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Robert Morison

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Robert Morison


Robert Morison,

Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis seu herbarum distributio nova (Oxford and London, 1715), vol 1,

portrait of Morison.

The Scottish botanist Robert Morison, born in Aberdeen in 1620, was intended by his parents for a career in the Church but was wounded in the Civil War battle of the Bridge of Dee in 1644, fighting on the royalist side. He fled to France where he studied medicine and graduated MD in 1648 at Angers. Recommended by Louis XIV’s botanist, he became a physician in the household of Gaston d’Orleans (1608-1660), the uncle of the King, but his main focus seems to have been working in the Duke’s garden at Blois. From there he travelled extensively throughout France in search of new species for the garden and refining his ideas on plant classification. Returning to England at the invitation of the newly restored Charles II (1630-1685), he became royal physician and Professor of Botany in Oxford in 1669. One of his first publications for the newly revived University Press was the Hortus Regius Blesensis (1669) , the catalogue of the Blois garden to which Morison added the description of 260 previously un-described plants, although Pulteney (1781) says many were only varieties and others were already well known.


Robert Morison, Plantarum umbelliferarum distributio nova (Oxford, 1672), Tab 1.

In 1672, Morison published his Plantarum umbelliferarum distribution nova. The Umbelliferae are a distinctive family of plants to which the carrot and parsley belong and are now called Apiaeae. They were identified by Dodoens as a distinct group for the first time in his Stirpium Historiae Pemptades Sex sive Libri XXX of 1583. Using a classification based on seed characteristics supplemented by differences in vegetative features such as leaf pattern, Morison divided plants with umbel type inflorescences into different genera of true umbellifers and those which were ‘Umbellae improprie dicto’ from different genera such as Valeriana, Filipendula, and Thalictrum .He illustrated his thesis with 12 plates, the first of which set out in schematic form the general relationships between the nine different species of true umbella he identifies and the falsely identified ones, based on seed characteristics. Such schematic ’branching diagrams’ of various complexity were increasingly used in the Early Modern Period as part of the drive to cope with and organize the ‘information overload’ affecting all areas of scholarship (Blair, 2010). In the upper left hand corner, he takes Group I the Cachyres (a form of umbelliferous plant from southern Italy) ‘semine fungoso’ with a spongy seed and he subdivides them into two subgroups, those with ‘laevi’ or smooth seeds and those with ‘sulcato’ or furrowed seeds. The sulcato are then further subdivided into those with a rough surface ‘aspero’ or with a ‘plano’ flat or even surface . In his description accompanying this part of the diagram, he also notes differences in leaf pattern between the main laevi and sulcato groups.


Robert Morison, Plantarum umbelliferarum distributio nova (Oxford, 1672), Seeds.

To illustrate these seed differences, the last of the twelve plates is a large fold out sheet of the seeds set out in group order with an explanatory legend on the opposite page. For example, in the above image the first two seeds on the left marked Aa are examples of the Laevi or Smooth seeded Cachyres, Bb those of the rough furrowed (sulcato, aspero) species and Cc of the flat furrowed (sulcato, plano) species. Seed numbers 45-72 belong to the genera of plants incorrectly identified as umbellifers.  The coat of arms of the Oxford Doctor of Laws who subscribed to the cost of the plate is in the lower right hand corner. The need for subscribers reflected the costs of production of these painstakingly detailed engravings and difficulties in funding the expensive plates of his new work of Plantarum Historiae Universalis Oxoniensis seu Herbarum distributio nova, which Morison had been working on between 1669-1672, led to a long delay in publishing this work. Although he managed to get some members of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society to fund plates, he had to take out three loans of £200 each from the University Press to fund the remaining costs and fell deeply into debt.

Only Part II of Plantarum historiae Universalis Oxoniensis covering only the first five out of 15 projected sections on herbs was published in 1680, three years before he was killed in a street accident. His papers passed to Jacob Bobart the Younger (1641-1719), the keeper of the Oxford Physic garden, who completed the section on herbs. Eventually, with the support of the Oxford University Press, Part III was published in 1699. Part I on Trees and Shrubs was never published and according to Pulteney (1781) there were doubts that it had ever been written, although he says the German botanist Schelhammer (1649-1716) said he had seen the whole work when he visited Morison’s house. Pulteney considered the classification system in this work to be to be based to a variable degree on the fruit, habit of the plant and seed characteristics depending on the class of plant being described.


Robert Morison, Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis seu herbarum distributio nova

(Oxford and London, 1715), vol 1, Tab 23.

The Worth copy is a 1715 reprinting of the Oxford texts of Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis seu herbarum distributio nova of 1680-1699. Between the 2 volumes, there are 286 copper plates with over 3,500 figures. The two plates selected are Tab 23 from Section 2 and Tab 25 from section 3 of the first Volume which covers Herbs. The crests of the subscribers can be seen in the bottom right hand corner in both. Tab 23 shows 11 plants, most of which are members of the Fabaceae or Leguminosae, the Legume or Pea family, apart from the two plants in the bottom row which are identifiable as species of Potentilla from the Roseacea family. What is perhaps most striking is the long descriptive names given to the plants: Potentilla fructicosa L, the plant in the centre of the bottom row, Morison calls Pentaphylloides maximus rectum fructicosum Eboracense (Eboracense = from York) and his name for Potentilla repens L to the right of it has a total of 11 words in the title.  Tab 25 shows 12 plants which Morison identifies as ‘Siliquosae’ – these are now known as Brassicaceae (formerly Cruciferae) most of which have equally long names..

Morison drew much criticism from his contemporaries as he stated that he had derived his schema from the book of Nature alone and did not mention his debt to Cesalpino whose system he closely followed. Nor did he cite his works even though a heavily annotated copy of Cesalpino’s De Plantis is in the Oxford Botanic gardens which according to Vines (1913) can only have been by Morison. Linnaeus who used Morison’s figures as the type for 40 of his names gives a balanced assessment in a letter of 1737 to Haller quoted by Vines:

Morison was vain, yet he cannot be sufficiently praised for having revived system which was half expiring. If you look through Tournefort’s genera you will readily admit how much he owes to Morison, full as much as the latter was indebted to Cesalpino though Tournefort himself was a conscientious investigator. All that is good in Morison is taken from Cesalpino, from whose guidance he wanders in pursuit of natural affinities rather than of characters.’


Robert Morison, Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis seu herbarum distributio nova

(Oxford and London, 1715), vol 1, Tab 25.


Blair, A. M (2010), Too Much to Know Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (Yale University Press).

Jarvis, C. (2007) Order out of Chaos Linnean Plant names and their Types (The Linnaean Society of London in Association with the Natural History Museum, London ).

Pulteney Richard (1781) Historical and biographical sketches of the progress of botany in England, from its origin to the introduction of the Linnæan system (London), chapter 23, pp. 298-312.

Ray, John (1973) Synopsis methodical Stirpium Britannicarum 1724 (London, The Ray Society), pp 256, 257.

Mandelbrote, Scott (2004), ‘Morison, Robert (1620–1683)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press).

Vines, S. H. (1913), Robert Morison 1620-1683 and John Ray1627-1705 in Makers of British Botany A Collection of Biographies by Living Botanists edited by F. W. Oliver (Cambridge University Press).

Zomlefer, W. B., (1994) Guide to Flowering Plant Families (The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and London).


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