William Turner

William Turner, 1509-1568

The first and seconde partes of the herbal of William Turner Doctor in Phisick : lately ouersene, corrected and enlarged with the thirde parte, lately gathered, and nowe set oute with the names of the herbes, in Greke Latin, English, Duche, Frenche, and in the apothecaries and herbaries Latin, with the properties, degrees, and naturall places of the same ; here vnto is ioyned also a booke of the bath of Baeth in England, and of the vertues of the same with diuerse other bathes, moste holsom and effectuall, both in Almanye and England / set furth by William Turner Doctor in Phisick ; God saue the Quene.

Turner came to the study of natural history through medicine, a not uncommon path for many that would become natural historians. He studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge where he secured a B.A. in 1530 and an M. A. in 1533. He traveled to continental Europe in 1542 to further his medical education. During his travels, Turner met Conrad Gessner in Zurich and the two became life long friends, and finished his medical degree (exactly where is unknown but it was mostly likely at the University of Bologna).

While trained as a physician, Turner was mostly interested in the medical use of plants. He published several books on the subject, his most famous being his A New Herball, the first part of which was published in 1551, followed by part 2 in 1562 and part 3 in 1568. The Herball was unusual for its time because it was one of the first herbals written in English, not Latin, and therefore made it more approachable to the reading audience of the time. The book contains detailed descriptions of plants found in England, an image of what they look like, any folklore about the plant and finally its medical uses. This last fact caused the book to be criticized for placing medical knowledge into the hands of those untrained in medicine, but may have also lead to the book’s popularity.

The first and seconde partes of the herbal of William Turner Doctor in Phisick

Turner notes early on in his work the various sources that he has built upon. Among them include classical authors such as Dioscorides and Pliny, but also contemporary natural historians, such as Gessner and Mattioli. This serves as a means of establishing Turner’s credentials by showing that not only has he read the classical works on plants, but that he also has been in contact with the wider natural history community and earned their support. 

William Turner