Nicholas Culpeper

Nicholas Culpeper (18 October 1616 – 10 January 1654) was an English botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer.[1] His book The English Physitian (1652, later the Complete Herbal, 1653 ff.) is a store of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge, and Astrological Judgement of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick (1655)[2] is one of the most detailed works on medical astrology in Early Modern Europe. Culpeper spent much time outdoors cataloguing hundreds of medicinal herbs. He scolded some methods of contemporaries: "This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience, and took a voyage to visit my mother Nature, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it."[3] Culpeper came from a line of notabilities, including Thomas Culpeper, lover of Queen Catherine Howard, also a distant relative, sentenced to death by her husband, King Henry VIII.[4][5]

Nicholas Culpeper
In Effigiam Nicholai Culpeper Equitis by Richard Gaywood.jpg
Nicholas Culpeper,
engraving by Richard Gaywood
Born18 October 1616
Ockley, Surrey, England
Died10 January 1654 (aged 37)
Spitalfields, London, England
Alma materCambridge University
Known forThe English Physitian (Complete Herbal), 1652–1653
Scientific career


Culpeper was the son of Nicholas Culpeper (senior), a cleric. Shortly after his birth his father died, and he was removed to Isfield the home of his maternal grandfather the Reverend William Attersoll, where he was brought up by his mother. Attersoll was a great influence on the young boy's political and religious beliefs, and taught him both Latin and Greek. As a boy Culpeper became interested in astronomy, astrology, time, his grandfather's collection of clocks, and medical texts in Attersoll's library. It was his grandmother who introduced him to the world of medicinal plants and herbs. He would go on, throughout his life, spending time in the countryside cataloguing plants. Later from the age of 16 he studied [5] at Cambridge, but it is not known at which college, although his father studied at Queens', and his grandfather was a member of Jesus College. He then became apprenticed to an apothecary. After seven years his master absconded with the money paid for the indenture, and soon after, Culpeper's mother died of breast cancer.[6] In 1640 he married Alice Field, the 15-year-old heiress of a wealthy grain merchant, which allowed him to set up a pharmacy at the halfway house in Spitalfields, London, outside the authority of the City of London, at a time when medical facilities in London were at breaking point. Arguing that "no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician" and obtaining his herbal supplies from the nearby countryside, Culpeper could provide his services free of charge. This and a willingness to examine patients in person rather than simply examining their urine (in his view, "as much piss as the Thames might hold" did not help in diagnosis), Culpeper was extremely active, sometimes seeing as many as 40 patients in a morning. Using a combination of experience and astrology, he devoted himself to using herbs to treat his patients.

During the early months of the English Civil War Culpeper was accused of witchcraft and the Society of Apothecaries tried to rein in his practice. Alienated and radicalised, he joined the London Trained Bands in August 1643 under the command of Philip Skippon, and fought at the First Battle of Newbury[1] where he carried out battlefield surgery. He was taken back to London after sustaining a serious chest injury from a bullet, from which he never fully recovered.[5] There he cooperated with the Republican astrologer William Lilly on A Prophesy of the White King, which predicted the King's death. He died of tuberculosis in London on 10 January 1654 at the age of 37 and was buried in New Churchyard, Bethlem.[1][7] Only one of his seven children, Mary, survived to adulthood. He was survived by his wife, Alice, who married the astrologer John Heydon in 1656. The date of her death is uncertain: some sources indicate she died in 1659, but others that she was licensed as a midwife in 1665.

Political beliefsEdit

Influenced during his apprenticeship by the radical preacher John Goodwin, who said no authority was above question, Culpeper became a radical republican and opposed the "closed shop" of medicine enforced by the censors of the College of Physicians. In his youth, Culpeper translated medical and herbal texts such as the London Pharmacopaeia from Latin for his master. It was during the political turmoil of the English civil war, when the College of Physicians was unable to enforce its ban on the publication of medical texts, that Culpeper deliberately chose to publish his translations in vernacular English as self-help medical guides for use by the poor who could not afford the medical help of expensive physicians. Follow-up publications included a manual on childbirth and his main work, 'The English Physician', which was deliberately sold very cheaply, eventually becoming available as far afield as colonial America. It has been in print continuously since the 17th century.

Culpeper believed medicine was a public asset rather than a commercial secret, and the prices physicians charged were far too expensive compared to the cheap and universal availability of nature's medicine. He felt the use of Latin and expensive fees charged by doctors, lawyers and priests worked to keep power and freedom from the general public.

Three kinds of people mainly disease the people – priests, physicians and lawyers – priests disease matters belonging to their souls, physicians disease matters belonging to their bodies, and lawyers disease matters belonging to their estate.

Culpeper was a radical in his time, angering his fellow physicians by condemning their greed, unwillingness to stray from Galen and their use of harmful practices such as toxic remedies and bloodletting. The Society of Apothecaries were similarly incensed by the fact that he suggested cheap herbal remedies as opposed to their expensive concoctions.[8]

Philosophy of herbalismEdit

Culpeper attempted to make medical treatments more accessible to lay persons by educating them about maintaining their health. Ultimately his ambition was to reform the system of medicine by questioning traditional methods and knowledge and exploring new solutions for ill health. The systematisation of the use of herbals by Culpeper was a key development in the evolution of modern pharmaceuticals, most of which originally had herbal origins.[8]

Culpeper's emphasis on reason rather than tradition is reflected in the introduction to his Complete Herbal. He was one of the best-known astrological botanists of his day,[9] pairing the plants and diseases with planetary influences, countering illnesses with nostrums that were paired with an opposing planetary influence. Combining remedial care with Galenic humoral philosophy and questionable astrology, he forged a strangely workable system of medicine; combined with his "Singles" forceful commentaries, Culpeper was a widely read source for medical treatment in his time.


Culpeper's translations and approach to using herbals have had an extensive impact on medicine in early North American colonies, and even modern medications.[10] Culpeper was one of the first to translate from Latin documents discussing medicinal plants found in the Americas. His Herbal was held in such esteem that species he described were introduced into the New World from England.[10] Culpeper described the medical use of the foxglove, the botanical precursor to digitalis, used to treat heart conditions. His influence is demonstrated by the existence of a chain of "Culpeper" herb and spice shops in the United Kingdom, India and beyond, and by the continued popularity of his remedies among New Age and alternative holistic medicine practitioners.[8]

Nicholas is featured as main protagonist in Rudyard Kipling's story "Doctor of Medicine", part of the Puck of Pook's Hill anthology.

Excerpts from The English PhysitianEdit

The title page of The English Physitian

The following herbs, their uses and preparations are discussed in The English Physitian.[8]

  • Anemone as a juice applied externally to clean ulcerations, infections and cure leprosy or inhaled to clear the nostrils
  • Bedstraw boiled in oil and applied externally as a stimulant, consumed as an aphrodisiac, or externally raw to stimulate clotting
  • Burdock crushed and mixed with salt, useful in treating dog bites, and taken inwardly to help pass flatulence, an analgesic for tooth pain and to strengthen the back
  • Cottonweed boiled in lye can be used to treat head lice or infestations in cloth or clothing. Inhaled, it acts as an analgesic for headaches and reduces coughing.
  • Dittany is as an abortifacient, to induce labour, as a treatment for poisoned weapons, to draw out splinters and broken bones, and the smell drives away "venomous beasts". One species of dittany, Dictamnus albus, is now known to contain alkaloids, limonoid triterpenoids, flavonoids, sesquiterpenoids, coumarins, and phenylpropane.[11]
  • Fleabane helps with bites from "venomous beasts", and its smoke can kill gnats and fleas. It can be dangerous to pregnant women.
  • Hellebore causes sneezing if ground and inhaled, kills rodents if mixed with food. Hellebore is now known to contain poisonous alkaloids,[12] cardiac glycosides in the roots and ranunculin and protoanemonin, especially in the leaves and sap.[13][14] Hellebore poisoning is rare, but can occur.[13][15]
  • Mugwort induces labour, assists in birth and afterbirth and eases labour pains.
  • Pennyroyal strengthens the backs of women, assists with vertigo and helps expel gas. The active constituent of pennyroyal is now known to be pulegone.
  • Savory helps expel gas and is excellent mixed with peas and beans for this reason.
  • Wood Betony helps with "falling sickness" and headaches, anti-anoretic, "helps sour belchings", cramps, convulsions, bruises, afterbirth and gout, and kills worms.

Partial list of worksEdit

  • A Physical Directory, or a Translation of the London Directory (1649) – translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis of the Royal College of Physicians.
  • Directory for Midwives (1651)
  • Semeiotics Uranica, or (An Astrological Judgement of Diseases) (1651)
  • Catastrophe Magnatum or (The Fall of Monarchy) (1652)
  • The English Physitian (1652), later entitled The Complete Herbal[1]
  • Astrological Judgement of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick (1655)
  • A Treatise on Aurum Potabile (1656): This is certainly not by Nicholas Culpeper and lacks his style of writing. It is a confusing and repetitious work by John Heydon.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c d Patrick Curry: "Culpeper, Nicholas (1616–1654)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2004)
  2. ^ I. e. confinement to a sickbed or an astrological chart taken then. [ Retrieved 10 September 2019.]
  3. ^ Introduction to 1835 edition of The Complete Herbal.
  4. ^ Lacey Baldwin Smith, A Tudor Tragedy. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961.
  5. ^ a b c Cite error: The named reference Harmes 2014 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  6. ^ Scialabba, George (30 November 2004). "The Worst Medicine; book review of 'Heal Thyself: Nicholas Culpeper and the Seventeenth-Century Struggle to Bring Medicine to the People'". Washington Post (online). Retrieved 31 October 2007.
  7. ^ Hartle, Robert, 2017 The New Churchyard: from Moorfields marsh to Bethlem burial ground, Brokers Row and Liverpool Street, Crossrail: London, p. 177.
  8. ^ a b c d Culpeper, Nicholas (2001). "The English Physician (1663) with 369 Medicines made of English Herbs; Rare book on CDROM". Herbal 1770 CDROM. Archived from the original on 14 August 2007. Retrieved 31 October 2007.
  9. ^ Arber (2010), p. 261.
  10. ^ a b Sajna, Mike (9 October 1997). "Herbs have a place in modern medicine, lecturer says". University Times, 30(4), University of Pittsburgh. Archived from the original on 2 September 2006. Retrieved 31 October 2007.
  11. ^ Gao X.; Zhao P.-H.; Hu J.-F. (2011). "Chemical constituents of plants from the genus Dictamnus". Chemistry and Biodiversity. 8 (7): 1234–1244. doi:10.1002/cbdv.201000132. PMID 21766445.
  12. ^ Cary, Bill (24 March 2013). "Hellebores -- deer resistant and made for shade". Gannett Co., Inc. The Journal News; White Plains, N.Y.
  13. ^ a b "Helleborus niger – Christmas Rose". Cornell University, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
  14. ^ "Helleborus orientalis". NC State University.
  15. ^ "Poisonous Plants: Hellebore, Oleander and Vinca or Periwinkle". Dengarden.


External linksEdit

  1. ^ Harmes, Paul; Hart-Davies., Christina (2014). "The Life of Nicholas Culpeper and his Sussex records". Sussex Botanical Recording Society. Retrieved 11 September 2019.