A la découverte du Brésil avec l’Historia naturalis Brasiliae

Au 17e siècle, le Brésil est une terre portugaise depuis sa découverte en 1500 par le navigateur Pedro Álvares Cabral. Toutefois, une enclave hollandaise existe entre 1624 et 1654 au nord-est du Brésil. C’est dans ce contexte que deux hollandais, le médecin Willem Piso et l’astronome Georg Marggrav, accompagnent en 1638 le prince de Nassau dans son voyage au Brésil. C’est l’occasion pour les deux savants d’explorer le territoire et d’en répertorier la faune et la flore.

Titre-frontispice

Leurs découvertes sont rassemblées en 1648 par le géographe Johannes De Laet dans un livre intitulé Historia naturalis Brasiliae. Cet ouvrage est considéré comme le premier traité scientifique sur le Brésil. La bibliothèque Osler possède un exemplaire de l’édition originale (Osler room – folio P678h 1648), imprimée à Leyde, par la célèbre maison Elzevier. Le titre-frontispice est particulièrement travaillé : il s’agit d’une gravure colorée à la main, qui semble évoquer le Brésil comme un nouveau Paradis. On y voit deux indigènes, dans une végétation luxuriante, entourés de nombreux animaux (perroquets, singes, fourmiliers, serpents, poissons, crabes, tortues, paresseux…).

Le livre se compose de deux parties : le De medicina Brasiliensi écrit par Willem Piso, et l’Historia rerum naturalium Brasiliae de Georg Marggrav. L’ensemble, organisé et complété par Johannes De Laet,  est richement illustré par plus de quatre cents gravures sur bois.

Un moulin à sucre

Dans son De medicina Brasiliensi, Willem Piso recense les maladies et les venins qui existent au Brésil, ainsi que leurs remèdes locaux. Il y décrit également les vertus thérapeutiques des plantes (De facultatibus simplicium). On trouve d’ailleurs une explication très intéressante de la fabrication du sucre de canne (De saccharo).

Homme en habit traditionnel

La seconde partie, l’Historia rerum naturalium Brasiliae, rédigée par Georg Marggrav, recense les plantes, les poissons, les animaux et les insectes du Brésil. Une rapide description du pays et de ses habitants est également incluse : Marggrav y évoque les coutumes des indigènes du Brésil (vêtements, religion, nourriture… et même la langue avec un bref lexique incorporé dans le texte).

Une espèce de fruit de la passion

Un fourmilier

L’Historia naturalis Brasiliae a fait connaître en Europe de nouvelles plantes médicinales (comme l’ipecacuanha, utilisée notamment pour traiter la dysenterie). Il est devenu un ouvrage de référence pour les naturalistes européens tout au long des 17e et 18e siècles: son influence est notamment perceptible dans les travaux de Buffon et de Linné. C’est un riche témoignage des tentatives de description et de compréhension de la nature au 17e siècle.

 

Bibliographie:

Brienen R. P., Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Court Painter in Colonial Dutch Brazil, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2006.

Charlot C, Guibert M.-S., “Petite histoire de la Racine Brésilienne en France au 17ème siècle”, 38e Congrès international d’histoire de la Pharmacie, Séville, 19-22 septembre 2007, disponible en ligne.

Galloway J. H., “Tradition and innovation in the American sugar Industry, c. 1500- 1800: an explanation”, Annals of the Association of American geographers, 75, 3, 1985.

Medeiros M. F. T., Albuquerque U. P., “Abstract food flora in 17th century northeast region of Brazil in Historia Naturalis Brasiliae”, Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 10, 50, 2014.

Safier N., “Beyond Brazilian nature: the editorial itineraries of Marcgraf and Piso’s Historia Naturalis Brasiliae”, dans Van Groesen M. (ed.), The Legacy of Dutch Brazil, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Walker T. D., “The medicines trade in the Portuguese Atlantic world: acquisition and dissemination of healing knowledge from Brazil (c. 1580–1800)”, Social history of medicine, 26, 3, 2013.

Whitehead P. J. P., Boeseman M., A portrait of Dutch 17th century Brazil : animals, plants, and people by the artists of Johan Maurits of Nassau, Amsterdam – Oxford – New-York, North-Holland Publishing Company, 1989.

 

 

History of biology in the Osler Library

The history of natural history and biology is heavily represented in the collection of the Osler Library, not just because of their important place in the history of medicine, but also in the life story of the library’s founder.

Coloured sketches by W. A. Johnson. William Arthur Johnson Fonds, P139, Osler Library

Coloured sketches by W. A. Johnson.
William Arthur Johnson Fonds, P139, Osler Library

William Osler (1849-1919) grew up in Bond Head, Ontario, surrounded by books. His father’s theological library had around 1,500 items. The young Osler had his first glimpse of a scientific library when he left home to attend Trinity College School (located today in Port Hope, Ontario). The Warden of the school, Reverend W.A. Johnson (1816-1889), according to Osler, “a good friend, botanist, a practical palaeontologist, an ardent microscopist,” inspired Osler with a passion for natural history.

While studying Anglican divinity at Trinity College, Toronto, Osler spent two years living with James Bovell, the Chair of Natural Theology at Trinity College and a member of the Toronto School of Medicine faculty, assisting him in his work. He would often go out to collect various samples of algae and other specimens to fix onto slides for Bovell. His first publication, “Christmas and the Microscope” (1869) demonstrated his love for and proficiency at microscopy. Osler transferred from Trinity College to the Toronto School of Medicine, and then ultimately to the Medical Faculty at McGill University to pursue the greater clinical opportunities available to medical students in Montreal.

Coloured sketches by W. A. Johnson. William Arthur Johnson Fonds, P139, Osler Library

Coloured sketches by W. A. Johnson.
William Arthur Johnson Fonds, P139, Osler Library

Osler’s affinity for natural history flourished during his stay at McGill. Through another mentor, Dr. Palmer Howard, Dean of the McGill Faculty of Medicine, Sir William was introduced to some of the foundational works in the field of life sciences, including those of Laennec, Stokes, and Graves. Osler’s thesis was based on the preparation of gross and microscopic slides from twenty autopsies. After graduation, he considered the India Medical Service, but opted to remain in Montreal, so as to pursue his work in microscopy. He was offered the Chair of Botany at McGill because of this expertise, but turned the position down in favour of a lectureship in Physiology. He became Chair of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in 1884, where he was a member of the Biology Club. His bibliophilia was inspired by places such as the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. Osler moved to the Johns Hopkins University in 1889, where in 1893 he played an instrumental role in the creation of the Johns Hopkins Medical School and teaching hospital.  He was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University in 1905. At Oxford he served equally as a curator of the Bodleian Library and was heavily involved in the work of the Bibliographical Society of London. In Oxford, he had the leisure time to devote himself to his passion for book collecting, designing a library that would contain the most significant works produced in the history of medicine and science.

Come see a selection of works of natural history and biology in a special exhibition up now in the Osler Room of the Osler Library.