Plants in Art and Medicine: An Exhibit at the Harn Museum of Art

Plants and Medicine: Art and Science in Botanical Prints
Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida
March 19 – November 17, 2013


Plants and Medicine: Art and Science in Botanical Prints explores the topic of plants as medicinal treatment through a selection of engravings and woodcuts drawn from the Harn Museum’s collection of herbal prints from the 16th through the 18th centuries. Although few physicians or pharmacists grow herbs or compound treatments today, herbs were among the earliest medicinal treatments. In fact, many medicines commonly in use today, even synthetic versions, have their origins in plants.

When present-day researchers search for medical uses of plants, they look at biochemical and genetic components. In the past, those who used plants to treat illness might employ a range of practices based on belief systems, observation, or visual metaphors (e.g. a leaf that looked like a lung was used to treat lung complaints). Illustrated herbals and botanicals became a crucial form for conveying reliable information about plants and were critical to fostering knowledge based upon rigorous observation and consistent identification of species.

How plants were used to treat illnesses and their supposed healing actions has changed over the centuries, however. Prior to the twentieth century, European medicine drew heavily on the ancient Greek belief that health was determined by the bodily fluids, also known as humors. This approach to understanding the causes of disease and healing meant that many treatments focused on balancing the humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. For example, certain herbal treatments were intended to help balance the humors by inducing sweating (diaphoretics), to purge bile from the gall bladder (cholagogues), or to cause an over production of phlegm (expectorants). A longer list of commonly valued medicinal actions is included in the accompanying gallery label, “Treating the Sick.”

Dulce María Román                                                    Nina Stoyan-Rosenzweig
Curator of Modern Art                                                 UF Health Science Center Library