Historical botanical illustration of the day

Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell, transit of Venus, curse of Venus, Guillaume Le Gentil,

With the Jupiter-Venus conjunction now passed and thoughts beginning to turn to the transit of Venus in June, articles on the subject will no doubt proliferate – some of them perhaps even penned by yours truly.

One that caught my eye the other day came from The Sydney Morning Herald. It told the story of Guillaume Le Gentil, or to give him his full name, Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisière – the 18th century explorer who has previously been thought of as possibly the unluckiest Frenchman ever.

For its account of Le Gentil’s tale, the Herald chose the headline ‘The curse of Venus’.

This phrase had a rather different meaning in Le Gentil’s time, along with ‘Cupid’s itch’ used to refer to syphilis or gonorrhea – diseases 18th century European explorers helped to spread as they traversed the globe in pursuit of adventure.

The predominant treatment at the time was mercury, but this had various unpleasant side effects such as nausea, vomiting and excessive salivation, which itself destroyed gums and teeth and caused long-term dysentery.

Herbal and plant remedies became increasingly popular alternatives and, for their proponents, symbolized moral purity as well. The oldest well-known vegetable ‘cure’ for venereal disease was Guaiacum or ‘the bark’ – the variety Guaiacum officinale, above, being one of the most effective.

The illustration is taken from Hermann Köhler’s 1887 three-volume publication, Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, the artwork for which came from Franz Eugen Köhler.

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