Published: 05-09-2017 10:24 | Updated: 15-09-2017 12:05

New stamps with illustrations from the Hagströmer Library

Postnord has issued a new series of postage stamps with pictures of medicinal plants taken from the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, which this year celebrates its 20th birthday. In conjunction with the stamp release, the audience got to learn about the importance of the plants and the women's hidden contributions to the literature.

The foyer of Postmuseum in Gamla Stan is packed on 24th August as visitors wait for the doors to the exhibition area to open. Several are already queuing in the museum shop to grab some of the new postage stamps that will be put out to sale the same day and get them stamped.

Upstairs, Hjalmar Fors, First Librarian at the Hagströmer Library, PhD and Docent in History of Science, is treating his audience with a historical overview of medicinal plants’ cultural, economic and medical importance from ancient times to the present day.

“Medicinal plants, spices and herbs were considered vital. They symbolised wealth, health and good ethics and were regarded very effective as medicines. The wise men from the East presented the baby Jesus with gold, frankincense – a plant extract that was burned in the temple – and myrrh, an aromatic medicine. They were products that signified his high status,” Hjalmar Fors says.

Food and medicine went together

Until the 19th century, very little difference was made between medicinal plants and spices, cooking and medicine. Older medical theory was based on humoralism’s endeavour to create a balance between moistness, dryness, heat and cold. The healthy human was moderately moist, moderately dry, moderately hot and moderately cold. To cure imbalance, either a different diet or different medicines were prescribed.

“The medicines were mostly made from plants and the plants could often also be used as spices. Strong-tasting spices and domestic herbs were considered to be dry and hot and therefore good if you were moist and cold. In theory, a chill was cured by eating something hot and a fever with something old. But in practice the system was much more sophisticated,” Hjalmar Fors says.

He draws parallels between the attitude of the day, where medicines and cooking were considered to go together, and traditional Indian medicine, where these ideas still prevail today. In the west we instead differentiate between food, stimulants and medicines, where the last is to be strong and effective. That is why production of a medicine is often a matter of extracting the active substance from for example a plant.

He draws parallels to Indian traditional medicine, where this approach prevails today. In the western world, we instead distinguish between foods, stimulants and medicine, the latter is to be strong and effective. That is why production of a medicine is often a matter of extracting the active substance from for example a plant.

Voyages of discovery give more trade and knowledge about the plants

From the end of the 15th century, Europeans began to discover new parts of the world, which led to herbs and spices becoming even more important both economically and culturally. Trade in spices, medicinal plants and stimulants like for example cardamom, pepper, Chinese rhubarb root, tobacco, chocolate, coffee and tea grew extensively and many people wanted to have a hand in defining how these substances should be used.

“I want to show people just how extensive and rich knowledge of medicinal plants was in Europe even before Linnaeus’ synthesis of botanical knowledge from the mid-1700s,” Hjalmar Fors continues.

Linnaeus in fact used many of the methods that for example central figure Mathioli had designed 200 years earlier when he created a network of learned letter-writers across the whole of Europe who together built up the knowledge bank that resulted in the work Commentary on Dioscorides.

“The creation of botanical images and catalogues was a collective process. There was a medically knowledgeable person and a traveller or correspondent who conveyed the knowledge. The person acting as coordinator gathered in new information from the network that was later published.”

He says that research in recent years shows that many of those members of the network who provided information were women with a knowledge of medicine, also in the colonies in places like India and Jakarta. But when reading the publication in question, the women do not exist; they are totally invisible.

“It is an important task for historians to reconstruct how this knowledge flowed and who was rewarded and not rewarded,” he says.

Text: Stina Moritz

The new stamps and the Hagströmer Library’s 20th birthday

The thought of printing stamps with medicinal plant illustrations has been around for a long time, and now, as the Hagströmer Library celebrates its twentieth birthday, a series has finally been issued.

The Postnord illustrators were to choose between a number of illustrations from the Hagströmer Library. They chose three well-known local medicinal plants: Waybread, Saint John’s wort and the foxglove (Digitalis). The books containing the illustrations are included in the Swedish Pharmaceutical Society deposit at the Hagströmer Library

The Hagströmer Library’s 20th birthday celebrations include special exhibitions and an open house for Karolinska Institutet’s staff.

The Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library is one of the world’s foremost libraries in the field of medical history with both Karolinska Institutet’s and the Swedish Society of Medicine’s collections of old books collected together under the same roof.