October 18th marks the celebration of a special plant medicine community member. On this day, we celebrate the birth of Nicholas Culpeper, in 1616.
Revered as the People’s Herbalist and sometimes The Master Herbalist, Culpeper was a tour de force in botany, herbalism, astrology, and medicine.
Nicholas was raised by his mother and her family in the British countryside. His grandfather was a local minister and imparted much of his wisdom —- from the distaste for royalty to their steadfast religious beliefs. When he was sixteen years old, it was decided that Nicholas would attend Cambridge to pursue a career in ministry, like his grandfather. Rather fortunately for us, Nicholas dug in his heels and insisted on studying medicine, which was something that greatly interested him from childhood.
Not so fortunately was the manner in which Culpeper took a career pivot. Unbeknownst to his family, he was in love with a local woman whom he had known since childhood. Knowing that her family would never approve of their marriage, Culpeper and his love, Judith Rivers, planned to elope. Tragically, as they were on their way to meet one another to get married, Judith’s coach was struck by lightning and she was killed. Culpepper spiraled into a deep depression. Not only did he lose the love of his life, but he was also disowned by his family for ditching the clergy and could not return to Cambridge after shirking his studies.
During this dark episode, a friend inspired Culpeper to become an apothecary. He apprenticed under Francis Drake and it seemed as though this experience granted him a new lease on life. Culpeper enthusiastically immersed himself in the plants and dedicated himself to the materia medica.
Despite receiving immense backlash and being accused of witchcraft, Culpeper soldiered on —- quite literally. He suited up to work on the front-lines as a doctor, during the English Civil War. During one battle, he was gravely wounded in the chest and was believed to have contracted tuberculosis. Ultimately, the illness overcame him and he died at the young age of 38 years old.
After healing from immense grief, Culpeper found a passion in serving others. Part of his mission was to provide his medical services for free. He went above and beyond for those that came into his clinic —- sometimes seeing forty or more underserved people in just a morning. He believed that each person was a unique individual and never turned anyone away from his services. This belief influenced his dual approach of using both astrology and personal herbal experience to treat his patients’ illnesses.
Throughout his short yet esteemed career, Culpeper was often found in the English woods cataloging different medicinal herbs and plants. Here, at the School for Aromatic Studies, Culpeper truly embodies the wisdom of the thoughtful teacher who believed in the inexplicable value of one’s own experience with plants and nature.
He once wrote, “This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience, and took a voyage to visit my mother Nature, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it.”
If you are interested in reading more about Culpeper and his contributions to herbalism and the practice of medical astrology, do check out his published works, which include, The English Physician and his Complete Herbal.
Written by: Leigh Winters
Leigh Winters is a neuroscientist and natural beauty expert. She’s currently an instructor at Columbia Business School’s Venture for All program teaching entrepreneurship around the globe. At Columbia University, she also co-teaches a wildly popular online graduate course that blends venture creation and spiritual psychology— the first of its kind. Previously, Leigh served as a fellow at Columbia University’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute, where she clinically researched contemplative practices, like yoga and mindfulness meditation, and biobehavioral health.
Leigh is a sought after certified aromatherapist and teacher of meditation, aromatic plant medicine, and all-natural beauty formulation. Leigh regularly writes about and hosts workshops on the brain, behavior, and plant medicine.