John Parkinson and the Rise of Botany in the 17th Century

By Guest Contributor Molly Nebiolo


John Parkinson, depicted in his monumental Theatrum botanicum (1640).

The roots of contemporary botany have been traced back to the botanical systems laid out by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Yet going back in further in time reveals some of the key figures who created some of the first ideas and publications that brought horticulture forward as a science. John Parkinson (1567-1650) is one of the foremost in that community of scientists. Although “scientist” was a word coined in the nineteenth century, I will be using it because it embodies the systematic acts of observation and experimentation to understand how nature works that I take Parkinson to be exploring. While “natural philosophy” was the term more commonly in use at the time, the simple word “science” will be used for the brevity of the piece and to stress the links between Parkinson’s efforts and contemporary fields. Parkinson’s works on plants and gardening in England remained integral to botany, herbalism, and medicinal healing for decades after his death, and he was one of the first significant botanists to introduce exotic flowers into England in the 17th century to study their healing properties. He was a true innovator for the field of botany, yet his work has not been heavily analyzed in the literature on the early modern history of science. The purpose of this post is to underline some of the achievements that can be  attributed to Parkinson, and to examine his first major text, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, a groundbreaking work in the field of history in the mid-1600s.

Parkinson grew up as an apprentice for an apothecary from the age of fourteen, and quickly rose in the ranks of society to the point of becoming royal apothecary to James I. His success resulted in many opportunities to collect plants outside of England, including trips to the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa in the first decade of the seventeenth century. At the turn of the seventeenth century, collectors would commonly accompany trading expeditions to collect botanical specimens to determine if they could prosper in English climate. Being the first to grow the great Spanish daffodil in England, and cultivating over four hundred plants in his own garden by the end of his life, Parkinson was looked up to as a pioneer in the nascent field of botanical science. He assisted fellow botanists in their own work, but he also was the founder of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and the author of two major texts as well.

His first book, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) reveals a humorous side to Parkinson, as he puts a play on words for his surname in the title: “Park-in-Sun.” This text, published in 1628, along with his second, more famous work published in 1640, Theatrum botanicum (The Theater of Plants), were both immensely influential to the horticultural and botanical corpori of work that were emerging during the first half of the 17th century. Just in the titles of both, we can see how much reverence Parkinson had for the intersection of fields he worked with: horticulture, botany, and medicine. By titling his second book The Theater of Plants, he creates a vivid picture of how he perceived gardens. Referencing the commonly used metaphor of the theater of the world, Parkinson compares plants as the actors in the the garden’s theatrum. It is also in Theatrum Botanicum that Parkinson details the medicinal uses of hundreds of plants that make up simple (medicinal) gardens in England. While both texts are rich for analysis, I want to turn attention specifically to Paradisus terrestris because I think it is a strong example of how botany and gardening were evolving into a new form of science in Europe during the seventeenth century.


Title page woodcut image for Paradisus Terrestris. Image courtesy of the College of Physicians Medical Library, Philadelphia, PA.

The folio pages of Paradisus terrestris are as large and foreboding as those of any early modern edition of the Bible. Chock full of thousands of detailed notes on the origins, appearance, and medical and social uses for pleasure gardens, kitchen gardens and orchards, one could only imagine how long it took Parkinson to collect this information. Paradisus terrestris was one of the first real attempts of a botanist to organize plants into what we now would term genuses and species. This encyclopedia of meticulously detailed, imaged and grouped plants was a new way of displaying horticultural and botanical information when it was first published. While it was not the first groundbreaking example of the science behind gardens and plants in western society, Luci Ghini potentially being the first, Parkinson’s reputation and network within his circle of botany friends and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries bridged the separation between the two fields. Over the course of the century,  the medicinal properties of a plant were coherently circulated in comprehensive texts like Parkinson’s as the Scientific Revolution and the colonization of the New World steadily increased access to new specimens and the tools to study them.



Paradisus terrestris includes many woodcut images of the flowers Parkinson writes about to help the reader better study and identify them. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, MO.

Another thing to note in Paradisus terrestris is the way Parkinson writes about plants in the introduction. While most of the book is more of a how-to narrative on how to grow a pleasure garden, kitchen garden, or orchard, the preface to the volume illustrates much about Parkinson as a botanist. Gardens to Parkinson are integral to life; they are necessary “for Meat or Medicine, for Use or for Delight” (2).  The symbiotic relationship between humans and plants is repeatedly discussed in how gardens should be situated in relationship to the house, and how minute details in the way a person interacts with a garden space can affect the plants. “The fairer and larger your allies [sic] and walks be the more grace your Garden shall have, the lesse [sic] harm the herbs and flowers shall receive…and the better shall your Weeders cleanse both the beds and the allies” (4). The preface divulges the level of respect and adoration Parkinson has towards plants. It illustrates the deep enthusiasm and curiosity he has towards the field, two features of a botanist that seemed synonymous for natural philosophers and collectors of the time.

John Parkinson was one of the first figures in England to merge the formalized study of plants with horticulture and medicine. Although herbs and plants have been used as medicines for thousands of years, it is in the first half of the seventeenth century that the medicinal uses of plants become a scientific attribute to a plant, as they were categorized and defined in texts like Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris and Theatrum botanicum. Parkinson is a strong example of the way a collector’s mind worked in the early modern period, in the way he titled his texts and the adoration that can be felt when reading the introduction of Paradisus terrestris. From explorer, to collector, horticulturist, botanist, and apothecary, the many hats Parkinson wore throughout his professional career and the way he weaved them together exemplify the lives many of these early scientists lived as they brought about the rise of these new sciences.

Molly Nebiolo is a PhD student in History at Northeastern University. Her research covers early modern science and medicine in North America and the Atlantic world and she is completing a Certificate in Digital Humanities. She also writes posts for the Medical Health and Humanities blog at Columbia University.

Review Essay: Caomhánach on Hamlin, Milam, and Schiebinger

By Contributing Editor Nuala F. Caomhánach

Kimberly A. Hamlin. From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Erika Lorraine Milam. Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology. Animals, History, Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Londa Schiebinger. Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Although women were excluded from the biological sciences, women were very much on the minds and the scientific research of the men who excluded them. The three books under review explore gender and natural history in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and European society. I argue that the books form a triad of analytically distinct interlocking pieces about the construction of sexual difference as a means of excluding women from the public sphere and science.  The authors use the categories of science, class and gender, not because they perceive them as natural, but because they recognize that these categories form lines of historical power. Hamlin’s From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (2014) examines how American feminists responded to and integrated Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in Gilded Age America. Milam’s Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology (2010) presents the history of post-Darwin biological research on the concept of female choice, showing how men were mediators between biology as a body of knowledge and society. Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science explores how the gender-binary has molded biology since the eighteenth century. This triad demonstrates how science reinforced the binary of gender and created associated traits, how science is not external to culture but forms a symbiotic relationship that reflects societal and political order, and how biology “is not value neutral but participates in and continues to support scientific knowledge that is highly gendered” (Schiebinger x).

Sexual Difference and the Rank of Woman


Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (New Brunswick, 2004).

Schiebinger argues that “scientific sexism” (xi), related to the concepts of the masculine and feminine, co-evolved with the emergence of modern biology. She shows the roots of sexual difference as being created by elite men who “read nature through the lens of social relations” (17).  When Hamlin’s Darwinian feminists challenged, and Milam’s (male) biologists tackled this sexual difference, they provide additional support for Schiebinger’s argument that the gender binary had become fully ingrained into society. Schiebinger explains how Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (1735) created a hierarchical system of the natural world. Although contemporary naturalists recognized his scheme being artificial, he placed female traits (pistils) into the rank of order and male traits (stamens) into the rank of class. In the “taxonomic tree of life”, order was subordinate to class (Schiebinger 17). In taxonomy, traits mattered; Linnaeus prioritized male traits for identification. Schiebinger argues that Linnaeus had “ no empirical justification” (17) for this decision and here lay the origins of gendering science.

For Hamlin, the Bible created the gender binary. Hamlin argues that the biblical creation narrative, for Darwinian feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was “the single most powerful barrier to female equality” (49). The legacy of Eve had shaped conceptions of womanhood. When Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) were published, these texts enabled woman’s rights activists to upend traditional ideas about gender roles. Hamlin shows how Darwin’s Origin provided the ideal “ballast” to fight this legacy by offering an alternative narrative of human origins (52). This new theory enabled woman’s rights activists to use objective science to subvert the assumptions that women were created from Adam’s rib and, therefore, subordinate to men.

Milam argues that Darwin’s sexual selection theory was “built on his assumptions about normative relations between men and women” (10). Darwin argued that the “psychological continuity of all animal life” proved sexual difference and supplied the reason why women were intellectually inferior to men (Milam 11). Darwin applied Victorian gender roles to nature, suggesting that females were “less eager” to mate and acted “coy” and “passive” to the aggressive, hypersexualised male (Milam 15). As males competed for females, females chose males. This implied a “rational choice-based behaviour” (1) of aesthetics which required an intelligent mind and “in such cerebral evaluations lay the problem” (15).  Biologists were hesitant to ascribe to animal minds this cognitive ability and reframed female choice as a reaction to male dominance. The female body, thus,  became the site of analysis.

Animal-Human Kinship and the Female Body

Schiebinger demonstrates how the masculine morphology in humans became representative of the normal form and the feminine an anomaly. Linnaeus delimited hairy, lactating quadrupeds as being mammals (Mammalia); at first this seems to invert Schiebinger’s argument but she shows how this descriptor did not elevate the feminine. It was a patriarchal lesson for women to return to their natural functions, such as breastfeeding and motherhood. As naturalists became obsessed with the primate order— Linnaeus coined the term “primates,” meaning “of the first rank,” in 1758 (Schiebinger 78)—they reinforced notions of sexual difference along the animal-human continuum.  Schiebinger argues that a focus on female primates’ primary and secondary characteristics advanced the masculine form as rational and intellectually superior. Milam explains that the biologist’s model of the female assumed they were naturally passive and always  “needed stimulation to persuade them to mate” (34). Biologists never questioned the male-female binary. The research of scientists Vernon Kellogg, Julian Huxley, and the Fisher-Haldane-Wright triumvirate rarely focused on female choice because they felt that Darwin’s natural selection theory sufficiently explained female-male interactions.

Hamlin explains how this animal-human kinship model supported Darwinian feminists’ demand for the equitable division of household labor, “fit pregnancy” (98), and ability to work outside the home because gendered differences did not characterize the animal kingdom. Hamlin shows how Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Antoinette Brown Blackwell declared the separate-spheres ideology a man-made construct. When Darwinian feminists argued that women as mothers could improve the genetic stock of the human species, it became a powerful tool for women to claim a natural right to reproductive autonomy. Hamlin notes that Margaret Sanger’s fight for autonomy over the female body and her birth control movement was shaped by these popular discussions. Milam shows how biology was intrinsically at odds with popular discussions of evolutionary theory.  Biologists and physiologists struggled to frame female choice, and thus they dismissed it as a viable mechanism in nature because females were limited in cognitive ability.

Science as a Male Pursuit

Hamlin shows how science became an “unwitting ally” (17) for Darwinian feminists and states that it metamorphosed into a “sexist science” as it increasingly “professionalized and masculinized” (59). Schiebinger, however, finds that science was always exclusionary. Schiebinger shows that botany was considered suitable for upper-class women, but they did not have the ability to shape biology.  Hamlin argues that women did shape science. Blackwell and Helen Hamilton Gardener tried to redefine the female “mind-body dualism” by asserting their distrust in the research findings of male scientists (59). Blackwell suggested that women needed to create the “science of feminine humanity” (60) because to study female bodies “one must turn to women themselves” (62). As science gained more cultural authority, Hamlin argues, Darwinian feminists played an active role in shaping science because they rejected biological determinism and demanded accurate research. Milam’s book provides historical evidence that biology was a male pursuit and women were always excluded.


These authors show that biology is not a neutral practice but emerges from complex cultural and political networks. They are impressive books that shed light on the development of modern biology and the popularization of evolutionary science by dethroning notions of objectivity in science, providing  a significant contribution to gender and science studies.