5 Aug /14

William Turner – Man of the day

This blog is not about a painter or a pirate. Sorry.

This William Turner was a religious man and a preacher, but he is famous for writing the first ever book on birds (even though it was written in Latin, he introduces the word greenfinch) and for his interest in herbs and medicine, specifically those found and used in England. The originality and scientific nature of these books mean that William Turner is now regarded as the father of English botany.

However, he was a gifted linguist, qualifying as a doctor in Italy and living in Germany for several years. This was largely for religious reasons, because to live in England as a protestant was so dangerous as to be life-threatening in the middle of the 1500s. It certainly did not help that he wrote diatribes against Catholics.

But William Turner was certainly interested in herbs. His first book, which came out in 1538, was entirely in Latin Libellus de re herbaria novus. This really showed the interest of William Turner – it translates as The New Little Book About Plants.

William Turner went on from there. He set up his own herb garden, and even published a sort of herbal dictionary in 1547 called The Names of the Herbs in Greek, Latin, English, Dutch and French. As a doctor, William Turner was very interested in the medical properties of the plants he examined. In total, there were five books (or new editions which were more or less new) on plants. His first description was in Latin with illustrations of the plants. Most of this work he translated himself in the definitive work A New Herball. In the process, William Turner introduced into the English language words such as jasmin, geranium, clematis, sunflower, carnation, carrot, acanthus, buckwheat, kidney bean, daffodil  as well as diabetes and spicy. Altogether his books describe almost 250 different plans and their properties.