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History Of Botany

Aristotle and Theophrastus, living in ancient Greece about the fourth century B.C., were both involved in identifying plants and describing them. Theophrastus is called the "father of botany," because of his two surviving works on plant studies. While Aristotle also wrote about plants, he received more recognition for his studies of animals.

The early study of plants was not limited to Western cultures. The Chinese developed the study of botany along lines similar to the ancient Greeks at about the same time. In A.D. 60, another Greek, Dioscorides, wrote De Materia Medica, a work that described a thousand medicines, 60% of which came from plants. It remained the guidebook on medicines in the Western world for 1,500 years until the compound microscope was invented in the late sixteenth century, opening the way to the careful study of plant anatomy.

During the seventeenth century progress was made in experimenting with plants. Johannes van Helmont measured the uptake of water in a tree during the 1640s, and in 1727 Stephen Hales, an Englishman who is credited with establishing plant physiology as a science, published his experiments dealing with the nutrition and respiration of plants in a work entitled Vegetable Staticks. He developed techniques to measure area, volume, mass, pressure, gravity, and temperature in plants. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, Joseph Priestley laid the foundation for the chemical analysis of plant metabolism.

During the nineteenth century advances were made in the study of plant diseases because of the potato blight that killed potato crops in Ireland in the 1840s, an event that led to a mass migration of Irish to America. The study of plant diseases developed rapidly after this event. When the work in genetics by Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, was applied after 1900 to plant breeding, the development of modern plant genetics began. During the early part of the nineteenth century, progress in the study of plant fossils was made, and ecology began to develop as a science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Technology has helped specialists in botany to see and understand the three-dimensional nature of cells, and genetic engineering of plants has improved agricultural output. The study of plants continues as botanists try to both understand the structure, behavior, and cellular activities of plants in order to develop better crops, find new medicines, and explore ways of maintaining an ecological balance on Earth to continue to sustain both plant and animal life.

See also Taxonomy.



Campbell, N., J. Reece, and L. Mitchell. Biology. 5th ed. Menlo Park: Benjamin Cummings, Inc. 2000.

Evans, Howard Ensign. Pioneer Naturalists. New York: Holt, 1993.

Heiser, Charles B. Of Plants and People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Morton, A.G. History of Botanical Science. London: Academic Press, 1981.

Roth, Charles E. The Plant Observer's Guidebook. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Vita Richman

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Boolean algebra to Calcium PropionateBotany - History of botany