIC AND SURGERY EXHIBITED. [Walpole: Printed by David Carlisle, for Thomas & Thomas, and the Author.]   This book included some information on Indian uses of herbs, but was not at all focused on just this topic.