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Nicholas Culpeper

  Nicholas Culpeper (18 October 1616 – 1654 in London) was an English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer. His published books, The English Physitian (1652) and the Complete Herbal (1653), contain a rich store of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge.

Culpeper spent the greater part of his life in the English outdoors cataloguing hundreds of medicinal herbs. He criticized what he considered the unnatural methods of his contemporaries, writing: "This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, DR. REASON and DR. EXPERIENCE, and took a voyage to visit my mother NATURE, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. DILIGENCE, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by MR. HONESTY, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it." (From the Introduction to the 1835 Edition of The Complete Herbal.)



Culpeper was the son of Nicholas Culpeper (Senior), a clergyman. He studied at Cambridge, and afterwards became apprenticed to an apothecary. After seven years his master absconded with the money paid for the indenture, and soon after this, Culpeper's mother died of breast cancer.[1] Culpeper married the daughter of a wealthy merchant, which allowed him to set up a pharmacy in the halfway house in Spitalfields, London, outside the authority of the City of London at a time when medical facilities in London were at breaking point. Arguing that "no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician", and obtaining his herbal supplies from the nearby countryside, Culpeper was able to provide his services for free. This, and a willingness to examine patients in person rather than simply examining their urine (in his opinion, "as much piss as the Thames might hold" did not help in diagnosis), Culpeper was extremely active, sometimes seeing as many as forty people in one morning. Using a combination of experience and astrology, Culpeper devoted himself to using herbals to treat the illnesses of his patients.

During the early months of the English Civil War he was accused of witchcraft and the Society of Apothecaries tried to rein in his practice. Alienated and radicalised, in August 1643, he joined a trainband and fought at the First Battle of Newbury. There he carried out battlefield surgery, Culpeper was taken back to London after sustaining a serious chest injury from which he never recovered. There, in co-operation with the Republican astrologer William Lilley, he wrote the work 'A Prophesy of the White King', which predicted the king’s death.

He died of tuberculosis on 10th January 1654 at the age of 38. Only one of his eight children, Mary, survived to adulthood.

Political beliefs

Influenced during his apprenticeship by the radical preacher John Goodwin, who said no authority was above question, Culpeper was a radical republican and opposed the "closed shop" of medicine enforced by the censors of the College of Physicians. In his youth, Culpeper translated medical and herbal texts such as the London Pharmacoepia from the Latin for his master. During the civil war, when the Society of Physicians was unable to enforce their ban on the publishing of translated medical texts, Culpeper published his translations for use by the general public. Follow-up publications included a manual on childbirth and his main work, 'The English Physician', which was deliberately sold very cheaply, eventually becoming available as far afield as colonial America. It is the most successful non-religious English text ever, and has been in continuous print since the 17th century.

Culpeper believed medicine was a public asset rather than a commercial secret, and the prices physicians charged were far too expensive compared to the cheap and universal availability of nature's medicine. He felt the use of Latin and expensive fees charged by doctors, lawyers and priests was worked to keep power and freedom from the general public.

Three kinds of people mainly disease the people - priests, physicians and lawyers - priests disease matters belonging to their souls, physicians disease matters belonging to their bodies, and lawyers disease matters belonging to their estate.

Culpeper was a radical in his time, angering his fellow physicians by condemning their greed, unwillingness to stray from Galen and the use of harmful practices such as toxic remedies and bloodletting. The Society of Apothecaries were similarly incensed by the fact that he suggested cheap herbal remedies as opposed to their expensive concoctions.[2] His influence is demonstrated by the existence of a chain of "Culpeper" herb and spice shops in the United Kingdom, India and beyond, and by the continued popularity of his remedies among New Age and alternative holistic homeopathy medicine practitioners.[2]

Philosophy of herbalism

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Culpeper attempted to make medical treatments more accessible to laypeople by educating them about maintaining their health. Ultimately his ambition was to reform the system of medicine by questioning traditional methods and knowledge and exploring new solutions for ill health. The systematization of the use of herbals by Culpeper was a key development in the evolution of modern pharmaceuticals, most of which originally had herbal origins.[2]

Culpeper's emphasis on reason rather than tradition is reflected in the introduction to his Complete Herbal, though his definition of reason was not that different from the Romantic philosophies of the era presenting nature as refuge. Culpepper paired the plants and diseases with planetary influences, countering illnesses with nostroms that were paired with an opposing planetary influence. Combining remedial care with Galenic humoral philosophy and questionable astrology, he forged a strangely workable system of medicine; combined with his "Singles" forceful commentaries, Culpeper was a widely read source for medical treatment in his time.

Influence of Culpeper's work

Culpeper's translations and approach to using herbals have had an extensive impact on medicine in early North American colonies, and even modern medications.[3] Culpeper was one of the first to translate documents discussing medicinal plants found in the Americas from Latin. In addition, his Herbal was held in such esteem that species he described were introduced into the New World from England. Culpeper also described the medical use of foxglove, the botanical precursor to digitalis, used to treat heart conditions.[3]

Examples from The English Physician

Main article: List of plants in The English Physitian (1652 book)

The following herbs, their uses and preparations are discussed in The English Physician.[2]

  • Anemone, as a juice applied externally to clean ulcerations, infections and cure leprosy or inhaled to clear the nostrils.
  • Bedstraw, boiled in oil and applied externally as a stimulant, consumed as an aphrodisiac, or externally raw to stimulate clotting.
  • Burdock, crushed and mixed with salt, useful in treating dog bites, and taken inwardly to help pass flatulence, an analgesic for tooth pain and to strengthen the back.
  • Cottonweed, boiled in lye can be used to treat head lice or festations in cloth or clothing. Inhaled, it acts as an analgesic for headaches and reduces coughing.
  • Dittany, as an abortifacient, to induce labour, as a treatment for poisoned weapons, to draw out splinters and broken bones, and the smell drives away 'venemous beasts'.
  • Fleabane, helps with bites from 'venomous beasts' and its smoke can kill gnats and fleas. Can be dangerous for pregnant women.
  • Hellebore, causes sneezing if ground and inhaled, kills rodents if mixed with food.
  • Mugwort, induces labour, assists in birth and afterbirth and eases labour pains.
  • Pennyroyal, strengthens the backs of women, assists with vertigo and helps expel gas.
  • Savory, help expel gas, excellent mixed with peas and beans for this reason.
  • Wood Bettony, helps with 'falling sickness' and headaches, anti-anoretic, 'helps sour belchings', cramps, convulsions, bruises, afterbirth and gout, and kills worms.

Partial list of works

  • A Physical Directory, or a Translation of the London Directory (1649) - translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis of the Royal College of Physicians.
  • Directory for Midwives (1651)
  • Semeiotics Uranica, or (An Astrological Judgement of Diseases) (1651)
  • Catastrophe Magnatum or (The Fall of Monarchy) (1652)
  • The English Physitian (1652)
  • The Complete Herbal (1653)
  • A Treatise on Aururn Potabile (1656)

See also


  1. ^ Scialabba, George. "The Worst Medicine; book review of 'Heal Thyself: Nicholas Culpeper and the Seventeenth-Century Struggle to Bring Medicine to the People" (html), Washington Post (online), 2004-11-30. Retrieved on 2007-10-31. (english) 
  2. ^ a b c d Culpeper, Nicholas (2001). The English Physician (1663) with 369 Medicines made of English Herbs; Rare book on CDROM (html) (english). Herbal 1770 CDROM. Retrieved on 2007-10-31.
  3. ^ a b Sajna, Mike. "Herbs have a place in modern medicine, lecturer says" (html), University Times, 30(4), University of Pittsburgh, 1997-10-09. Retrieved on 2007-10-31. (english) 


  • Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper's Complete Herbal: A Book of Natural Remedies of Ancient Ills (The Wordsworth Collection Reference Library) (The Wordsworth Collection Reference Library). NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company. ISBN 1853263451. 
  • Woolley, Benjamin (2004). The herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the fight for medical freedom. Toronto: Harper Collins. ISBN 0007126573. 
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Nicholas_Culpeper". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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