Lives of the fellows

Nehemiah Grew

b.1641 d.25 March 1712
MD FRS(1671) FRCP(1680)

Nehemiah Grew, MD, was the son of Obadiah Grew, a celebrated Nonconformist divine, and was born at Coventry, about the year 1641.(1) He was educated at Pembroke hall, Cambridge, as a member of which he proceeded bachelor of arts in 1661. His medical education was probably had in one of the continental universities, apparently Leyden, for he is known to have been a diligent student of Drelincurtius and de la Boe Sylvius, and to have been entered on the physic line there in July, 1671. Having taken a doctor’s degree, when or where I fail to discover, but if at Leyden, almost immediately after the date just given, he returned to England. He is said to have settled for a time at Coventry, but he soon removed to London. Haller styles him “industrius ubique naturæ observator,” and he truly deserves that character.

As one of the most laborious and accurate observers of the seventeenth century, and the founder of structural and physiological botany, Dr Grew deserves a fuller notice than my space permits. He began to turn his attention to the anatomy of plants as early as the year 1664, and was led to do so by his previous study of human and comparative anatomy. Considering that both plants and animals “came at first out of the same Hand, and were therefore the contrivances of the same wisdom,” he inferred that they would disclose analogous structures.

In 1670 he put an essay on this subject into the hands of his brother-in-law, Dr Henry Sampson, who showed it to Mr Henry Oldenburg, at that time secretary to the Royal Society, by whom it was handed to Dr Wilkins, the bishop of Chester, who read the manuscript to the Royal Society. That learned body highly approving of the paper, ordered it to be printed, and on the 30th November, 1671, admitted Dr Grew a fellow of the Society. On the death of Mr Oldenburg, in 1677, he was appointed to succeed him in the office of secretary. At the suggestion of Dr Wilkins, Dr Grew was appointed in 1672 to the newly created office of “Curator to the Society for the Anatomy of Plants,” and in the course of his duties as such, drew up a series of original and carefully considered essays, which were read at intervals to the society. These were collected, and with the portion issued in 1671, were published in a folio volume by order of the society, in 1682. They constitute the work known as The Anatomy of Plants with an Idea of a Philosophical History of Plants. Sprengel calls it “opus absolutum et immortale.” “It contains,” writes Dr Thomson,(2) “a great deal of valuable and important matter, and has always been in high estimation and referred to as a classical work on the subject.” The nature of vegetation and its processes seem to have been unknown when Grew began his investigations. It is remarked by Mr Hallam,(3) that “no man, perhaps, who created a science has carried it further than Grew; he is so close and diligent in his observations, making use too of the microscope, that comparatively few discoveries of great importance have been made in the mere anatomy of plants since his time.”

Grew was the first to describe the tracheæ of plants; but his great discovery was that of the sexual system in plants; - that the sexual system is universal in the vegetable kingdom, and that the dust of the anthem is endowed with an impregnating power. Of Dr Grew’s merits as a physician but little is known. He was the first to obtain sulphate of magnesia (under the name of “bitter purging salt”) from the Epsom waters, to investigate its action and recommend its employment in the treatment of disease, which he did in a special treatise in 1697.

Dr Grew was admitted an Honorary Fellow of the College of Physicians, 30th September, 1680, and died suddenly on the 25th March, 1712, aged seventy.(4) His portrait by R White, is at the hall of the Barber Surgeons. It was engraved in 1700, and is prefixed to his Cosmologia Sacra. Besides the Philosophical Transactions, from January, 1678, to February, 1679, which he edited, Dr Grew published
The Anatomy of Plants begun, with a general account of Vegetation grounded thereon. 8vo. Lond. 1672.
The Anatomy of Roots. 8vo. Lond. 1673.
An Idea of a Phytological History of Plants, together with a Continuation of the Anatomy of Plants prosecuted upon Roots. Fol. Lond. 1673.
The Anatomy of Trunks, with an account of their Vegetation grounded thereon. 8vo. Lond. 1675.
Experiments on the Affusion of several Menstruums upon all sorts of bodies. 12mo. Lond. 1675.
Museum Regalis Societatis. A Catalogue and Description of the Natural and Artificial Rareties belonging to the Royal Society, with a Comparative Anatomy of Stomachs and Guts. Folio. Lond. 1681.
The Anatomy of Plants, with an Idea of a Philosophical History of Plants. Folio. Lond. 1682.
A Treatise of the nature and use of the Bitter Purging Salt. 12mo. Lond. 1697.
Tractatus de Salis Cathartici Amari in Aquis Ebeshamensibus et hujusmodi aliis contenti, natura et usu. 8vo. Lond. 1698.
Cosmologia Sacra; or, a Discourse of the Universe, as it is the Creature and Kingdom of God; chiefly written to demonstrate the truth and excellency of the Bible, which contains the Laws of his Kingdom in this Lower World. Folio. Lond. 1701.

William Munk

[(1) He inscribed his name in the Album Studiosorum of Leyden, on the 6th July, 1671, being then thirty years of age. “1671. Jul. 6. Nehemius Grew Warwicensis Anglus 30 M. Cand.”
(2) “History of the Royal Society.” 4to. Lond. 1812, p. 44.
(3) Introduction to the Literature of Europe. 5th Edition. Lond. 1855. Vol. iv, p. 354.
(4) “Doctrinâ atque scientiâ rerum naturalium inclaruit Nehemiah Grew socius hujus Collegii per totam Europam celeberrimus. Innatus in illo fuit cognitionis amor et scientiæ; diuque et sedulo in contemplaudis naturæ rebus versabatur; structuram plantarum quam accuratissimè retexuit; deque natura succorum ac salium in plantis et de earum gustu atque colore quam optimè disseruit; fabricam intestinorum et glandularum in animalibus mirâ sagacitate aperuit; res omnes raras et admirandas in repositorio Societatis Regiæ descripsit; et ex rebus creatis et imprimis ex structurâ atque fabricâ, animalium Magnum Rerum Creatorem existere quam pulcherrimè demonstravit; ornamentum ac decus fuit et patriæ et Collegio nostro.” Oratio Harveiana habita 18 Octobris 1775; auctore Donaldo Monro, MD.]

(Volume I, page 406)

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