2014 April The Anatomy of Plants

The Anatomy of Plants

‘I know not how, even in this Inquisitive Age, That I am the first, who have given a Map of the Country’.


 Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants (1682) was a flagship production of the Royal Society. Grew (bap. 1641, d. 1712), whose career had intersected with the Royal Society in a number of ways, had been encouraged by the Society to produce this edition of his collected works as the text served not only to publicise the groundbreaking work which Grew himself was engaged on, but also drew attention to some of the core aims and methodologies of the Royal Society.


First and foremost was the importance of the scholarly community. As Grew explained in his preface, prior to publishing the Anatomy of Vegetables Begun in 1672, he had been keen to ‘know the sense also of other Learned Men, whether the steps I have already taken, would warrant me to proceed any further’. His step brother, Henry Sampson (c.1629–1700) duly brought the work to the attention of John Wilkins (1614–1672) who communicated it to the rest of the Royal Society in 1671, where it had met universal acclaim. Both Wilkins and the Society more generally would prove to be important patrons for Grew’s subsequent botanical researches. For Grew, the communal nature of the Society would prove vital to his scientific endeavour. Just as his initial works had received official commendation by the Society, so too would his 1682 Anatomy of Plants, with a detailed review of it being included in Philosophical Transactions of the following years, which noted that ‘This Work was begun, about Nineteen Years past; since then, hath been carried on by the special Appointment of the Royal Society; and by their order, is now made publick.’


As Hunter (1982) has observed, the subscription nature of the 1682 edition ensured that Grew’s research reached a far wider audience than the members of the Society alone. The decision to make it a subscription edition was no doubt primarily due to the large number of engravings, 83 in all, which formed an integral part of the text. The plates had been especially engraved for the 1682 edition and as Coppola (2013) states, now brought together plant elements in a contextualised whole. Grew drew attention to the importance of the plates in his preface:

‘In the Plates, for the clearer conception of the Part described, I have represented it, generally, as entire, as its being magnified to some good degree, would bear. So, for instance, not the Barque, Wood, or Pith, of a Root or Tree, by it self; but at least, some portion of all three together: Whereby, both their Texture, and also their Relation to one another, and the Fabrick of the whole, may be observed at one View. Yet have I not every where magnify’d the Part to the same degree; but more or less, as was necessary to represent what is spoken of it. And very highly, only in some few Examples, as in Tab. 40. which may suffice to illustrate the rest. Some of the Plates, especially those which I did not draw to the Engravers hand, are a little hard and stiff: but they are all well enough done, to represent what they intend.’


Grew’s treatment of the sumach plant, which we can see in plates 34 and 40 represent Grew’s methodological priorities: ‘all the Observations conteined in the First Book, except one or two, were made with the Naked Eye.. Having thus begun with the bare Eye; I next proceeded to the use of the Microscope’ As Coppola (2013) notes, Grew’s preference for the naked eye over the new instrument of the microscope is carried through the entire work and is especially visible in his treatment of this plant.

The initial illustration of the sumach plant, Plate 34, presents a cross section of the  plant as seen by the naked eye and Grew gives us the following verbal description:

The next is a Branch of Common Sumach. In the Barque whereof, there are likewise Three Kinds of Vessels. First of all, there is a thick Radiated Ring of Lymphaeducts; standing on the inner Margin of the Barque, contiguous with the Wood. These Vessels exhibit their Lympha very apparently. A second kind of Vessels, sc. Roriferous, are situate towards the outer Margin of the Barque, and are composed into distinct Arched Parcels, all standing in a Ring.

Betwixt these Two Kinds stand the Milk-Vessels. Every single Milk-Vessel being empaled or hemmed in with an Arch of Roriferous. The Milk-Vessles are extraordinary large, almost as the Gum Vessels of Pine; so as distinctly to be observed without a Microscope; after they are evacuated of their Milk; and without difficulty will admit a Virginal Wyer; being two or three hundred times as big as a Lyphaeduct. Besides these Three sorts of Vessels, there is also a Ring, adjacent to the Skin; which seems to be another sort of Roriferous.


Plate 40, on the other hand, offers us a view of the same plant as seen under the microscope. Its secondary position is deliberate for though Grew made valuable use of the newly invented microscope he was by no means a convinced advocate for its supremacy. His treatment of plate 40 not only represents the secondary nature of the microscopial view in his eyes but also draws attention to some of the challenges facing Grew as an initial investigator of plant anatomy – the methodological challenge of verbal description of a plant. In the main, Grew, as a physician, resorted to medical analogies but he was also a keen proponent of more domestic similes and this is clearly seen in his attempt to explain the complex nature of the sumach plant:

And as some of these Horizontal Fibres are wraped about the Vessels; so also about the Fibres, whereof the Vessels are composed. By which means it is, that all the Fibres of the Vessels are Tacked or Stitched up close together into One Coherent Piece. Much after the same manner, as the Perpendicular Splinters or Twigs of a Basket, are, by those run in and out Horizontally. And the same Horizontal Fibres, being still further produced into the Barque; they there compose the same work over again (only not so open) as in the Pith.

SO THAT the most unfeigned and proper resemblance we can at present, make of the whole Body of a Plant, is, To a piece of fine Bone-Lace, when the Women are working on it upon the Cushion, For the Pith, Insertions, and Parenchyma of the Barque, are all extream Fine and Perfect Lace-Work: the Fibres of the Pith running Horizontally, as do the Threds in a Piece of Lace; and bounding the several Bladders of the Pith and Barque, as the Threds do the several Holes of the Lace; and making up the Insertions without Bladders, or with very small ones, as the same Threds likewise do the close Parts of the Lace, which they call the Cloth-Work. And lastly, both the Lignous and Aer-Vessels, stand all Perpendicular, and so cross to the Horizontal Fibres of all the said Paarenchymous Parts; even as in a Piece of Lace upon the Cushion, the Pins do to the Threds. The Pins being also conceived to be Tubular, and prolonged to any length; and the same Lace-Work to be wrought many Thousands of times over and over again, to any thickness or hight, according to the hight of any Plant. And this is the true Texture of a Plant: and the general composure, not only of a Branch, but of all other Parts from the Seed to the Seed.

Bolam (1973) suggests that Grew’s reliance on sewing and crocheting analogies in turn affected how he understood the relationship between different parts of a plant.

But if Grew was sometimes led astray by his rhetorical devices, the sheer volume, innovatory method and detail of his observations ensured the continuing fame of his work: for instance, he instituted the use of terms such as ‘radicle’ and ‘parenchyma’ as botanical terms and was the first to draw attention to the sexual role of stamen. As Grew himself relates in the preface of the 1682 edition, his earlier works had proved to be publishing successes and had quickly been translated into French and Latin. These translations (about which Grew himself had concerns) thus served to popularise his works for the continental market and as a result Grew’s Anatomy of Plants proved to be the most important text in the field of botanical science for over a hundred years. Perhaps one of the principal appeals of the 1682 edition was that it brought a host of Grew’s earlier books and tracts together in a composite edition. It included, among others, his Anatomy of Vegetables Begun (which had initially captured the attention of the Fellows of the Royal Society), his 1672 An Idea of a Philosophical History of Plants, as well as a host of discourses dating to the 1670s.


Bolam (1973) outlines Grew’s five methodologies: morphological, anatomical, chemical analysis, outlining the ‘principles’ of plants and, finally, an examination of the requirements to ensure plant growth. Anna Marie Roos (2007) draws attention to the third of these and demonstrates Grew’s particular interest in the salt chymistry of plants and their related geometrical structure, which we can clearly see here in plate 83. Grew’s 1677 tract The Colour of Plants (one of the many tracts included in the 1682 Anatomy of Plants) argued that the chymical reaction of salts in the air with plants affected the colour of both leaves and flowers. To find mout more about other botanical texts in the Worth Library see our online exhibition ‘Botany at the Worth Library’. If you’re interested in chemistry you’ll find out more about early modern chymistry at ‘Alchemy and Chemistry at the Worth Library’.


Anon, ‘An Account of Three Books’ (1683), Philosophical Transactions 13, 303-310.

Bolan, Jeanne (1973), ‘The Botanical Works of Nehemiah Grew, F. R.S. (1641-1712), Notes. Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 27 219-231.

Coppola, Al (2013), ‘ “Without the Help of Glasses”: The Anthropocentric Spectable of Nehemiah Grew’s Botany’, The Eighteenth Century 54, no 2, 263-277.

Grew, Nehemiah (1682), The Anatomy of Plants with an Idea of a Philosophical History of Plants. And several other Lectures Read before the Royal Society (London).

Hunter, Michael (1982), ‘Early Problems in professionalising Scientific Research’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 36, 189-209.

LeFanu, William (1990), Nehemiah Grew. A Study and Bibliography of his Writings  (Detroit).

Hunter, Michael (2009), ‘Grew, Nehemiah(bap. 1641, d.1712)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/11521, accessed 26 March 2014].

Roos, Anna Marie (2007), ‘Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) and the Saline Chymistry of Plants’, Ambix 54, no. 1, 51-68.

Wragge-Morley, Alexander (2010), ‘The Work of Verbal Picturing for John Ray and Some of his Contemporaries’, Intellectual History Review 20:1, 165-179.


Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

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