Herbal Hero | Nicholas Culpeper the Medical Maverick
Nicholas Culpeper was a 17th century medical maverick whose bestsellers on natural remedies shook up the establishment. Andre Paine profiles the political radical who gathered herbs around Clerkenwell. And on the next page discover Culpeper’s herbs in his own words…
When it comes to medical treatment, patientcentred care and accountability have become guiding principles. In large part it’s thanks to the pioneering efforts of Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century herbalist, medical practitioner and political rebel who struck a blow for patient power.
Culpeper’s revolutionary books were published by George Sawbridge in Clerkenwell from the 1660s. A People’s Plaque was recently unveiled for Culpeper – 360 years after his death – at 92 Commercial Street, Spitalfields, where he treated patients, wrote books and tended his herb garden. He would have been familiar with Clerkenwell as he roamed Finsbury Fields picking star thistle (protects against plague) and Gray’s Inn where he found winter rocket (to cleanse wounds) and white saxifrage (to help clear phlegm).
Working beyond the city walls was important: he was unlicensed and wanted to avoid the attention of the College of Physicians and Society of Apothecaries. He gave medical help to the London poor and always used cheap, local ingredients. “Jupiter delights in equality and so do I,” said Culpeper, who was also an astrologer, though he focused on human, not heavenly, bodies in his diagnoses.
Benjamin Woolley, Culpeper’s biographer, tells The Post that Culpeper established “the notion that medical knowledge should be available on the basis of need rather than social position or ability to pay.”
Culpeper studied at Cambridge but was a perpetual outsider. His father was a clergyman who died a fortnight before his son was born. Tragedy struck again in his student days: the woman he was about to elope with was killed when her coach was struck by lightning. The scandalous relationship resulted in him being disinherited and forced to leave university.
He ended up in London in 1634, not yet 18, and trained as an apothocery. As an apprentice in the west end of Fleet Street, Culpeper worked in a smoky, smelly backroom. He may have been presented at the College of Physicians in Amen Corner around 1636. But he had little respect for their traditions and his translation of the physicians’ Pharmacopoeia Londinensis from elitist Latin into English caused a sensation in 1649.
His book revealed the 1,190 ‘simples’ (medicinal ingredients) and compounds controlled by the physicians and prescribed
‘He had a hand in establishing the principles that led to the modern NHS’
by apothoceries, who often knew little of the theory. Culpeper corrected discrepancies and revealed the more mythical ingredients – horn of unicorn was presumably not easy to get hold of. The translation was a hit but brought a savage response from the physicians, who portrayed him as a political rebel and drunk. Culpeper was certainly known among contemporaries for his ‘consumption of the purse’ – but also his ‘merry temper’ and ‘knack of jesting’.
Before his writing career, Culpeper sided with the Roundheads during the English Civil War, in which he performed battlefi eld surgery. He sustained a serious chest wound from a bullet during the First Battle of Newbury in 1643. It seems the injury and his fondness for smoking contributed to his premature death, aged just 37, in 1654.
The English Physitian (1653), known as Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, is his literary legacy. An index of diseases and remedies, it was comprehensive and cheap at three pence (3d) – the same price as a pound of sweet almonds. His book was funny, irreverent and ready to poke fun at the wealthy.
He also had the support of his wife, Alice, who built his reputation after his death. Culpeper’s work was consulted during efforts to combat the Great Plague of 1665. According to The Herbalist by Benjamin Woolley, the Complete Herbal has earned Culpeper the status of most successful writer of all time: no other book (apart from The Bible and Book of Common Prayer) has been in continuous print as long.
Of course, medicine has moved on (don’t try his remedies without fi rst consulting a doctor) and Culpeper’s belief in astrology now seems outlandish. However, he was no quack: he focused on the patient, not the disease, and many still consult his herbal remedies.
Crucially, the books provided recipes for medicines that were easy and cheap to prepare. “By doing this, and off ering medical help to the poor, he helped pioneer public medicine, and it’s not too much of a stretch to describe him as having a hand in establishing the principles that ultimately led to the modern NHS,” Woolley tells The Post.
It’s certainly a fi ne legacy for this maverick medical pioneer. Culpeper Community Garden in Batchelor Street, N1 is not far from Clerkenwell if you want to visit a botanical tribute to the hero herbalist.