Art students explore curative plants and botanical research in the South

Professor Emeritus Michael Flannery will talk about five native Alabama plants with curative powers Feb. 27, and work with students researching botanicals for an art exhibition later this year.

LauraBenson StreamA work created in a past class by Laura BensonCommon plants often seen in our own backyards were historically a medicine chest.

Students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are exploring those curative plants, book and paper art, scientific and medical illustration, and early photographic processes this semester for a special research project. Their research will culminate in an exhibition of art later this year.

Herbal medicine, rooted in the past, is still with us today, says Professor Emeritus Michael Flannery. Flannery has spent his career in the history of medicine, pharmacy and related sciences.

As part of the project, Flannery will talk about five native Alabama plants that have curative powers during a free lecture, “Alabama Medicinal Plants: Then and Now,” Monday, Feb. 27, at UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, 1221 10th Ave. South. The 2:30 p.m. lecture is free and open to the public.

The knowledge of the properties and characteristics of plants that are used in medicine is called medical botany. From camphor and mustard to tree barks, sassafras and ginseng, plants were the original medicines, Flannery says.

“There aren’t many plants that have not had some medicinal use at one point or another,” Flannery said. “Herbal medicine is part of therapeutic choice for people here and all over the world. Medicinal plants are the heart and soul of medicine. For example, the common plant dogwood has got quite a history.”

Students in two advanced Special Topics classes in the UAB College of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Art and Art History, taught by Jillian Marie Browning and Douglas Baulos, will work with students in UAB’s Bloom Studio and 19th Century Art History taught by Paulina Banas, Ph.D., visiting scholar. They will meet with Flannery and use the book collections in Reynolds Finley Historical Library and Lister Hill Library to make a series of images and objects about the five plants.

Together they will explore botanical art history, cyanotype printing, map and book history, and anatomical illustration, and study both the tools and artists of 19th-century scientific and medical illustration. They will also learn about the impact early photography had on anatomical and botanical illustration.  

The students will then use what they have learned to make art works “that combine science as an objective and rational pursuit of natural truths, and art as a subjective and emotional pursuit of human creativity,” Baulos said. The plan is to feature the works in an exhibition in UAB Libraries later this year.  

Flannery was associate director for Historical Collections from 1999 until his retirement in 2016. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. Since retirement, his interest and research in health care have expanded to include the history of biology and the intersections of science, philosophy and religion, including bioethics. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). Flannery has edited Wallace’s “Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism” (Erasmus Press, 2008) and written “Nature’s Prophet: Alfred Russel Wallace and His Evolution from Natural Selection to Natural Theology,” (University of Alabama Press, 2018).