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The Anatomy of Plants – Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712)

The Anatomy of Plants – Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712)

By Kathryn Briggs

Nehemiah Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants (1682) – the full title being The Anatomy of Plants with an Idea of a Philosophical History of Plants, and Several Other Lectures, Read Before the Royal Society – pioneered the study of plant anatomy. The discoveries and terminology detailed within the book are still the foundation for contemporary plant morphology and anatomy today. In his dedication, Grew explains his belief that there is a ‘Terrae Incognitae in Philosophy, as well as in Geography’. He describes the study of plant anatomy as like ‘com[ing] ashore into a new World, whereof we see no end’.

Grew was inspired to follow this course of study originally through comparative anatomy. The Fellows of the Royal Society and many other contemporary scientists were greatly interested in animal anatomies, and Grew was one of the first to apply this same study to the world of plants. ‘There are those things within a Plant, little less admirable, than within an Animal’, he says in his dedication, and states, ‘a Plant, as well as an Animal, is composed of several Organical Parts’. He was the first to study plant cell-structure and among the first to use microscopes to examine plant morphology; he was also the first to publish the now accepted anatomy of flowers’ male and female sex organs and the process of plant reproduction.

Grew enlarged and illustrated his microscopic observations of cross-sectioned plants for his book, and they are its most notable physical feature and historical claim. His text was among the first scientific books to have such complex illustrations and engravings, numbering 82 illustrated plates in total. The plates publicised for the first time the inner structure of plants only discoverable by microscope.

Illustrations were incredibly expensive to print at this time, as each one needed to be hand-engraved on copper. The Anatomy of Plants is folio size – just over the size of a modern A4 sheet, though on more expensive paper – and expensive to produce and possess. The sheer size and intricacy of the illustrations and depth of study by Grew remained unparalleled until the 19th century.

Despite pioneering a new study of plant anatomy, Grew needed to work hard to have his work recognised. The Anatomy of Plants, with its stunning illustrations and thorough explanations, was part of his plan to dazzle potential patrons. The book features several effusive dedications for the purpose of securing favour. In his dedication to King Charles II, Grew openly declares that he is seeking the King’s patronage. In the section featuring Grew’s lectures, dedicated to the ‘Vi-Count Brouncker, President of the Royal Society’, Grew compares the Viscount’s humility to Caesar’s indifference to being styled King, quoting ‘Non Rex, sed Caesar’. Clearly, flattering the ego of the President was a way to earn prominence in the Royal Society.

Grew wrote in a time of religious restructuring following the English Civil War and was careful not to step on any toes. In another section of the volume, dedicated to the ‘Right Reverend John Lord Bishop of Chester’, Grew begs the Bishop’s pardon if ‘while you are holding that best of Books in one Hand, I here present some Pages of that of Nature to your other’. He was evidently keen to establish that his Anatomy of Plants did not challenge the teaching of the Bible; instead, he demonstrates how ‘excellent a Commentary This is on the [Bible]’, aligning his findings with religion rather than replacing it. 


Nehemiah Grew studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, before returning to Coventry to practice medicine and complete personal scientific inquiries. Through his family’s connections, he presented his botanical work to the Royal Society in 1670, which later licenced his work for publication. After his return from completing a doctorate in Leiden, Grew was proposed as a Fellow of the Royal Society by Robert Hooke, and then elected and admitted; for a time he had his research supported by an annual income from the wealthier Fellows of the Society. Grew worked intermittently in practicing and teaching medicine while writing and conducting research, and in 1680 became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Later in his career he authored works on other topics, theological and economic.