James Petiver, apothecary and the father of British butterflies

Many pharmacists have broad interests well beyond pharmacy. In the world of the arts, I have known one who earned his living as an artist, another who was an accomplished sculptor and one who could have had a career as a professional musician. Others have been experts in various non-pharmaceutical sciences, including astronomy and palaeontology.

This diversity of interests seems to have been a feature of pharmacists throughout history. A good example is the apothecary James Petiver (c.1664–1718), who owned a London pharmacy for more than 30 years but is known principally as a botanist and entomologist. In particular, his pioneering work as a lepidopterist has led to his designation as “the father of British butterflies”.

Petiver was born in about 1663, the son of a Warwickshire haberdasher. After education at Rugby School he was apprenticed in London to the apothecary who served St Bartholomew’s Hospital. In 1685 he was “examined, approved, sworne, and made Free”, and soon afterwards he set up shop for himself “at the Sign of the White Cross in Aldersgate Street”. He remained there, successful and prosperous, until his death in 1718.

Like his friend and fellow pharmacist Samuel Doody (PJ, 8 June 2013, p684), Petiver had an interest in the natural sciences. He began corresponding with other like-minded individuals at home and abroad, many of whom he enlisted to submit specimens for the collections he maintained at his pharmacy premises. He encouraged his correspondents by sending them news sheets, journals, books and scientific equipment. He also offered them medical advice, often accompanied by free drugs and nostrums.

On one occasion Petiver managed to get one of his apprentices onto a voyage of exploration in the South Atlantic. He gave the lad instructions to acquire plant and animal specimens and to find new correspondents. 

Petiver was well received among London’s scientific elite and in 1695 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, later becoming an auditor and council member of the society. After his death his collection was acquired by his friend Sir Hans Sloane, the famous botanist, collector and royal physician, and it helped to form the nucleus of the British Museum.

Petiver has become known as “the father of British butterflies” because he was the first to systematically allocate English names to British butterfly species. Some of the names he coined have fallen by the wayside, but we can still thank him for choices such as the brimstone (named for its sulfurous colour) and the various admirals, arguses, fritillaries, hairstreaks and tortoiseshells that we may see flutter by during a country walk.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, James Petiver, apothecary and the father of British butterflies;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2015.20068810

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