materia medica


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This week is Museum Week on Twitter.  The Herbarium has a very active twitter account – you can see it here. Our twitter name is @aristolochia.

Here are the images we posted yesterday – the theme was a day in the life.

Vegetating Zombie Caterpillars!

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Sinister fungi from the Manchester Museum herbarium brought to you by Gina Alnatt

Biology Curator

Today I began choosing fungus specimens for part of a display for the upcoming gallery “Nature’s Library” at the Manchester Museum. The Herbarium houses a fairly large collection of fungus in the form of sheets, packeted and boxed specimens. A number of the boxed specimens are housed in the Materia Medica room along with herbs, gums and resins.


Some of the most interesting specimens we found were boxed examples of the fungus Cordyceps. Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that affects insects, and it does so in a way befitting a horror movie. At least a horror movie if you were an insect. Perhaps the most well known species of this fungus is Ophiocordyceps sinensis, also known as the Caterpillar Fungus. The caterpillars infected by this fungus are the larvae of the ghost moth genus Thatoides, which spend much of their life underground as larvae. They are prone to…

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Manchester’s Materia Medica Museum

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At the far end of the herbarium is a door to a spiral staircase which leads to the rooms in the main tower of the University of Manchester.  One of these rooms is known as the Materia Medica Room as it houses our collection of medicinal plants.

The materia medica collection is stored in a room in the main tower of The University of Manchester

The majority of these plants have come from the University’s Pharmacy department and were transferred to the museum at the beginning of the last century.

When we were looking for specimens of frankincense and myrrh for our Christmas posts, the Materia Medica collection was the obvious place to look.  Whilst photographing the jars I noticed that the original old labels stated that they were from the Materia Medica Museum, Victoria University.  I knew that the University had a Medical School Museum but hadn’t realised that the Materia Medica collection was previously a ‘museum’ in its own right.

I started delving a bit further into the history of the collection and discovered that it was put together by Daniel John Leech, M.D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P., Professor Of Materia Medica And Therapeutics In The Owens College; Consulting Physician To The Manchester Royal Infirmary; Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Victoria University.

Here’s an excerpt from Daniel John Leech’s obituary in The British Medical Journal, (Vol. 2, No. 2062 (Jul. 7, 1900), pp. 63-65)

Daniel John Leech

…In 1876 he was offered and accepted the co-Lectureship of Materia Medica and Therapeutics in the Owens College. On the death of Mr. Somers he became sole lecturer, and in 1881 he was appointed Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics. At the time of his appointment the Owens College possessed no materia medica museum; Dr. Leech threw himself into the work of his department with the greatest energy, and at no small cost to himself. He has formed one of the finest museums of materia medica in this country, has organised a department for experimental pharmacology, a pharmaceutical department in which instruction is given to medical students in dispensing and practical pharmacy, and also a pharmaceutical school for the education of pharmacists. He made himself master of his own subject, and kept him self constantly up to date. His lectures on pharmacology and therapeutics, while being thoroughly scientific, nevertheless bore the stamp of his eminently practical mind and wide experience of the needs of actual practice…

… The lecturership of Materia Medica to the the Owens College to which he was elected in I874 opened out a new avenue for him and gave him opportunities to create a new department at the College and to distinguish himself as a scientific pharmacologist. He was not satisfied to give merely a course of lectures on materia medica – the driest of all medical subjects. He had heard and read a good deal of the pharmacological laboratories of Germany, and he started one at first of modest dimensions scantily equipped with scientific apparatus, but by his zealous endeavours, his perseverance and his industry and at great expense, which he mostly himself defrayed, it gradually developed into the present magnificent laboratory, in which such good work has been done and from which several of our young and prominent pharmacologists have gone forth.

Specimen of the Day: 22/12/2009 – Myrrh

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Bombay myrrh

Congratulations to those of you who guessed correctly… today’s Specimen of the Day is myrrh (Commiphora myrrha).

Specimen from the Herbarium's Materia Medica collection
Illustration from the Leo Grindon Collection

This specimen of myrrh has come from our Materia Medica collection, in fact the label on the jar says it once belonged to the Materia Medica Museum, Victoria University.  The Materia Medica collection contains over 800 specimens of medicinal plants in the form of leaves, roots, juices, gums, resins, flowers, herbs etc.  The collection, most of which are kept in glass jars like the one pictured above, look like the contents of an old apothecary’s shop.

Myrrh is indigenous to eastern Mediterranean countries, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, and South Arabia. The herb comes from a spiny, deciduous, bushy tree that grows to about fifteen feet, producing yellow-red flowers and pointed fruits. Myrrh is the resin that is a pale, yellow, granular secretion which discharges into cavities in the bark when it is wounded. The exudate hardens to a reddish-brown mass about the size of a walnut. It is harvested from June to August and dried for medicinal use. Myrrh should not be confused with British Myrrh, which is from a different plant family.

Myrrh has been used for it’s medicinal properties for thousands of years.  In the bible myrrh was brought by Caspar, one of the Magi or  three wise men, to the infant Jesus.

Specimen of the Day: 21/12/2009 – Frankincense

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It’s so nearly christmas and there’s snow in Manchester (falling off the roof like an avalanche) and on the Herbology Manchester blog too (silently and not half so cold).

Unfortunatley this article has neither the date nor details of the publication it came from.
Illustration from the Leo Grindon collection

Frankincense is our specimen of the day.  Had a rummage and found this specimen and newspaper clipping in our Grindon collection, and  then found a jar of the stuff in the Materia Medica.  The blurb in the paper makes no mention of  the gifts given to baby Jesus, of which frankincense was one.  Maybe it wasn’t a big deal in 1850.

Frankincense is an sweet smelling resin from trees in the genus Boswellia, mainly found in North Africa. 

Guess what the specimen will be tomorrow?