The Anatomy of Plants Illustrated Plates

In the 82 illustrated plates included in his 1680 book The Anatomy of Plants Illustrated Plates, the English botanist Nehemiah Grew revealed for the first time the inner structure and function of plants in all their splendorous intricacy. Find out more in Brian Garret’s article for The Public Domain Review – “The Life and Work of Nehemiah Grew” – which explores how Grew’s pioneering ‘mechanist’ vision in relation to the floral world paved the way for the science of plant anatomy.

Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) is best remembered for his careful and novel observations on plant anatomy, for his role in the development of comparative anatomy and as one of the first naturalists to utilize the microscope in the study of plant morphology. His most lasting work, containing his observations and impressive illustrations, is most certainly his early work The Anatomy of Plants begun as a philosophical history of plants published in 1682. Although Grew continued to publish throughout his life, especially on the chemical properties of various substances, all but the The Anatomy have fallen into obscurity.

Grew was a doctor by profession, receiving his degree from  Leiden University in 1671. He was the son of a nonconformist and supporter of parliament, who was briefly imprisoned while his son gave lectures to the Royal Society and dedicated his books to the King. Nehemiah had little of his father’s political inclination, although he inherited some of the latter’s nonconformist religious views. He practiced medicine in London where he met John Wilkins (1614-1672), one of the founders of the Royal Society, who was likely attracted by the younger man’s opinions.

Wilkins was impressed and he recommended Grew to the Royal Society for membership. Grew later served as secretary to the society, along with Robert Hooke (1635-1703), the infamous virtuoso and inventor. Like Hooke, Grew utilized the microscope for his investigations into plant anatomy. Along with Marcello Malphigi, Grew is remembered for establishing the observational basis for botany for the next 100 years.

Anatomy of plants basis of botany

As Grew acknowledged, Wilkins’ encouragement was crucial to his work, both intellectually and financially. Having been made a member under Wilkins’ influence, he was engaged by the Royal Society at 50 pounds a year to research plant anatomy. But getting actually paid was another matter and Grew had to plead with the society to receive what he was due. In his later life he practiced medicine in London and Coventry. Throughout the 1670’s Grew wrote short pamphlets on botany (often in Latin) and in 1680 translated and compiled them together under the title The Anatomy of Plants.

He published a number of minor essays in the Transactions of the Royal Society, for example, “The description of an…Hummingbird” and “Some observations touching the Nature of Snow.” In 1681 he published The comparative anatomy of stomachs and guts, packed full of curious observations. 1683 saw the publication of New Experiments and useful observations concerning sea water made Fresh and in 1697 his Treatise of the nature and Use of Purging Salt contained in Epsom and such other waters. In his last work, Cosmologia Sacra (1701), Grew turned to philosophy and theology in order to demonstrate “the Truth and Excellency of the Bible.”

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Grew is remembered for his detailed descriptions of plant anatomy and with him we see the beginning of modern comparative anatomy. He was guided by the idea that there may be similarities of function between animals and plants and this led him to look for equivalent organs in each. He thus believed in the circulation of sap, on analogy with William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in animals, and he believed in a form of respiration in plants.

Although the recognition of plant sexuality was old, Grew is remembered for noting the stamen as the male organ of the plant and pollen as seed. He also noted the prevalence of little bladders, or “cells” as Hooke had coined the term, especially in the parenchyma tissue (a term we have retained from Grew). Many of Grew’s observations were diachronic, putting emphasis on the development of the plant and its structures. The growth of a plant he deemed to be a function of sap circulating through the tissue, carrying and adding material to the plant. His observations on the bud of the flower revealed the complicated folding of the unexpanded leaves, something that had not been previously seen with the naked eye.

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