SINCE the writings of Cullen, Murray, and Woodville appeared in Europe, few authors of any celebrity have written on the Materia Medica. Consequently few discoveries were published, of any note, or which added any thing very important to the science; and thirty years ago the knowledge these authors communicated to the world, was not enriched by the addition of a single valuable medicine from North America. About the year 1786, a German physician, named Schoepf, [Dr. Schoepf, of Erlangen, in Germany, was a botanist, who came to this country with the German troops during the revolutionary war.] visited our country, and employed himself in collecting materials for an American Materia Medica. It cannot be supposed that in a country like ours, rich in the production of new and curious plants, domestic medicine would be neglected by the natives or inhabitants; or that the practitioner who might think proper to employ indigenous medicinal plants in his practice, would stand in need of useful remedies. Accordingly we find, that not only the Indians of our country, and the European inhabitants who emigrated hither, but the farmers who were scattered over its extensive territory, had long been in the habit of curing the common diseases incidental to their state of life, by means of indigenous vicinal plants. Many of the vegetables thus employed had considerable reputation. It is not unlikely that some were undeservedly praised, while it would be unreasonable to suppose that all of those which had acquired repute, were undeserving attention. Dr. Schoepf, however, set himself assiduously to investigate all such plants as were reputed to possess medicinal powers; and, satisfying himself, by ocular proof, of the real species in question, he was enabled, by ascertaining their botanical characters and history, to present us with some certain facts for future experiment. In 1787, he published the result of his labours in a small work, entitled Materia Medica Americana potissimum Regni Vegetabilis. This performance laid the foundation of all the information we now possess, concerning our native medicinal plants. Besides this work, a paper was published in the Amoenitates Academicae (vol. iv. Dissertatio LXXII. p. 522.) entitled Specifica Canadensium, in which Coelln, the author, enumerated and described some few indigenous medicinal plants. On the 2 1st of February, 1798, the late professor Barton read a paper before the Philadelphia Medical Society, entitled "Collections for an Essay towards a Materia Medica of the United States." This paper contains a summary of all that had been done by those who preceded him, relative to our Materia Medica; and also an addition of several articles which, from information received by the author concerning their properties he deemed sufficiently important to be ranked among our native medicines. In the year 1804, the professor published a second part of the "Collections," containing many additional facts relative to the plants enumerated in the first part, and a brief notice of some other important vegetables of active properties. These "Collections" are carelessly thrown together; and it is to be regretted, without even sufficient method, to render them useful. In this state they have gone through three editions, making in the last an octavo of 120 pages. The plants enumerated, are spoken of merely by their names, and the work is destitute of any kind of description calculated to assist the country physician or botanist.
The travels of Lewis and Clarke led to high expectations in every branch of science. The observations and inquiries of these gentlemen, particularly the former, were directed, among other things, to the medicines and aliments of our Indians; and they have given a large portion of information of a very interesting nature on these points. Unfortunately however for science, this information is not communicated in such a way, as to enable the botanist, the physician, or the agriculturist, to draw very efficiently upon the extensive sources of knowledge they present. A want of accurate descriptions of mixed cinal and alimentary plants, deprives us of half the value of their discoveries.
Except these publications, there has appeared but little on the Materia Medica, in the United States. In the American dispensatory published by professor Coxe, many of our medicinal vegetables are incorporated with the foreign articles of medicine. This valuable work has given considerable importance to the native plants enumerated in it; besides which professor Barton added such as he esteemed most useful, to his edition of "Cullen's Materia Medica."
Dr. Thatcher's Dispensatory contains also an enumeration of some of our native medicines, but nothing more than those which stand in the works of Professrs. Barton and Coxe just mentioned; and in the little Pharmacopoeia published by the Massachusetts Medical Society, a few are noticed. In Professor Chapman's "Discourses on the Elements of Therapeutics and Materia Medica" now in the press, the prominent indigenous articles are, I understand, treated of; and the same importance attached to them which that gentleman was accustomed to give in his Lectures on the Materia Medica, to all useful native medicines.
The University of Pennsylvania is annually filled by a numerous train of pupils, many of whom settle and practice physic in the wilds of our country. The author supposed that a work describing our own medicinal productions, emanating from the school whither they resort, would be likely to disseminate a knowledge of the properties and uses of our native medicines, in those parts of our country where such knowledge is highly serviceable. From a close attention to our Materia Medica, and from some experiments he has recently made, he is convinced that not a few of our indigenous plants are sufficiently important, to be introduced into the daily practice of physicians. The well-known deterioration of many foreign medicines in common use, renders it still more desirable to supersede them by the general employment of native productions. Hitherto this has been impracticable, owing to the want of some certain means of particularizing those plants, the properties of which are most valuable. Good medicines have fallen into disrepute, from the resemblance of inert to active plants; and although there is always something in a plant which distinguishes it from every other vegetable, yet the discrepancy is occasionally so equivocal, that common observers are wholly unable to profit by it without a good drawing. This will not appear surprising, when it is remembered, that even botanists are sometimes perplexed with the close alliances in the habit and structure of plants.
The exposition of these circumstances is sufficient to shew the importance of presenting the public with a work containing a full description and history of the native medicinal plants which have been introduced by their names, and some few remarks on their properties, into the works already noticed; and to enable every one to identify the precise plants described, good coloured engravings of them are indispensable.
The author of the following pages has undertaken the task of drawing and describing all the important plants of a medicinal character, native to the United States, which are known; and also of figuring and describing many never before noticed for medical properties. In all the drawings, many of which are already finished* the greatest accuracy will be studied; and with a view to render the work as correct as possible, the author encounters the laborious task of colouring all the plates with his own hand. Since faithful colouring is nearly as important in a work of this nature, as correct drawings, he trusts that the usefulness of the undertaking will be enhanced by this part of his labour. In the history of the plants nothing will be omitted, which can render the work interesting.
Three years have been passed in collecting materials for this work. The author has already delivered three courses of public lectures to the medical students of the University of Pennsylvania, on the plants which will be described; and he announced to the members of his class, in May 1816, his intention of publishing the system of Indigenous Vegetable Materia Medica, of which he now presents the first number.
As it is probable that country practitioners of medicine residing in different parts of the United States, are possessed of much useful information derived from experience, concerning our native medicines, the author earnestly solicits communications on this subject.
Due credit will always be given for any facts on good authority, communicated in this manner.
The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania having recently purchased forty-two acres of rich and watered land, near to Philadelphia, for the establishment of a Botanic-Garden: physicians residing in the different parts of our country, who have it in their power, will contribute materially to this institution, by transmitting to the author, seeds or roots of such plants as they have found possessed of active medicinal virtues.
Philadelphia, July 1, 1817.