School of Physick

Nicholas Culpeper was born on 18th October 1616 in Surrey. His father having died only nineteen days before, Nicholas’s mother took her son to live with her father, William Attersole, the rector of St Margaret’s parish in Isfield, Sussex. Nicholas came from a prominent family, one branch of which owned Leeds Castle in Kent. Wakehurst Place in Sussex was the family seat of Nicholas’s father’s family; and Sir John Culpeper (created Baron in 1644) was a royalist who accompanied the future Charles II into exile in France, returning with him in 1660.

William Attersole, a scholarly Puritan, was keen for Nicholas to follow him into the church, and as a result, Nicholas attended Cambridge from 1632, however it was clear that he had far more interest in Astrology and ‘occult Philosophy’. By this time, he had also managed to fall madly in love with a beautiful young woman from Sussex. Unfortunately tragedy struck when, on the evening the two of them had chosen to meet and elope, she was struck by lightning and killed. Nicholas was naturally devastated, and subsequently left Cambridge for good.

Nicholas’s grandfather found him work in London with Mr White, an apothecary practising near Temple Bar. In 1639 Nicholas’s mother died, and a year later she was followed by his grandfather, who, disappointed in Nicholas for failing to enter the ministry, left him a paltry inheritance. Undeterred, in 1640 Nicholas married Alice Field, who brought with her enough of a fortune to pay for a house to be built in Red Lion Street, in the unfashionable district of Spitalfields, outside London’s city walls. Nicholas and Alice went on to have seven children, but only Mary, their fourth daughter, outlived her father.

By 1639 Nicholas was working for licensed apothecary Samuel Leadbetter. Apothecaries did more than just dispense medicine, they often diagnosed illnesses and prescribed remedies; activities which constantly brought them into conflict with the College of Physicians. For most people, the expense of consulting a qualified doctor or surgeon was beyond their means, and a visit to the local, and cheaper, apothecary was the preferred option.

No doubt as a result of the conflict between apothecaries and the College of Physicians, Nicholas was tried and acquitted of witchcraft on 17th December 1642. Then, in 1643, Leadbetter received two warnings from the Society of Apothecaries to stop employing Culpeper as his unlicensed assistant. During the same year Culpeper fought on the side of parliament in the civil war and received a serious chest wound from a musket ball, which probably contributed to his eventual death.

Even by the standards of the day, Culpeper’s political and religious views were radical. He hailed the death of Charles I, and remarked in print of Cromwell’s ascendancy, that people had ‘leapt out of the frying pan into the fire’. He also denounced ‘the monster called Religion’ and committed himself to the service of the sick among the poor and powerless. In 1644, Nicholas established his own practise at his house in Spitalfields. He had many clients, and was determined to enable the poor to help themselves. He began publishing books for their benefit. In 1650 he wrote, ‘My pen (if God permit me life and health) shall never lie still, till I have given them the whole model of Physick in the native language’ (A Physical Directory, 1650).

The College of Physicians was able to maintain its monopoly through the regular publication of the Pharmacopoeia, commonly known as the ‘London dispensatory’. This was in Latin, a language difficult even for some apothecaries, and impossible for the barely literate. Culpeper’s first project therefore was to translate the Pharmacopoeia into English; entitled A Physicall Directory, or, A Translation of the London Dispensatory, it was in print by 1649. He amended it with definitions of terms and explanations of the recipes. The response from the authorities was swift and condemnatory. The royalist news-sheet Mercurius Pragmaticus accused Culpeper of ‘mixing every receipt [recipe] therein with some scruples, at least, of rebellion or atheisme’, and of endeavouring ‘to bring into obloquy the famous societies of apothecaries and chyrurgeons’; and William Johnson, the college’s chemist, asked whether the result was ‘fit to wipe ones breeches withall’.

Nicholas’s books continued apace. He published his A Directory for Midwives (1651), and Semiotica uranica, or, An Astrological Judgement of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick (1651). There were also more translations from Latin into English. But his greatest achievement was his The English Physitian, or, An astrologo-physical discourse on the vulgar herbs of this nation, being a compleat method of physick, whereby a man may preserve his body in health, or cure himself, being sick (1652).


Costing 3d, it provided a comprehensive list of native medicinal herbs, indexed to a list of illnesses, and was set out in a straightforward and accessible style. It was an immediate success. One edition of 1708 was printed in Boston; along with the translated Pharmacopoeia, printed in 1720, there were the first medical books published in North America.

On 10th January 1654, Nicholas died at home in Red Lion Street, Spitalfields, of consumption, aggravated by excessive tobacco smoking, and possibly his war wound. He was only thirty-eight. He was buried in the new graveyard of Bethlem Hospital. His fame outlived him, and his printer issued further posthumous books in Culpeper’s name, with the blessing of his widow Alice.

Culpeper’s importance in the development of medicine in early modern England is beyond dispute. He brought cheap and sophisticated remedies to poverty-stricken illiterate Londoners; and according to a 2009 edition entitled Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, his The English Physician has been continually in print since the seventeenth century, and is thought to be the most widely disseminated secular English text ever to have existed.

Sources: Patrick Curry, DNB; Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Diana Vowels, Arcturus Publishing (2009)

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One comment

  • January 4, 2010 - 5:11 pm | Permalink

    As ever, utterly fascinating. The translation of the Pharmacopoeia seems like an exemplary democratic act. I wonder how many copies of the translation were owned and used in preference to the ‘official’ text because it was easier to read in English? And, as a result, how many patients received better treatment?

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