There and back again! A Materia Medica Tale by Jemma Houghton

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By Jemma


For the past few weeks I have been back at the herbarium returning the materia medica collection to their cupboards following work undertaken by estates.

materia medica boxes
Boxes of materia medica jars to be organised back into the cupboards.


half done cupboards
First cupboards filled with specimens.


This project is somewhat reminiscent of my placement year over two years ago at the herbarium when I photographed, databased and organised the collection into their current system.

materia medica jars
Completed organisation of the materia medica collection two years ago.


The materia medica collection at the Manchester Museum contains over 800 specimens of plants, animals and minerals that were used for medicinal purposes. It dates from the latter half of the nineteenth century and was originally used as a teaching tool for medical and pharmacy students at Owens College.


Following the 1858 Medical Act, anyone wishing to be a practicing physician first had to be included on the medical register. This required them to pass at least one of the qualifications recognised by the General Medical Council – such as those by the Royal College of Physicians – and the majority of these involved some form of examination into materia medica. As such, materia medica was an essential subject for any medical student during the nineteenth century.


The role of the materia medica collection as a teaching resource, therefore, meant that it was a vital part of medical education at Owens College. This was particularly evident given that the collection at the time had its own dedicated museum at the medical school!


The building that housed this museum no longer exists so the collection no longer has its own museum, but instead resides in the tower of the Manchester Museum as part of the herbarium.


Gifts from Neptune

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For several years we have taken the students on the Mallorca field-course to the strand-line along the Bay of Pollensa and the dune system near C’an Picafort. Both of these stretches of beach tend to collect odd, fuzzy balls of Neptune’s grass (Posidonia oceanica). Wave action breaks down the dead leaves and rhizomes of Neptune’s grass creating fibres which then become matted into dense spheres. I’ve written a previous blog post about Neptune’s grass on these shores of Mallorca.

Instead, this year we visited a different part of the coast where the material accumulates in sculpted waves along the beach edge. Previously I’ve seen this from the window of the coast, so it was interesting to experience it first hand. It is very soft, prone to collapsing and makes the shore edge difficult to walk on. There must be something different about the coastline here which makes the formation of the fibre balls less likely. Whether in balls or loose, the dried Neptune’s grass adds organic matter to the sand and helps to stabilise the dunes further up the beach.

This bit of beach was at the Finca de Son Real, an example of a traditional land-holding now managed by the Balearic Government as a nature reserve and archaeological site. There is a museum here which gives an insight into the lives of the rural people of Mallorca. Through displays of objects, room reconstructions, audio and projections, the museum explores the site from and  from neolithic times into the 20th century including an explanation of how local farmers would have collected dry Neptune’s grass to use as animal bedding.

contemporary photography – ferns 2

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Hi I’m Megan Jones current student, I previously posted about a project where I was granted access to photograph a section of the extensive herbarium collection at the museum. As promised  I have an update on the project now it has come to an end, after visiting the museum I took my images and wanted to experiment more with them.

I decided to experiment with screen printing for those who aren’t aware of this process, your image is transferred onto a ‘screen’ you then place a piece of paper underneath the screen placing ink at the top of the screen you spread the ink across the screen and this causes the ink to be pushed through creating a copy of your image on to the paper. I repeated this with all of the most successful images from my visit at the museum until I had a great collection, I then bound these into a handmade book using a long stitch wrap around style. Included in this book was my images once they had been processed with the screen printing technique and also some information on global warming as this was the theme at the museum during my visits, I felt it necessary to include some information in the finished project as this is where my inspiration seemed from at the start.


Thank you for taking the time to catch up on the development of my project.

Megan Jones

Baking botanists in the Cala de Bocquer

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Yesterday saw a group of first-year undergraduates braving the baking Mediterranean sun for the first day trip of the Comparative and Adaptive Biology field course. The Bocquer Valley near the town of Pollenca is a great place to look for Mallorcan endemic ‘hedgehog’ plants Teucrium subspinosum and Astragalus balearicus. While the students investigated the distribution of these small spiny shrubs, the staff took the opportunity to do a little more plant hunting.

One beautiful plant we regularly see in flower is the Balearic cyclamen (Cyclamen balearicum). It has very marbled leaves and delicate white flowers and hides in the shade of the larger shrubs. We also find the leaves of the Mallorcan peony (Paeonia cambessedessii). We visit far too late to see it in flower, but we’ve never found fruit either, suggesting that these plants didn’t flower in February or March. Perhaps these are young plants, or perhaps this is an indication of the difficult environment in the valley. This peony is named for the French botanist Jacques Cambessedes (1799-1863) who studied the plants of the Balearic Islands in 1825 and published the account of his travels and his work on the flora in 1826 and 1827.

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One plant we’ve not spotted on our previous visits is the Dead-horse arum  (Helicodiceros muscivorus). Given that it was behind a tree, under a shrub and in the bottom of a drainage channel, it’s not too surprising that we’ve not found it before. This plant has striking arrow-shaped leaves (sagittate leaves) and a flower spike (spadix) enclosed in a sheath known as a spathe. This specimen had not yet opened, and the geometrically patterned spathe was still closed shut. I’m not sure that I was too disappointed as the plant attracts pollinating flies with heat and rotting carcass smells.

Manchester Herbarium’s grand re-opening!

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After a year of full closure while the Museum roof was rebuilt and about a further 5 years of disruption since the window replacement work began, we finally have the herbarium back up and running. So we thought it was high time to host a party to remind the rest of the Museum and the University’s plant scientists just how lovely our store room is.

We laid out examples of our current projects, some of our favourite objects and quirky things that we’ve come across while we’ve been sorting the place out. After everyone had explored the collection we all headed off to the staff room for some delicious botanically-themed cakes.

We should do this more often!

Graphene’s high-rise meadow

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Green roof on the roof terrace of the Graphene Institute

Back in June, perhaps some of the Graphene Week 2015 attendees spotted this little patch of wildness on the roof of the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester. This green roof was installed as the building was nearing completion in 2014 and is part of the commitment to improving the University’s campus as a habitat for wildlife. The University’s green roof policy can be found here, along with the other University policies about environmental sustainability.

Bee on Birdsfoot trefoil

Ahead of Graphene Week, the Biodiversity Working Group put together some information about pollinators, their requirements and the urban environment in order to have a sign in place for the delegates to read. This roof is particularly designed to attract bees, both wild bees and the honey bees from hives on roofs of the Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery.

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The roof was created with a ‘sedum and wildflower’ mat made up with 21 different species. The low-growing sedums are now most visible around the sloping edges of the meadow, and taller species seem to dominate towards the middle. However, perhaps that’s not true; the sedums may be just hidden by the taller growing plants.

Maiden pink flower

This summer, the Faculty of Life Sciences has arranged for a student to survey the roof to see how the plants are distributed.  The Biodiversity Working Group will be continuing to monitor the roof’s progress to see how the composition of plants changes from this baseline. Some plants are likely to thrive, some will struggle and other’s will arrive as seeds blow over the roof or fall off people’s clothing.

Ladybird pupa on Sedum reflexum

Cinchona and Treating Malaria

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by Jemma

This blog post is going to focus on the genus Cinchona, which is the source of the antimalarial drug quinine.

Cinchona officinalis Image taken from Image taken from
Cinchona officinalis
Image taken from Image taken from


The Quechua peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador were the first to realise the medicinal properties of Cinchona. Though now famous as a cure for malaria, the Quechua used the tree’s bark as a muscle relaxant to treat shivering. Since shivering can be one of the symptoms of the disease, the bark was coincidently used to treat malaria. The Quechua’s use of Cinchona was observed by Jesuit missionaries, who introduced the plant to Europe by the 1630s.

Materia Medica jar containing Cinchona officinalis bark
Materia Medica jar containing Cinchona officinalis bark

In 1677, the use of the bark as a treatment for malaria was first noted in the London Pharmacopoeia, a reference text of different medicines. During his reign, the English King Charles II contracted malaria. He was treated by Robert Talbor, who used Cinchona bark mixed with wine to fight off the disease. He later went on to treat the son of Kind Louis XIV of France of the same disease.


In 1738, Charles Marie de La Condamine produced a paper that identified three separate species of Cinchona from his travels from Ecuador. This paper and a specimen from La Condamine were then used by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who named the tree Cinchona. The name was based on a 16th century Spanish Countess of Chinchon, who contracted malaria and was cured with bark from the tree by the Quechua people. Linnaeus’ species was later named as Cinchona officinalis after he established his binomial system for classifying plants.


Medicinal properties

The bark of the Cinchona tee contains a number of medicinal compounds, including quinine and quinidine. Quinidine is used in pharmaceuticals as an antiarrhythmic agent, suppressing abnormal rhythms of the heart and regulating the heartbeat. Cinchona has been used in folk medicine to stimulate appetite, promote discharge of bile and treat mild influenza infections.

Small Materia Medica jar containing powdered Cinchona calisaya bark
Small Materia Medica jar containing powdered Cinchona calisaya bark

However, the most well-known use of Cinchona is as a source of the antimalarial compound quinine. Quinine is a crystalline salt that has antimalarial, fever-reducing, painkilling and anti-inflammatory properties. Though it is frequently found in antimalarial drugs, the compounds mechanism of action is still not fully understood. Even so, the bitter tasting quinine compound is included in many drugs treating malaria. Cinchona bark is still the most economically viable source of the compound, despite it being possible to synthesise quinine in a laboratory. Quinine has not been the primary treatment for malaria since 2006, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that the drug artemisinin become the standard cure. Now quinine is used when artemisinin is not available.


Despite being an effective malarial treatment, quinine is not entirely safe. It can cause a condition called cinchonism, which can range from mild to severe. Mild conditions mainly involve reversible symptoms, such as skin rashes, dizziness and vomiting. Severe symptoms of cinchonism can involve temporary deafness, paralysis, blindness and death. Death is usually by pulmonary oedema, which is fluid accumulation in parts of the lungs.

Cinchona bark in a Materia Medica jar
Cinchona bark in a Materia Medica jar


Cinchona and homeopathy

It is said that the birth of homeopathy came about from Cinchona. Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine in which it is believed that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people will cure similar symptoms in sick people. Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), the founder of homeopathy, came across the tree when he was translating William Cullen’s work on the Materia Medica. In it, Cullen documented that the bark could be used to treat intermittent fevers and shivering. Hahnemann began taking a large dose of Cinchona daily for two weeks. He started to develop symptoms that resembled malaria. Though he attributed the symptoms to a hypersensitivity to the bark, this experiment gave Hahnemann the idea that ‘like cures like’, which he later developed into the idea of homeopathy.


Gin and Tonic

Quinine extracted from Cinchona is they key ingredient in tonic water, a carbonated soft drink. The dissolved quinine gives tonic water a distinctive bitter flavour, which is often used to compliment the alcoholic drink gin. The quinine content gives tonic water fluorescent properties under ultraviolet (UV) light. It can even fluoresce in direct sunlight as quinine is extremely sensitive to UV.

Tonic water fluorescing under UV light Image taken from
Tonic water fluorescing under UV light
Image taken from

Tonic water was first produced in the early 19th century, when British officials stationed in tropical colonial outposts began mixing quinine with carbonated water and sugar to alleviate the bitterness of quinine. They later started mixing this medicinal tonic with gin to create the classic ‘gin and tonic’ combination.