Doctors in the Medicinal Garden: Plants named after physicians by H. Oakeley. London: Royal College of Physicians, 2012. 166 pp. Paperback. ISBN:978-1-86016-468-2. £15 (hardback edition £20). Available from or the Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, Regents Park, London NW1 4LE, UK.


  • Brian Livingstone

Medical doctors do well in having diseases named after them (the patients who suffer them rarely get a look in). It is not surprising that doctors have a lot of plants named after them as well. After all, until synthesised drugs were available, doctors' remedies were almost entirely based on using medicinal plants, so they had to know their botany. Prior to the twentieth century physicians would have made up their own medicines rather than ‘prescribing’ instructions to an apothecary. Thus, it is not surprising how many ‘Physic Gardens’ survive. We have three in London that are all worth a visit, Chelsea Physic Garden, The Barbers' Physic Garden and, a relative neophyte, The Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP). All have Linnean Society Fellows involved with their management and the author of this book is both FLS and Garden Fellow at the RCP.

If, like me, you regularly wonder whose name is commemorated behind the botanical Latin then this book is one that you certainly need. Linnaeus himself was a doctor but the book only covers plants that grow in the RCP's garden so Linnaea borealis does not feature. The author stretches the title somewhat. For example, Adonis was a mythical, minor Greek god of medicinal plants and Lamark failed to complete his medical training. Gentius was no physician but a warlike King of Illyria (approximately modern Croatia) in the 1st century BCE to whom Dioscorides (a real physician/botanist) much later, attributes the recognition of the medicinal properties of Yellow Gentian root. Of the qualified doctors, few modern physicians will have heard of Johann Kniphof or Johann von Heucher. In fact none of the doctors' names are particularly well known which is a good reason to retell their stories. Nearly all were very eminent in their day and it would be a pity if they were to be completely forgotten now. The book is fully referenced so you can find out more about both the plants and the people.

Of course you can read some of this in any book of botanical Latin but it is usually a bare reference to the name and date. This book is a really nice and well illustrated collection of stories both about the eponymous plants and the doctor's biography. There is lots of incidental information and even some gardening notes. My only crticism is that having explained half the binomial, the other portion is often not translated, which seems a shame. I can thoroughly recommend this book as a present either to yourself or any botanically minded friends.