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Fine affinities

A fine compendium

Anonymous 19th-century botanical dictionary had strong ties to chemistry

Far left: close-up of the handwritten dictionary. Left: drawing of a clove, from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1887 of a clove, from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen,

For more than a century, a 1,657-page manuscript of botanical entries arranged in alphabetical order lay forgotten, scattered among shelves and drawers. In 2003, while the researcher Nadja Paraense dos Santos was devoting some time to studies at the Historical Archives of the Imperial Museum in Petrópolis, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, she was asked to evaluate the importance of these piles of paper, which contained numerous references to the chemical analysis of plants. Dos Santos, who has a background in both chemical engineering and the history of science, realized that this was a valuable document worthy of special attention. It proved to be a previously unheard-of dictionary of botany, bearing no date and no author’s name.

“The book is from the 19th century – most likely written by more than one person – and it was stored in the imperial family’s archive,” says dos Santos, professor with the Graduate Program in Epistemology and the History of the Science of Technology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (HCTE-UFRJ). The dictionary, which has no cover and no illustrations, comprises descriptive texts of 2,000 plants, each listed according to its popular name in Portuguese; this is followed by the plant’s scientific designation, sometimes supplied by more than one author. “The book was meant to be more accessible to the general public; it could be understood, for instance, by any ranch owner.”

Entries for 334 of the 2,000 plants are complete, with sections on natural history, chemical analysis, and plant properties. Natural history information reports the known origin of the species and provides a description of its appearance; chemical analysis tells about the consistency, taste, smell, and substances of which the plant is composed; and under properties, the authors explain the plant’s role in curing disease. “One of the novel things about this work in the context of its times is the strong link between chemistry and botany,” observes Heloisa Maria Bertol Domingues, historian of science at the Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences (Mast)  in Rio de Janeiro and currently acting director of the museum.

drawings of the trumpet tree, juniper tree, and barberry, from Otto Wilhelm Thomé’s Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885

Otto Wilhelm Thomé’s Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz Drawings of the juniper tree, from Otto Wilhelm Thomé’s Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885Otto Wilhelm Thomé’s Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz

Another important point, according to Domingues, was the authors’ interest in folk knowledge. “They were concerned with validating it – or not – for the public,” she says. Along with sensory and chemical descriptions of the plants, the dictionary also features phytogeographical information. Whenever possible, the entries indicate the regions where certain species are more common in Brazil and what people called them.

In a project made possible thanks to the support of Mast and the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation, dos Santos and Domingues joined efforts to study the dictionary and try to identify its authors. They were unsuccessful in the latter endeavor. “We thought that Theodoro Peckolt, a German naturalist and pharmacist who settled in Brazil, or Friar Mariano Velloso might have compiled the manuscript, but we were unable to prove these hypotheses,” explains dos Santos. The most recent reference cited in the book is dated 1865, which suggests that the work did not advance beyond that year.

Elaine Andrade Lopes, a research fellow at Mast and a student at UFRJ’s program in the history of science, transcribed the original manuscript. She noted that the document displayed differences in style, vocabulary, and handwriting, which are indications that the task was taken up by several pairs of hands. “There are many citations from Brazilian and foreign periodicals and books, especially French, as well as citations of naturalists and physicians from that era,” says Lopes. According to the student, the authors copied what they believed to be reliable information from almanacs, magazines, and books, but not always did they credit their sources. This is not to say, however, that they themselves did not personally perform some chemical analyses.

In order to make at least the most important part of the dictionary available to the public, Domingues and dos Santos designed a multimedia project that is hosted on Mast’s web site. Online since October 2012, these 334 entries can be accessed at under the title “A química e o dicionário anônimo de botânica” (Chemistry and the anonymous botanical dictionary). The researchers illustrated almost all of these online entries with plates of plants that were drawn at around the same estimated time as the anonymous work. The same has been done on these two pages.