L’obel (or Lobel), Mathias De

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L’obel (or Lobel), Mathias De

(b. Lille, France, 1538; d. Highgate, near London, England, 3 March 1616)


L’Obel’s name is ingeniously alluded to in the coat of arms on his books: two poplar trees (in French “aubel” means “abele,” or “white poplar”) constitute part of the design. Few details of his life are known. He seems to have had a powerful personality—rough, violent, passionate, tireles—worthy of a leader among the sixteenth-century restorers of learning. At the age of sixteen he was already attracted to botany and materia medica. According to Édouard Morren he undoubtedly practiced medicine, although there is no known evidence that he ever received a medical degree. In 1565 (he was then twenty-seven) he became the favorite student of Guillaume Rondelet, professor at the University of Montpellier. There he met Jacques Uitenhove of Ghent, and a young Provencal, Pierre Pena, who became his friend, his companion in study and in botanizing, and his collaborator.

It is very probable that at their first meeting Rondelet discerned L’Obel’s intellectual superiority, for at his death, on 20 July 1566, he bequeathed the latter all his botanical manuscripts. L’Obel then spent three more years in Montpellier, writing a book with Pierre Pena, which appeared in 1570 (or 1571) under the title Stirpium adrersaria nova. Although one may criticize L’Obel’s inelegant, even barbarous, Latin, this work is nevertheless one of the milestones of modern botany. A collection of notes and data on 1,200-1,300 plants that he himself had gathered and observed in the vicinity of Montpellier, in the Cévennes, in the Low Countries, and in England, it also furnished precise information on other subjects, including the making of beer and the cultivation of exotic plants and of chicory.

L’Obel held that the thorough and exact observation of men and things constituted the basis of the two sciences that interested him: medicine and botany. This conviction is clearly evident in his book. Before contemporary botanists he divided the plants into groups according to the form of their leaves (whole, divided, more or less compound). It seems that he had an inkling of natural families and that he attempted to use, if not the terms, at least the concepts of genus and family.

The second edition of Adversaria (1576) was published with an appendix including many engravings larger than those in the 1571 edition. Stirpium observationes, a sort of complement to the Adversaria, was joined to it under the title Plantarum seu stirpium historia (1576). In 1581, Christophe Plantin published Kruydboeck, a Flemish translation of the Stirpium, and, in a separate volume, the illustrations that L’Obel prefaced with a brief table—“Elenchus plantarum fere congenerum”—which presented the plants according to affinities. Linnaeus subsequently used the table in his Species plantarum.

Finding it impossible to work in a country torn by civil war, L’Obel left the Low Countries, where he had been living since 1571, following the assassination of William of Orange in July 1584. He went to England, his wife’s native country, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Despite his conceit and unpolished language, which earned him many enemies (he was involved in an unfortunate dispute with Mattioli), L’Obel was one of the great pre-Linnaean botanists. His name was perpetuated by Plumier, who in 1702 dedicated to him the genus Lobelia—which. Linnaeus later called Scaevola, at the same time giving the name “Lobelia” to a genus of aquatic plant.


I. Original Works. L’Obel’s first work was Stirpium adversaria nova (London, 1570), written with Pierra Pena; the colophon is dated 1571, and the work may have been printed at Antwerp by Plantin. Plantarum seu stirpium historia, 2 vols. (Antwerp, 1576), comprising the 2nd ed. of Adversaria together with Stirpium observationes, contained 1,486 engravings, most of which are not original. Kruydtboeck (Antwerp, 1581), a Flemish trans, of Stirpium historia, was followed the same year by Icones stirpium, a 2-vol. work printed at Antwerp that included the “Elenchus” and all engravings published to date; a 2nd ed. appeared in 1591. Balsami, opobahami, carpohalsami et xylabaisami (London, 1598) was followed by a new ed. of the Adversaria entitled Dilicidae simplicium medicamento rum explicationes et stirpium adversaria (London, 1605) that included several new treatises. Stirpium illustrations was published posthumously (London, 1655).

II. Secondary Literature. On L’Obel and his work, see B. C. Dumortier, “Discours sur les services rendus par les belges à la botanique,” in Bulletin. Socièté r. de botanique de Belgique, 1 (1862), 16; L. Legré, La botanique en Provence au XVIe siècle, l, Pierre Pena et Mathias de Lobel (Marseilles, 1899); C. F. A. Morren, “Prologue à la mémoirs de L’Obel,” in Belgique horticole, 2 (1852), v–xviii; C. J. É. Morren, Mathias de L’Obel. Sa vie et ses oeuvres (Liége, 1875); and J. É. Planchon, Rondelet et ses disciples (Montpellier, 1866).

J. C. Mallet

P. Jovet