Leonhard Fuchs

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Leonhard Fuchs


German Physician and Botanist

Leonhard Fuchs is considered one of the "fathers" of German botany because of his book on plants called De historia stirpium. Published in 1542, it contains over 500 illustrations that accurately portray a wide variety of plants, most of which were useful in medicine. The book is particularly noteworthy because Fuchs chose superior artists to illustrate his text, which was both scholarly and accurate.

Fuchs was born in Wemding in the Bavarian region of Germany in 1501 and attended German universities, receiving his doctorate from the University of Ingolstadt in 1524. He briefly practiced medicine in Munich, and then went back to Ingolstadt in 1526 to teach medicine. Two years later be became court physician to the Margrave Georg von Brandenburg, returning to teach at Ingolstadt in 1533. But his travels were not over. Becoming a Lutheran, he had to leave the Catholic town of Ingolstadt for Tübingen, where he again became a professor of medicine, this time at the new Protestant University. When an epidemic of an infection called sweating sickness broke out, Fuchs provided an effective treatment. Word of his success spread and he was offered a number of positions in foreign countries, but he remained in Tübingen until his death in 1566.

It is not surprising that a physician was responsible for one of the most noted works in botany. At the time, the study of plants was an important part of medicine because plant substances were the primary source of remedies for disease. Since ancient times, books called herbals were produced which described plants and their medicinal uses. The development of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century made possible the cheaper production of such books and the accurate reproduction of illustrations. But the images in these books remained crude until the publication of an herbal by another German physician-botanist, Otto Brunfels (1489?-1534), in the 1530s. While his text was not noteworthy, the illustrations done by the artist Hans Weiditz were both accurate and beautiful. Brunfels also inspired Hieronymous Bock (1498-1554), who produced an herbal with a much more original and informative text, but with inferior images. Because of their work, which set the stage for Fuchs's book, Brunfels and Bock are also considered founders of German botany.

Fuchs found three excellent artists—Albrecht Meyer, Heinrich Füllmaurer, and Veit Speckle—to create the drawings and woodcuts for his book. While Weiditz had drawn plants exactly as he saw them, flaws and all, these artists produced images of ideal plants, perfect specimens, and it is their approach that continues to be used in botanical illustration to this day. One particularly noteworthy image they produced was that of corn or maize, which had been brought back to Europe by Spanish explorers. It was the first recorded picture of this plant.

Along with the illustrations, Fuchs provided an informative text, though much of it was based on the plant descriptions handed down from ancient Greek and Roman texts, as was traditional in herbals. But Fuchs did present over 100 species that hadn't been described before, and his comments on firsthand experiences in the field indicate that he was a careful observer. The organization of the book was not very informative. Instead of grouping species with similar characteristics, he presented them in alphabetical order. In the final analysis, it is the illustrations that made Fuchs's herbal so memorable. They served as the basis for pictures in many later herbals. Fuchs's book itself appeared in several editions, including ones that were smaller, less expensive, and easier to use for reference than the original large-scale edition. He planned two further volumes but they were never published.

The flowering plant, Fuchsia, was so named in honor of Fuchs and his contributions to botany.


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