(b. Erfurt, Germany, 18 February 1515; d Rome, Italy, 25 September 1544),
Valerius Cordus, who appears far more frequently and extensively in literature than his father Euricius, owes his fame chiefly to his authorship of the first official pharmacopoeia in Germany. The importance of his scientific role, however lies primarily in botany, pharmacognosy, and pharmacy, which he enriched not only by critical plant characterizations but also by new teaching methods based on his own experience and observations. Despite numerous individual publications, so far no comprehensive biography of Cordus exists, perhaps because periods of his short life still show gaps and obscurities. These could be filled in and eliminated only through exhaustive research in the scattered source material.
After spending his childhood and youth at Kassel, then at Erfurt and Brunswick, Cordus went to Marburg, where in 1527 he and his brother Philipp enrolled at the university; he received his bachelor’s degree in 1531. During these and the following two years of study, he was under the direct influence of his father, who instructed him in the preparation of medicines as well as in botany. It was with pride that in his Botanologicon Euricius Cordus mentioned his son’s knowledge, for young Cordus had become very familiar with the science of drugs at an early age. Subsequently Cordus completed this training in the apothecary shop of his uncle Johannes Ralla at Leipzig, where he moved in 1533 and enrolled at the university. He remained there probably until 1539; his enrollment at Wittenberg University can be traced back only to that year.
The only thing known about Cordus’ stay at Wittenberg University is that he attended Melanchthon’s lectures on the Alexipharmaka of Nikander of Colophon and that he himself on three occassions—during the winter semesters of 1539/40 and 1542/43 and the summer semester of 15437—lectured on the Materia medica of Dioscorides. This lecturing is important—as evidenced by the reports of his students—because in his research, which was novel at the time, he departed from the purely philological interpretation of and commentary on the text, preferring to rely on his own powers of observation, which he had acquired during walks and longer excursions with students and friends.
During his years at Wittenberg, Cordus also developed close ties to the local apothecary shop of the painter Lucas Cranach. Once again this meant close ties to practical pharmacy. The experience Cordus acquired then found expression in the Dispensatorium, which he completed there. During his short visit to Nuremberg in 1542 he submitted that work to the city council, which published it in 1546. The last of the many trips that Cordus took from Wittenberg led him to Italy. Via Venice, Padua, and Bologna he reached Rome, where in 1544—when he was only twenty-nine years old—he died from a severe fever, or possibly an accident. His grave in the Church of Santa Maria dell’Anima, described by his contemporaries, was later lost track of and destroyed during one of several renovations.
A survey of Cordus’work, which appeared in print only after his death and received wide dissemination and recognition particularly through the edition of Conrad Gesner, reveals three principal points of his scientific achievement.
His role in pharmacy is based primarily on the much-praised Dispensatorium (1546), which through a limited selection of prescriptions brought order for the first time into the unsystematic corpus of medicaments and soon became the obligatory standard for all of Germany. In addition to describing approximately 225 medicinal plants and minerals, Cordus also refers, with careful commentary, to the origin and adulteration of drugs. The undated first edition was quickly followed by the second and subsequent editions that made this first official pharmacopoeia known far beyond the borders of Germany. Cordus also is generally called the discoverer of ether, for which—probably based on work by his predecessors—he gave the first method of preparation in De artificiosis extractionibus liber (1561).
Cordus’ two principal works in botany are Annotationes in Dioscoridis de materia medica lihros (1549) and Historiae stirpium libri IV (1561); the later was followed by Stirpium descriptionis liber quintus (1563). Cordus shows himself to be an observant and critical natural scientist in the Annotationes, which served as the basis for his Wittenberg lectures and also ran to several editions, and in the Historiae, which contains approximately 500 descriptions of plants, with special emphasis on their smell, taste, and location. In contrast with most of his contemporaries, he attempted to establish distinct differences between species and genus, to make the nomenclature precise, and, above all, to form his own opinion based upon his own observations and to correct by comparison even authors long recognized by tradition.
Cordus’ rank as a pharmacognosist is based—apart from the minor publication De halosantho (1566)—on his thorough knowledge of the materia medica, as evidenced by his comments in the Dispensatorium and the Annotationes. In his evaluation of the various remedies he benefited greatly from the experience gained in the apothecary shops in Leipzig and Wittenberg. He is quite justifiably regarded as one of the fathers of pharmacognostics (Tschirch).
Extraordinarily gifted and with an appealing personality—such were descriptions by his friends—he knew how to interest others in science and created new areas in botany with his research. Thus, Valerius Cordus fulfilled in an exemplary way his obligation to extend the legacy of his father. Despite his youth, and even though his works were published only posthumously, he enjoyed during his lifetime the reputation that historians of pharmacy and botany accord him today.
I. Original Works. Cordus’ works were published after his death, partly from finished MSS and partly from the notes taken by his students. The Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner deserves special credit for their publication. The Pharmacorum omnium, quae quidem in usu suns, con ficiendorum ratio. Vulgo vocant Dispensatorium pharmacopolaruns(Nuremberg, n.d. ) had the title Pharmacorum conficiendorum ratio. Vulgo vocant Dispensatorium in its 2nd ed. (Nuremberg, n.d. [1546/1547]) and subsequent ones (Lyons, 1552, 1559; Venice, 1563; Antwerp, 1580; Nuremberg, 1598); there are facsimile eds. of the 1st ed., with introduction by Ludwig Winkler (Mittenwald, 1934), and of the 1598 ed. (Munich, 1969). The Annotationes… in Dioscoridis de materia medica libros is in Pedanii Dioscoridis… de medicinali materia libri sex Ioanne Ruellio… interprete. Per Gualtherum Rivium (Frankfurt, 1549) and in Euricius Cordus’ Botanologicon (Paris, 1551).
Gesner published the following, all in one vol.: Annotationes in Pedanii Dioscoridis Anazarbei de medica materia libros V. longe aliae quam ante hac sunt emulgatae; Historiae stirpium libri IV; Sylva, qua rerum in Germania plurimarum, metallorum, lapidum et stirpium… persequitur; Loca medicaminum feracia in Germania; De artificiosis extractionibus liber; and Compositiones medicinales (Strasbourg, 1561). He was also responsible for publication of Stirpium descriptionis liber quintus… (Strasbourg, 1563), new ed., supplemented and improved, in Conradi Gesneri opera botanica, C. C. Schmiedel, ed., I (Nuremberg, 1751); and for De halosantho, seu spermate ceti… (Zurich, 1566).
II. Secondary Literature. On Cordus or his work see the following (listed chronologically): T. Irmisch, “Ueber einige Botaniker des 16. Jahrhunderts,” Gymnasialprogramm (Sondershausen, 1862), pp. 10–34; and “Einige Mittheilungen ueber Valerius Cordus,” in Botanische Zeitung, 22 (1864), 315–317; H. Peters, “Die älteste Pharmakopoee in Deutschland,” in his Aus pharmazeutischer Vorzeit (Berlin, 1886), pp. 129–153; A. Tschirch, “Pharmakohistoria,” in Handbuch der Pharmakognosie, I (Leipzig, 1908), 775–779, 795–803 and 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1933), I, sec. 3, 1565–1570; E. L. Greene, “Landmarks of Botanical History,” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 54 , no. 1 (1909), 263–314; A. Schulz, “Valerius Cordus als mitteldeutscher Florist,” in Mitteilungen des Thüringischen botanischen Vereins, n.s. 33 (1916), 37–66; C. D. Leake, “Valerius Cordus and the Discovery of Ether,” in Isis, 7 (1925), 14–24; K. Sudhoff, “Valerius Cordus, der Aether and Theophrast von Hohenheim,” in Festschrift für A. Tschirch (Leipzig, 1926), pp. 203–210; R. Kress, “Valerius Cordus als Botaniker and Pharmakognost,” in Deutsche Apothekerzeitung, 51 (1936), 1227–1229; T. A. Sprague, “The Herbal of Valerius Cordus,” in Journal of the Linnean Society, Botany, 52 (1939–1945), 1–113; W. Schneider, “Bemerkungen zum ersten offiziellen deutschen Arzneibuch,” in Suddeutsche Apothekerzeitung, 89 (1949), 136–137; A. Lutz, “Das Nürnberger Dispensatorium des Valerius Cordus von 1546, die erste amtliche Pharmakopoee,” in Festschrift für Ernst Urban (Stuttgart, 1949), pp. 107–125; K. F. Hoffmann, “Valerius Cordus,” in Munchener medizinische Wochenschrift, 93 (1951), 181–182; O. Bessler, “Valerius Cordus and der medizinisch-botanische Unterricht,” in 450 Jahre Martin-Luther- Universität Halle Wittenberg (Halle-Wittenberg, 1952), I, 323–333; A. Lutz, “Valerius Cordus and die Pharmakopoeen des 16. Jahrhunderts,” in Schweizer Apothekerzeitung, 93 (1955), 397 ff.; R. Schmitz, “Zur Bibliographic der Erstausgabe des Dispensatoriums Valerii Cordi,” in Sudhoffs Archiv fur Geschichte der Medizin and der Naturwissenschaften, 421 (1958), 260–270; T. Robinson, “On the Nature of Sweet Oil of Vitriol,” in Journal of the History of Medicine, 14 (1959), 231–233; E. Philipp, Das Medizinal - and Apothekenrecht in Nürnberg, no. 3 in the series Quellen and Studien zur Geschichte der Pharmazie (Frankfurt, 1962); R. Schmitz, “Neuere Untersuchungen zur Einführungsgeschichte des Dispensatoriums Valerii Cordi,” in Veröffentlichungen der Internationalen Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Pharmazie, new ed., XXI (Stuttgart, 1963), 85–91; and G. E. Dann, “Cordus-Bildnisse,” in Geschichtsbeilage der Deutschen Apothekerzeitung, 20 , no. 2 (1968), 9–11; and “Leben and Leistung des Valerius Cordus aus neuer Sicht,” in Pharmazeutische Zeitung, 113 (1968), 1062–1072.
German Botanist 1515-1544
Valerius Cordus was an early sixteenth-century German botanist who advanced the study of pharmacology by studying botany in a newly observant way. Born in 1515 as the son of botanist Euricus Cordus, Valerius Cordus was introduced to botany at an early age. He trained with his father and with an uncle who was an apothecary (druggist). In the early 1500s, plants were the main source of medicines used to treat human ailments, and the study of medicine required knowledge of botany. Cordus not only learned botany rapidly from his family, but made brilliant botanical observations of his own. He received his bachelor's degree at the age of sixteen in Marburg, Germany, and went on to study at Wittenberg University. He gave several lectures and wrote a number of important works that were published after his death. Unfortunately, Cordus died of fever in Italy in 1544 at the age of twenty-nine.
By the time of his death, Cordus was already well respected, known for his inventiveness in teaching botany. Rather than relying on just the standard botany in older texts, he made a point of lecturing using examples from his own fieldwork. It was his keen attention to detail in the field that allowed Cordus to write one of the first systematic accounts of herbal and botanical knowledge. Regarding herbals, Cordus gave each plant a full and clear description so that it might be identified without the use of illustrations. He followed a pattern in his descriptions, which was not often the case with other herbals at that time. He included information about the plant stems and leaf arrangements, the structure of the flowers and the time of flowering, and details about the fruits of the plants—and was able to do this despite a lack of descriptive botanical terminology. Cordus included details about the number and types of parts in the flowers and tried to give information about the appearance, smell, and taste of the plants, as well as where they might be found, in an attempt to minimize confusion and mistakes in naming and using herbs at the time. He included information in his works about the ways to derive medicines from the plants he described. After his death, his text became the standard for pharmacy in Germany.
Cordus's attention to detail helped him make great strides in plant taxonomy. Many of his observations and techniques anticipated work done hundreds of years later. Using flower parts to describe and classify plants is still an important taxonomic technique.
see also Candolle, Augustin de; Medicinal Plants.
Jessica P. Penney
Morton, A. G. History of Botanical Science. New York: Academic Press, 1981.
Reed, H. S. A Short History of the Plant Sciences. New York: Ronald Press Company, 1942.