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Valerius Cordus Makes the Earliest Effort to Systematize Botanical Description and Discovers Sulfuric Ether


In 1561 physician, botanist, bibliographer, and naturalist Konrad Gessner (Gesner) published in Strassbourg at the press of I. Rebelius In hoc volumine continentur Valerii Cordi Simesusij annotationes in pedacij Dioscordis . . . Stirpium lib. IIII. posthumi . . . Sylva . . . De artificiosis extractionibus liber . . . Compositiones medicinales. His accedunt Stocchornii et Nessi in Bernatium Helvetiorum ditione montium . . . Conradi Gesneri de hortis germaniae liber recens . . . omnia summo studio atque industria doctis. atque excellentiss. viri Conr. Gesneri medici Tigurini collecta, & praefationibus illustrata.

Containing descriptions of about 500 plants, Valerius Cordus’s Historiae stirpium was the earliest effort to systematize botanical description; Cordus has been called the inventor of phytography. “To read [Cordus’s] description of plants after those of his predecessors and contemporaries is like entering a new world. Each description follows a regular pattern and almost always includes, in this order, the characteristic features of stem and leaves, the flower and time of flowering, the fruit and seeds, the number of loculi in the fruit, the lines of dehiscence, the appearance and the number of rows of seed, the root, whether annual or perennial, taste and smell, and habitat. Cordus thus established in principle the basis for scientific plant description and his transforming influence is evident in most of the leading botanists who followed him” (Morton, History of Botanical Science, p. 126). Gesner, who was sent the manuscript of Historiae stirpium several years after Cordus’s death, recognized the revolutionary nature of Cordus’s work, describing it as “truly extraordinary because of the accuracy with which the plants are described” (Greene, Landmarks of Botanical History, 373).

Cordus’s De artificiosis extractionibus liber, a treatise on the preparation of both simple and compound drugs, published for the first time in this work, contains the first written and published account of the synthesis of sulfuric ether (sweet oil of vitriol)  from sulfuric acid and alcohol on ff. 226v-229r. Cordus is credited with having discovered sulfuric ether circa 1540, four years before his premature death at the age of 29. Paracelsus also wrote about ether in the 1540s; however, his brief discussion of ether was not published until 1605. There is also some speculation that the Arabs, who were the first to distill alcohol and sulfuric acid, may have synthesized ether as early as the 10th century, though no record of this has survived. Cordus described ether's high volatility and noted correctly that “ether promotes the flow of mucous secretion from the respiratory tract and that it affords relief from whooping cough” (Faulconer & Keys, Foundations of Anesthesiology, 267). Cordus also listed several other ailments for which ether was recommended, although he did not mention its soporific effects.

Cordus was the son of German physician and botanist Euricius Cordus, who was the first to establish botany on a scientific basis in Germany. Valerius studied botany and pharmacy under his father and at Wittenburg University, where he gave lectures on the Materia medica of Dioscorides and performed original botanical and pharmacological research based on his own observations (a novelty at the time). Valerius Cordus’s promising career was cut short by his death at the age of 29, but he left a number of works in manuscript which were published after his death, partly from finished manuscripts and partly from notes taken by his students.

The first of Cordus’s works to be published were Pharmacorum omnium . . . vulgo vocant Dispensatorium pharmacopolarum (Nuremberg, 1546; Germany’s first official pharmacopeia), and his Annotationes . . . in Dioscoridis de materia medica, which was included in Pedanii Dioscoridis . . . de medicinali materia libri sex (Frankfurt, 1549; ed. Walther Hermann Ryff), and also appeared in Euricius Cordus’s Botanologicon (Paris, 1551). The Annotationes includes descriptions of the opium poppy and of mandrake (mandragora), a plant containing several narcotic alkaloids (see ff. 66-67). Mandrake’s soporific and anesthetic properties were known in the ancient world, and both mandrake and opium were key ingredients in the medieval “spongia somnifera,” a sponge soaked in a decoction of several herbs which was applied to the patient’s nostrils in order to produce surgical anesthesia. This method of anesthesia was largely ineffectual, however, and went out of use before the end of the 17th century. The publication of Cordus’s remaining works was largely due to the efforts of Gesner. The published volume contains the first editions of four works—Historiae stirpium libri IV; Sylva . . . ; De artificiosis extractionibus liber; and Compositiones medicinales—as well as the third edition of the Annotationes. To this collection Gesner added two works of his own, including De tulipa turcarum, the first scientifically accurate account of the tulip, which had been introduced to Europe only a few years earlier. Gesner also was responsible for issuing Cordus’s Stirpium descriptionis liber quintus in 1563.

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