Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Doctrine of Signatures

Illustration by Giambattista della Porta. See picture references below the illustration.
Botanical patterns have been architects´ inspiration, at first for ornaments, now for buildings´ morphogenesis where a botanical law is introduced. But this particular morphology in nature has also been an inspiration for medicine theorists. After all, it seems to be a matter of finding an interesting application.

Resemblances between plants morphology and animals. From

The first written record of herbs used as medicine was made over five thousand years ago by the Sumerians, in ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq). About 500 BC advanced medicine culture began to separate from magic and during the European Renaissance, another theory was developed: the Doctrine of Signatures, dismissed by scholars due to its relationship with astrology and for being a superstitious and ¨primitive pre-science¨. It is based on the theory that the physical morphology of plants is related to therapeutic value. It means the morphological resemblance would be the healing agent. In our architects´ language, function follows form. And this resemblance was ¨imprinted¨ by God as His signature to help men discover a cure for maladies. This doctrine was probably first recognized in ancient China, where there was a classification that correlated plant features to human organs.
yellow and sweet = spleen
red and bitter = heart
green and sour = liver
black and salty = lungs
Yang (primitive male) was associated with strongly acting plants; ailments of the upper half of the body were treated with upper parts of plants. Yin (primitive female) was associated with plants having moderate action and those with bitter, sour, salty, and sweet tastes; ailments of lower parts of the body were treated with below-ground plant parts. (Excerpt from
In Western cultures signature plants emerged for medical uses in the XVI and XVII centuries; at this time people believed that human destiny was determined by astrology and each plant had the power to benefit or destroy us. A succession of books were published on ¨doctrine of signature¨ and/or ¨astrological botany¨. Though science does not support this methodology of physical resemblance and methodology of trial and error, at least they are considerably interesting for those who like to analyze morphological patterns. The most famous of those mystical writers was Philippus Aureolus. The scientific system of classification of herbs including morphological, anatomical, physiological, phytochemical, phytological and phytogenetical were carried out during the XVII century.

Illustration by Giambattista Della Porta in his 1586 treatise De Humana Physiognomia.

Comparing the faces of a sheep and a sheeplike man, della Porta observes that the wide strongly defined mouth common to both indicates stupidity and impiety
"I have oft-times declared, how by the outward shapes and qualities of things, we may know their inward virtues, which God had put in them for the good of man. So in St Johns Wort, we may take notice of the leaves, the porosity of the leaves, the veins. (1). The porosity of holes in the leaves, signifies to us, that this herb helps inward or outward holes or cuts in the skin.... (2). The flowers of Saint Johns Wort, when they are putrified they are like blood ; which teacheth us, that this herb is good for wounds, to close them and fill them up " (cited by Lesley Gordon, p. 27, though Mrs Gordon used the word ¨purified¨, I prefer the translation ¨putrified¨).
This phrase belongs to Theophrastus Bombastus of Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541). He was a doctor, and in 1527 he became professor at Basle. He gave new meanings to medicine by interpreting his own research instead of the ancients´, to whom he offended with his vulgar comments. The perforations he wrote about are in fact glandular dots, translated into wounds that reinforced the idea of blood in red plants juice.
Although the Doctrine of Signatures is always related to his name, the greatest exponent of this theory was Giambattista della Porta. He was a polymath who wrote and published on many subjects as natural magic, cryptography, horticulture, optics, mnemonics, meteorology, physics, astrology, mathematics, and fortification; he invented both the camera obscura and the telescope; he experimented in the art of distillation and cultivated rare plants in his garden at Naples. He also believed in a conexion between some plants and their corresponding stars or planets. In his published work Phytognomica (1588) he supported the Doctrine of Signatures, and what is more, in his 1586 treatise De Humana Physiognomia he related human features to animals´ as indices of their characters and spiritual qualities.
William Coles, in 1657, concluded that certain plants were endowed with signatures in order to assist man in his search for remedies; those which were left in blank encouraged them to discover their healing properties. He carried the doctrine of signatures to an extreme, considering that ¨Wall-nuts have the perfect signature of the Head¨ (`Adam in Eden,' 1657).
Robert Turner, an astrological botanist added in 1644 ¨For what climate soever is subject to any particular disease, in the same place there grows a cure¨. (Cited by Lesley Gordon, p. 27)
Some conclusions were:
Long-lived plants would lengthen a man's life, while short-lived plants would abbreviate it.
Red roses were good for nose bleeding.
Jaundice was cured with the yellow juice of celandine and the yellow bark of the barberry (Berberis Vulgaris).
If moss were gathered from a a skull, it was efficacious in treating the disorders of brain and head.
The kernel of walnuts was good for brain problems.
Flowers shaped as butterflies would cure insects bites.
Viper´s bugloss (Echium chamaedrys) with a stem like a snake, was an antidote for snakebite and scorpion stings.
Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria) with its white scales was good for teeth.
Some fruits and flowers resembled some animals´organs, then an investigation of the temperament of the animal in question would determine what kind of disease the plant was intended to cure.
Maidenhair fern was good to cure baldness.
Heart Trefoyle which triangular leaf is like the Heart of a Man, defends the ¨heart against the noisome vapour of the Spleen." (William Cole).
Gravelwort dissolved stones in the urinary tract….And so on.

Common Toothwort. Picture by Milos Andera

Lungwort (Pulmonaria)
In 2009 Kamlesh Wad et al make the following distinctions in the Doctrine: Paracelsus´, Hippocrates´, Chinese doctrine, Islamic doctrine, Astronomical, Homeopathy, Hindu´s and today´s doctrine. The following description is an adaptation of Wad et al´s scholar paper.
Paracelsus was also a believer in the influence of the heavenly bodies upon the vegetable world (botanical astrology), in which each plant was under the influence of a specific star. The star gave the plant the strength to grow.
Hippocrates categorized all the herbs as the qualities of the hot, cold, dry and damp and related to the four elements water, earth, fire and air. Herbs used for the disease like chest problems were those commonly observed during the damp and cold winter. He created an entire school of “rational” or scientific” medicine that utilized simple natural remedies such as vinegar, honey, herbs, and hydrotherapy in healing.
In Chinese doctrine body is composed of a number of interrelated functional entities such as heart, spleen, kidney liver and lung. According to the color and taste of herb, there is a reflection of its medicinal properties.
Islamic herbalists believed that plants growing above the ground were appropriate for ailments of the upper body and plants that grew below the ground were appropriate for ailments of the lower body.
Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) revitalized another phase of herbalism which connects herbs to different sign of zodiac and treat specific ailment by determining what sign and planet ruled over a part of the body; the prescription of an herb would follow the same astrological sign.
Samuel Hahnemann believed that symptoms are no more than outward reflection of the bodies’ inner fight to overcome illness, not a manifestation of illness itself. He also stated that medicine given to cure should reinforce this systems rather than counteract them. The cause of disease may also be its remedy. For example the Onion (Allium cepa) extract is used homeopathically to treat the common cold which produces watery discharge form eyes and nose which are the symptoms similar to common cold.
The earliest mention of plant in India is found in Rigveda having been written between 4500-1600 BC. According to the Hindu belief every herb can be used as medicine provided the user finds out how to use it. The hindu doctrine is based on the principal of ayurvedic philosophy. The objective of ayurveda is to maintain health of a healthy person and to cure the disease of patient by proper balancing the tridosh, which is based on three humor: Kapha, Vatta and Pitta at the body level and Satva, Rajas, and Tamas at mental level. Ayurveda places great emphasis upon determining an individual’s pattern of health imbalance, rather than choosing remedies to counteract single symptoms systems according to basic quality consisting of Five Phases (or Five Elements) of Fire, Earth, Air (or Metal), Water and wood.
Hundreds of years later, there are studies supporting earlier observations of these herbalists. Lungwort is an expectorant helping to remove catarrh from the lungs; walnuts with their high omega-3 oil content are considered a “brain food;” kidney beans assist the kidneys by removing excess of phosphorus. How early herbalists were able to obtain specific information by observing the plants is difficult to know for certain, but it is clear that the benefits of these plants are just as relevant today as they were then.----------------------------------------

Picture from
The doctrine is now subject of analysis between open minded scholars, who offer us different points of view based on their current research on folk medicine in different countries.
¨Some evidence of the existence of an ancient pharmacological theory—the Doctrine of Signatures—has been found in the folk medicine of Israel. The research reported 14 plants with folk medicinal uses based on the Doctrine of Signatures categories including: similarity of the plant or plant organ to the damaged human organ (Alhagi maurorum, camel thorn; Astragalus macrocarpus, milk-vetch; andCynoglossum creticum, blue hound’s tongue), similarity to animal shape or behavior (Heliotropium europaeum, European turnsole;Asteriscus spinosus, starwort; andBriza maxima, large quaking grass), similarity of plant color to the color of the disease’s symptoms or the medical phenomena (Rhamnus alaternus, Italian buckthorn; Citrullus colocynthis, bitter gourd; and Ecballium elaterium, squirting cucumber), and similarity of plant habitat or characteristic to human features (Parietaria judaica, wall pellitory; and Ruta chalepensis, African rue). (Amots Dafni and E Lev. The doctrine of signatures in present-day Israel . Vol. 56, No 4. December 2002)
And Bradley C. Bennet from the Department of Biological Sciences and Center for Ethnobiology and Natural Products, Florida International University, Miami, has arrived to different evaluations and conclusions resumed in four items:
1. There is no evidence that morphological plant signatures ever led to the discovery of medicinal properties. 2. Plants with morphological signatures are no more likely to be used medicinally than are those lacking them 3. Signatures are post hoc attributions rather than a priori clues to the utility of medicinal plants. 4. Redefining signature to include organoleptic properties associated with therapeutic value is productive.

The Doctrine of Signatures
Doctrine Of Signatures And Astrological Botany (originally published in 1912) in Old and Sold. Antiques Digest.
Bradley C. Bennett. Doctrine of Signatures: A Further Examination. Oral presentation.
Kamlesh Wadher, Ravi Kalsait, Milind Umekar / Journal of Pharmacy Research 2009, 2(5),852-857. 3 D of herbalism - Dogma Doctrine and development. February 25th 2009, available on line through
Gordon, Lesley. Green Magic. The Viking Press, New York, 1977.
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