John Gerard (1545 - 1612) is credited with an activity of barber-surgeon, which he learned during the years 1561-1568 under the direction of Alexander Mason, one of the most preeminent surgeons of that time in London. After some years as a surgeon on a merchant ship that led him to the Scandinavian and Baltic countries and even to Moscow, he established a practice in London and obtained recognition in his profession.
Gerard’s interests were in medicinal plants, botany and horticulture. He had a private garden, the plants of which have been listed in a catalogue published in 1596 in London by Robert Robinson under the title Catalogus arborum, fruticum ac plantarum tam indigenarum quam exoticarum in horto Gerardi nascentium (Catalogue of the trees, fruit-trees, and plantarum indigenous as well as exotic growing in Gerard’s garden) . The work was published a second time in 1599 (London: Arnold Hatfield) . In 1577 Gerard became the superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil (1520 - 1598), Baron Burghley, at the Strand in London, and at Theobalds in the Hertfordshire. In 1586 he also became the Curator of the physic garden of the College of Physicians in London.
In 1597, Gerard published the first of edition of his Herball or General historie of plants . The work exploited several heterogeneous sources. It is believed to be based on an English translation of the herbal (Pemptades) by Rembert Dodoens (1516 or 1517 - 1585) commissioned by John Norton to Robert Priest (ca. 1550 - 1590). The translator died without finishing it, and the publisher transmitted it to Gerard to complete the work. In so doing Gerard substantially modified Dodoens’ herbal: not only did he modify the order of the plants, but he also introduced new data, be they from his own experience or from such other herbals as those of William Turner (ca. 1510 - 1568) , Theodor Jakob Tabernaemontanus (1520/30 [?] - 1590) , Pierre Pena (fl. 1535 - 1605) and Matthias de L’Obel (1538 - 1616) . The ca. 1800 woodcuts came from Tabernaemontanus’ Icones plantarum first published in 1590, which Norton obtained from the German publisher.
Gerard’s compilation was so full with errors that the publisher asked de L’Obel to revise it until Gerard made him stop. A fully revised version edited by Thomas Johnson was not published until 1633, that is, 20+ years after Gerard’s death, and this edition was printed again in 1636 .
The number of plants described in the Herball gradually increased from one edition to another, from ca. 1,800 up to 2,677+ or even more according to the estimations.
In the 20th century, Marcus Woodward published an abridged version of Gerard’s Herbal frequently reprinted since 1927.
Dictionary (with references to literature): William T. Stearn 1972. “John Gerard”. Dictionary of Scientific Biography 1: 361-363.
An introduction: Frank J. Anderson 1977. An illustrated history of the herbals. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 217-226.
A specialized essay: Agnes Arber 1912. Herbals. Their origin and evolution. A chapter in the history of botany 1470-1670. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 129-132.
Bibliography on the Herball
Georg August Pritzel 1872-. Thesaurus literaturae botanicae omnium gentium inde a rerum botanicarum initiis ad nostra usque tempora. Quindecim millia operum recensens. Editio nova. Leipzig: Brockaus (reprint: Storrs-Mannsfield CT: Maurizio Martino, 1999): 120; Claus Nissen 1951. Die botanische Buchillustration, ihre Geschichte und Bibliographie. 2 vols. Stuttgart:Hiersemann: 2.66.
Gerard’s Herball; the essence thereof distilled by Marcus Woodward from the edition of Th. Johnson, 1636. London: G. Howe, 1927.
Reprints (selection): London: Minerva, 1971 and 1974; Delhi: Meeraj Publishing House, & New Delhi: D.K. Publishers, 1984; New York: Crescent Books, 1985; London: Studio Editions, 1994.
Editions and reprints of the Catalogue
Benjamin Daydon Jackson 1876. A catalogue of plants cultivated in the garden of John Gerard in the years 1596-1599. Edition with notes, references to Gerard’s Herball, the addition of modern names, and a life of the author. London.
Reprints of the 1599 edition: Codicote (England): Wheldon & Wesley, 1962; Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, & New York: Da Capo Press, 1973.