Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

H. Beukers:

Japanese plant collections in the context of early nineteenth century medicine


When, in the early eighteenth century, the Dutch government was re-installed after the British occupation of the Dutch colonies, it assumed responsibility for the investigation en development of natural resources of the Indies. The promotion of investigations of the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdom extended to Japan. Since Japan’s closure in the 1640's, the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to keep a trading post in Nagasaki, in an almost isolated position. The Dutch government’s new policy was to revive and even expand commercial relations with Japan. In that context the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies thought it absolutely necessary to gather more information about the geography of Japan, its natural resources, its inhabitants etc. In 1823 he charged the 27 year-old physician Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) with these investigations.

Von Siebold was born in a family of famous medical professors and followed the family tradition studying medicine at Würzburg University. He had a deep interest in natural history, particularly in non-European countries. For that reason he accepted the appointment as health officer in the Dutch East Indies Army in 1822. After a four months’ stay in Java, he accepted the position as station doctor at the Dutch settlement in Nagasaki. Siebold’s first visit lasted a good six years.

Although his first publication (De historia naturalis in Japonia statu, 1824) was mainly about zoology, his main interest turned out to be in botany. With the assistance of his students and Japanese scholars he collected specimens: more than 6,000 of 2,000 species. Moreover his collection included more than 400 drawings and about 80 books and manuscripts on botany. Von Siebold maintained relations with colleagues in Europe, in particular with C.G.D. Nees von Esenbeck, president of the Leopoldina. Through this channel Von Siebold informed the European scientific world about the position of botany in Japan.

In line with one of the purposes of his mission, Von Siebold published a synopsis of economic interesting plants. Materia pharmaceutica took an important position among these plants. When, after his return to the Netherlands, a permanent ‘Japan Museum’ was organized in Leiden, a great number of Japanese drugs were on display. In a sense Von Siebold tried to find a market for Japanese herbal medicaments. Von Siebold’s morphological studies and his knowledge of the Japanese botanical literature were crucial in the question as to the identity of Illicium anisatum, Lour., (true star-anise; Jap.: kaiko) with poisonous Illicium religiosum, S&Z (Jap.: shikimi)