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L'Obel, Mathias de [He signed himself L'Obel; Biographie

1. Dates
Born: Lille, 1538
Died: London, 3 Mar. 1616
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 78
2. Father
Occupation: Lawyer
The family was Belgian. The father, Jean De l'Obel, was a lawyer, who apparently served the aristocrats in the army.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: Belgian Area (Lille was then in the Low Countries)
Career: Belgian Area, Dutch, English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Montpelier, M.D.
At the age of sixteen he was already attracted to botany and medicine. On 22 Mary 1565 he matriculated in the school of medicine in Montpellier (that is, at the age of twenty- seven, something that is not explained in the literature). He became the favorite student of Guillaume Rondelet. After his teacher died in 1566, he spent three more years in Montpellier, where he received an M.D. (Biographie nationale says that there is no record of him in the incomplete records of the university, but BN is nevertheless convinced that he received the degree.)
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic.
l'Obel explicitly resisted Protestantism.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Botany, Pharmacology
His Stirpium adversaria nova (1571, written with Pierre Pena) is one of the milestones of modern botany. Later, Stirpium observationes, a sort of complement to the Adversaria, was joined to it under the title Plantarum seu stirpium historia (1576). Also other books on botany.
His botanical work was directed toward the pharmacological use of plants. L'Obel published an essay on the pharmacology of Rondelet as part of a reissue of his Adversia in 1605. He referred to Lord Zouch's garden as the garden of medicine.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Patronage
He practiced medicine in Antwerp from 1571 to 1581 and in Delft from 1571 to 1584 where he was physician to the Prince to Orange. This is passing strange, given l'Obel's religious views, but the sources are definite. Upon the assassination of William the Silent in 1584, he left the Netherlands and very shortly moved to England. (Legré says that after William's death he stayed on for a time in the service of the States General.)
He went to England in 1584, and remained there for the rest of his life. He was superintendent of the botanical garden founded by Lord Zouch in Hackney. In 1592 he accompanied Lord Zouch in his ambassadorial staff to the court of Denmark.
He was Royal Botanist to James I.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Aristrocrat
The Adversaria (1570) was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. L'Obel had fled the civil war in the Netherlands and appears to have been fishing for support. However, he returned to the Netherlands at that time.
With the favor of Plantin he obtained a ten year warrant for the printing of his Plantarum historia.
He dedicated the Kruydboek (the Dutch translation of his Historia) to the Prince of Orange.
He dedicated the Stirpium historia to the governors, magistrates, and generals of Belgian Gaul. I take this to mean the rulers of the provinces that had remained loyal to the Hapsburgs, and this sounds more like a declaration of principle than a piece of patronage.
He became the client of Lord Zouch and later royal botanist to James I.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Like other botanists of the age, he carried on correspondence with other men concerned with plants--e.g, Mouton.
  1. C.F.A.Morren, "Prologue à la mémoire de L'Obel," Belgique horticole, 2 (1852), v-xviii.
  2. Nouvelle biographie générale, 31, 419.
  3. Biographie nationale (Belgian).
  4. L. Legré, La botanique en provence au XVIe siecle, II, Pierre Pena et Mathias de Lobel, (Marseilles, 1899).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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