Daniel Solander’s Secret Botanical Library


The Sydney Botanical Gardens framed by the Opera House and a few Skyscrapers

The Sydney Botanical Gardens framed by the Opera House and a few city skyscrapers

In early September I was listening one morning to ABC Radio National’s programme Blueprint for Living and my ears pricked up when I heard that it was about ‘Secret remedies from books that pre-date modern medicine”

Michael Williams was interviewing Miguel Garcia, the curator of the small but fascinating Museum in the Sydney Botanical Gardens about the current exhibition of books which  he had co-created from the Daniel Solander Library  – the oldest plant research library in Australia.

In 1852 one Charles Moore had created a collection of 26 books  – botany, gardening horticulture etc.  and this exhibition highlights the history of the plants used in medicine going as far back as Renaissance writings, with much information gleaned from more ancient times from the clay tablets, papyruses and scrolls preserved in the 1st. century AD by the physicians and families of ancient Greece and Rome.

Cpt. James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, Lord Sandwich, Dr. Daniel Solander and Dr. John Hawksworth.

Cpt. James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, Lord Sandwich, Dr. Daniel Solander and Dr. John Hawksworth.  Painted by John Hamilton Mortimer in 1771

I was intrigued to learn that Dr. Daniel Solander was a Swedish colleague of Sir Joseph Banks  and who worked along  side of him during Captain Cook’s first journey to the South Pacific on the Endeavour in 1768.   They struck trouble going through the Great Barrier Reef and had to remain on shore at what is now known as Cooktown for seven weeks.

While stranded there they kept busy  collecting about 700 plant varieties

They had attempted to catalogue and record them along with 1000s of others on returning to England. Unfortunately Dr, Solander died before the work was finished.  Banks, though devastated by the loss of his friend, failed to complete and publish the record of what came later to be called his Florilegium so much of their joint work didn’t see the light of day till the 1980s.

My interest in plants used particularly for healing purposes began way back in 1952-4 when I studied Botany and Materia Medica as part of my pharmacy course at Sydney University.

Then we learnt how to make up mixtures and creams and even pillules using plant ingredients even though chemical medicine was already beginning to take over the treatment of most health problems requiring medication, and as a result much of our time in the dispensary from then on was occupied monotonously recording prescriptions, counting thousands of tablets and typing labels.

Nearly thirty years later I was able to begin redeeming much of the early knowledge and apply many of the creative skills learnt at university in a more thorough and interesting way when I studied Dorothy Hall’s Herbal Medicine Diploma course in Sydney in1978-9.  From then on I was able to build up a wonderful stock of plant tinctures and extracts which allowed me to prescribe and dispense my own healing preparations.

Just recently when reviewing the list of flower essences I had created from flowers in my Clunes garden  I noticed that the Latin name of the lovely little  Peruvian Lilly  I found growing there was Scillae Peruviana  belonging to the Squill family.  The name rang a bell and I remembered that Oxymel of Squill  was an ingredient in a popular cough mixture we often dispensed back in the 50’s.

Google was able to inform me that the Squill used as an expectorant was a cousin of my Peruvian Squill and had been in use as far back as a couple of thousand years ago. It was named  Sea Onion by Homer himself,  and they say that it was Pythagoras, a great physician amongst other things, who had created the herbal extract using the ground-up Squill root  mixed with oxymel  – a syrup made from honey.

Who would have thought!!   No wonder we speak of traditional medicine! I am proud to be a part of that tradition of apothecaries and healers and I am looking forward to a Sydney visit very soon to explore the Solander Library.

I am sure to discover exciting links between Herbal Medicine as it is evolving  today and healing knowledge linked to the plant kingdom that stretches as far back in time as Egyptian and Sumerian cultures, and many other cultures besides including that of the Australian Aboriginals, thanks to the caring preservation of  vast amounts of valuable knowledge over many centuries.









4 thoughts on “Daniel Solander’s Secret Botanical Library

  1. Deb

    Thanks, Elizabeth! I love this post. As an ex-Cooktown resident, it is MOST interesting. I also knew Vera Scarth-Johnson, botanical illustrator, whose life ambition was to paint everything that Banks collected in Cooktown. I hadn’t stopped to think about the close connection between Solander and Banks. Thank you.


  2. Pingback: Report on Exhibition at Botanical Gardens – Herbals: Myth, Magic, Medicine | Elizabeth – Insights and Encounters

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s