Australian Orchids and the Doctors they Commemorate Part 1 of 20

Back in 2013, Professor John H Pearn, Emeritus, School of Medicine, University of Queensland wrote a five page article about medical doctors who were Australian orchidologists.  This was published in the Medical Journal of Australia.  My intention is to post direct quote extracts from his article.

First …..

Thank you, John Pearn for giving permission to post

Now to begin …….., at the beginning….. of course …………

Orchidaceae is the largest family of flowering plants. Orchids grow in habitats ranging from subalpine niches to the tropics, and they produce some of the most beautiful, varied and intriguing flowers. Of the more than 1300 genera and 33 000 species, more than 1300 named taxa of orchids, in 193 genera, grow in Australia.

The word “orchid” is from the Greek word orchis  (meaning testicle), which reflects the appearance of the  root tubers in some species. According to the “doctrine of signatures” –  a 16th century herbalist philosophy  which states that herbs resembling body parts can be used to treat those body parts – orchids were used continuously from preliterate times as aphrodisiacs and as medicaments to restore virility. Theophrastus (c. 372–288 BC) wrote about the medicinal value of orchids, as did Paracelsus (1491–1541) and Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the father of modern botanical taxonomy.  As a child, Linnaeus recorded details of his personally collected orchid specimens in his notebook, in which he wrote “Orchis from testiculus, through which its effects should occur”.

Orchid extracts such as vanilla (from Vanilla planifolia) and salep (from Orchis mascula and Orchis militaria) are used commercially in ice-cream, confectionery and medicinal flavouring agents. Crawley root preparations (from Corallorhiza odontorhiza) are used in folk medicine for their diaphoretic and antipyretic properties. In Australia, orchid preparations have been and continue to be used by Indigenous healers to treat diarrhoea and skin infections. Lieutenant (not yet Captain) James Cook used powdered orchid root as part of his method for preserving the health of his crew.

The physical manifestations of orchids, such as their flowers and the medicines and flavourings derived from them, are ephemeral. But the scientific names of orchids endure, and many perpetuate the lives and works of those who have contributed to medicine since the time of Aristotle. Here, I describe indigenous orchids of Australia whose scientific names commemorate doctors who worked in Australia, encapsulating a library of Australian medical history. These orchids comprise a monumentum aere perennius (monument more lasting than bronze) — a phrase coined by Horace in Book III of his Odes when referring to his own literary work.

To be continued ……………

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