Otto Brunfels

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Otto Brunfels


German Physician and Botanist

Otto Brunfels is considered one of the three "fathers" of German botany, in large part because of his three-volume Herbarum vivae eicones (Living Images of Plants), published in the 1530s. These books contained illustrated descriptions of plants, most of which had medical uses. This marked the first time that accurate and realistic images were used in a printed botanical text. Ironically, it is the illustrations drawn by Hans Weiditz, rather than Brunfels's quite mediocre text, that make the Herbarum noteworthy.

Brunfels was born about 1489 in the town of Braufels, near Mainz in what is now Germany. He received his education in Mainz and then entered a Roman Catholic monastery. He left there in 1521, changed his religion, and became a Lutheran preacher. In 1524 he settled in Strasbourg, where he got married and opened a small school. He then moved on to Switzerland, where in 1531 he received a medical degree from the University of Basel, and was appointed Town Physician of Berne two years later. He died there in 1534.

Brunfels's main interests were in medicine and botany. In the same year that the first volume of the Herbarum appeared (1530), he published Catalogus, a collection of older medical works he had edited and translated; it included one of the first medical bibliographies. The Herbarum is also related to medicine because it follows in the tradition of earlier herbals, or illustrated books on plants that provided information on the medicinal uses for plants. It was only later that interest developed in plants for their own sake.

The invention of movable type around 1440, and subsequent improvements in the printing press, made it possible to produce books more cheaply and in greater quantities. Perhaps more importantly for botanical science, it made feasible exact reproduction of images of plants. Before that time, artists had to copy images along with the text of herbals and extensive copying led to inaccuracies in the images. But despite the potential of printing to provide accurate images, the illustrations in the first printed herbals were of poor quality, which is what makes Brunfels's Herbarum so exceptional.

While most of the previous botanical illustrations were copies of earlier drawings, Weiditz obviously used real specimens as his models, which made his images so lifelike. In some cases, the plants are shown with leaves nibbled by insects or with other individual peculiarities. This is in marked contrast to the work of most subsequent botanical artists who portrayed ideal plants without blemishes.

In all, there are 238 woodcut illustrations in the Herbarum; they represent about 230 species, including over 40 species that were first described by Brunfels. The plants are not arranged in any organized way. It appears that it was Weiditz, rather than Brunfels, who determined the sequence in which the plants were presented, based on the order in which he finished the woodcuts. Weiditz also decided which plants he would draw, including several that Brunfels couldn't identify. At one point Brunfels apologized to the reader for including a picture of a plant that didn't have a Latin name and that was not used medicinally.

In contrast to the illustrations, which are extraordinarily better than those in previous books, Brunfels's text is not exceptional. It is just a rehash of the work of earlier botanists. This is why many historians question his designation as a father of German botany, giving that honor instead to two other botanists, Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554) and Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566), both of whom published herbals with much more original and informative texts. But it should be noted that Brunfels encouraged Bock to write his own book.