The Biology Book: From the Origin of Life to Epigenetics, 250 Milestones in the History of Biology (2015)


Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Theophrastus (372–287 BCE)

c. 320 BCE

What Aristotle’s writings were to zoology, Theophrastus’s were to botany. Prior to Theophrastus, interest in plants was focused upon their use as foods and drugs. His two books on plants, written about 320 BCE, were the first scientific and systematic study of their nature and represented the primary sources of botanical knowledge during antiquity and into the Middle Ages. Under the direction of Pope Nicholas V, in about 1450, the classical works in the Vatican library were translated from Greek into Latin, with Theophrastus’s published in 1483.

Born on the Greek island of Lesbos, he became a student and later friend of Aristotle at his Peripatetic School in Athens. When Aristotle was forced to leave Athens in 322 BCE, he bequeathed Theophrastus his writings. Theophrastus was also appointed his successor at the Lyceum, a position he very successfully held for thirty-five years, attracting, at one time, over 2,000 students.

At the Lyceum, Theophrastus had a garden with some 2,000 plants, which is thought to be the world’s first botanical garden. He focused his attention on cultivated plants—some 500–550 in number—collected from the lands bordering the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. (Over 300,000 plants are now known to exist.) His personal observations and collections were supplemented by specimens and descriptions of plants gathered during the military travels of Alexander the Great in Asia, plants unknown in the Greek world; these included the cotton plant, pepper, cinnamon, and the banyan tree.

THE FATHER OF BOTANY. Theophrastus’s Enquiry into Plants focused on the classification and description of plants and divided the plant kingdom into flowering (angiosperm) and nonflowering (gymnosperm) plants. The Causes of Plants examined the physiology, growth, and cultivation of plants, the latter aspect served as the foundation of horticulture. Collectively, these works included most aspects of botany: plant description and classification (trees, shrubs, undershrubs, herbs), and plant distribution, propagation, germination, and cultivation. In addition, he also repeatedly observed that different plants thrive in different locales based on environmental influences, a basic theme in ecology.

SEE ALSO: Wheat: The Staff of Life (c. 11,000 BCE), Agriculture (c. 10,000 BCE), Rice Cultivation (c. 7000 BCE), Aristotle’s The History of Animals (c. 330 BCE).

Roughly 2,500 years ago, Theophrastus established the world’s first botanical garden, in which grew approximately 2,000 plants.