Sunflowers and ‘new world’ ideas

header picture: detail of a statue of Christopher Columbus in Rhode Island – photo courtesy Kenneth C. Zirkel (wikicommons)
Fig. 1  (detail) folio 93r    Yale, Beinecke MS 408.

We owe the ‘new world Voynich’ idea, ultimately, to Hugh O’Neill who in 1944 imagined he saw a sunflower in one of the pictures. The notion’s persistence is due, first, to R.S. Brumbaugh who found it suited his own ideas and then to a colleage of O’Neill’s, Arthur O. Tucker.

It wasn’t the only item O’Neill claimed a new world species but it made all the splash.

Today, there’s nothing in the wiki ‘Voynich article’ or in Rene Zandbergen’s warehouse ‘’ that would help you weigh the ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments.   On the other hand, past experience suggests that once this page goes up, the matter will soon appear elsewhere, though attributed to whom is not anything to predict.

I find nothing at today (Jan 22nd., 2019) except the following paragraph and a couple that more I’ll quote further below.

Some ‘furore’ was generated in the 1940’s by the identification of a Sunflower and a pepper plant by the herbal expert* O’Neill, suggesting that the MS postdates Columbus’ second voyage to America, in 1493. These identifications are far from being generally accepted, however.

*herbal expert. Zandbergen’s use of the term suggests expertise in medieval herbals, which is not the case.  I’ve treated O’Neill’s professional qualifications and those of Fr. Petersen at the end of this page.  Curiously, both the wiki writer and Zandbergen chose to omit the paragraph which follows d’Imperio’s account of O’Neill’s ideas. She wrote:

Other scholars, however, completely reject O’Neill’s identification of the sunflower and pepper plant and are as emphatic in their claim that none of the plants pictured in the manuscript are of New World origin. Helmut Lehmann-Haupt..stated in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November 1963 that “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400.

Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8

Why, do you think, both ‘beginners’ sites  omit that simple fact: that the manuscript’s date –  already agreed by specialists before it was confirmed by radiocarbon dating – absolutely denies O’Neill’s ideas?

However, let’s look at all the evidence…

Sun flower or not? – Short answer

If I were to cut out all the historical and botanical and codicological and other evidence informing my own opinion, would you be satisfied just to be told it, like this:

  “the manuscript does not, cannot and never did include the picture of an American sunflower”.  Would that satisfy you?

O’Neill offered his readers no more.  What he said was:

The most startling identification, however, was fol. 93, which is …  Helianthus annuus L. Six botanists have agreed with me on this determination. This immediately recalls the date 1493, when the seeds of this plant were brought to Europe for the first time by Columbus on his return from his second voyage.

  • Hugh O’Neill, ‘Botanical Observations on the Voynich MS.’, Speculum, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1944), p. 126. The entire note is less than 300 words long.

That’s not a ‘plant-identification’ – let alone a ‘determination’. What is is, is an ill-informed  guess about the intention behind an unusual drawing…  which is a very different thing, though  modern botanists seem never, and  Voynicheros rarely, to realise that.

O’Neill’s approach to the manuscript is a perfect instance of  ‘Wilfridism‘ – No preliminary argument or evidence; the idea asserted with unreasonable confidence; historical ‘bits’ attached, though their relevance is inferred, not proven… and the reader given no means to ‘stress-test’ the idea.  .The reader’s only permitted role is to bow the head, and believe.

The picture he is talking about is on the front – recto – side of folio 93… (f. 93r). Here it is   (left) as illustrated in O’Neill’s ‘note’ of 1944 to Speculum, and (right) as the public can see it today online through the Beinecke Library website.

Fig. 2

To be fair to O’Neill – the head  could be meant for some member (or former member) of the enormous family  Asteraceae,

But this level of ‘identification’ is just a game.  Anyone can do it.. If i were inclined to mischief I could make an equal claim for Scleasia villosa, …. though  of course I won’t. 🙂

So now, down to practicalities.  Is  O’Neill’s idea even feasible

Dating the page.

Folio 93r is not in one of the top eleven  quires from which samples were taken to establish a date range by radio-carbon dating, and it might be argued that because this bifolio comes from Quire 17, its date might lie outside that date-range of 1404-1438. (Don’t blame the scientists in the lab; the process was interfered with changed by an outsider evidently ignorant of how important  standard methods are to scientific analyses)   But if we wanted to be severe we might argue that the dating applies only to those top eleven quires.

Dating the folio.

However, the bifolio in question   is a simple bifolio (not a fold-out) and  in all other respects is similar to bifolios forming the standard upper quires.

Fig. 4. Julian Bunn

Further, Julian Bunn’s recent analysis  sets f.93r firmly within [at approx. -149/-10] the ‘Currier A’ script/language group to which most folios in those higher, standard-sized quires also belong.

So the manuscript itself places this bifolio among those which were dated to 1404-1438, which in turn tells us that the vellum was made at least half a century before Columbus’ voyages.  Add to that the absence of any evidence for longer-than-average delay between the vellum’s being finished and its inscription,  and the only reasonable default position is that it was probably inscribed before 1440 or so.

We know, too, that the large vegetable pictures were set down on the page first, and the writing then set around them; no question of someone coming later and ‘fitting the pictures in’.

Even if we  imagine the vellum waited, blank, until 1493, O’Neill’s ‘theory’ has another substantial objection:.

His idea that Columbus returned from his second voyage in 1493  bearing live sunflower seeds is fiction.

It didn’t happen.

Curiously, no Voynich-writer seems to have looked for what evidence was supposed to inform this idea, which, like everything said by O’Neill in that brief note, was just asserted.

For some reason, the history of this manuscript’s study is replete with persons who have preferred to believe what they were told, than to doubt and try to ensure by their own research that what they finally did come to believe was certain as current knowledge permits. “But why did no-one ask..?” “But why did no-one check…?” are questions that will arise constantly as we follow the study’s history into the present.

In this case, excitement took over.  People who found their ‘theories’ well suited by the ‘sunflower’ notion believed it; others disbelieved but were hardly heard through the seventies and eighties after Professor R.S. Brumbaugh of Yale started repeating the idea as if it were something undeniable.  But  where O’Neill got his ‘1493’ notion we don’t know; because O’Neill’s ‘note’ gives no references of any sort.

To as late as 2017, Craig Bauer repeats the idea – again evidently on faith (Unsolved!…p.25), though by then any such idea about Colombus’ second voyage was long gone from histories of America, of Columbus or of the sunflower.

The disproof is fairly obvious. Columbus was never in North America and sunflowers didn’t grow where he went.

Title page to Lettera delle isole novamente trovata by Giuliano Dati. 1493. Library of Congress. and wikicommons

During the four separate trips beginning with that of 1492, Columbus landed on various Caribbean islands that are now the Bahamas and the island of the Antilles later called Hispaniola. He also explored the Central and South American coasts. But he didn’t reach North America…. and he never thought he had found a new continent.  (These facts are too well known, and easily checked, to need references here – D).

As early as 1955, an expert on the history of sunflowers, and a teacher of botany and biology had written what is still regarded as a masterful study:

  • Charles B. Heiser, Jr. ‘The Origin and Development of the Cultivated Sunflower’, The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 17, No. 5 (May, 1955), pp. 161-167.

I think it best to quote him at some length, not least to point out that the first sunflowers which did reach Europe (in the sixteenth century) had purple disks and were called ‘Peruvian chrysanthemums’. I’ll condense the quotation so you can skip it if you like.

The sunflower has been known from Mexico since the sixteenth century, and is grown to a very limited extent among Indians in Northern Mexico today. The Mexican sunflowers are characterized by a slight beak on top of the achene which is unique among cultivated sunflowers today although the beak has also been found on certain prehistoric achenes. Mangelsdorf and Reeves maintain that the sunflower was not known in Mexico in early times, supporting their claim with the fact that the sunflower is known today only in northern Mexico and known by the name mai’z de teia which “indicates that it was introduced from elsewhere, and after corn was already there.” Although the supposition that the sunflower arrived in Mexico after corn was present seems very likely, it should be pointed out that the sunflower was also known under the names of “chimalacatl” and “anthilion” which are not derived from the word maize.


The first published record of the sunflower in Europe is in 1568 when the sunflower was illustrated  and described very completely by Dodonaeus. Thereafter there are frequent accounts of the sunflower by the herbalists. According to the descriptions, the first sunflowers introduced into Europe had purple disks, and there was considerable diversity in the achene coloration-black, white, and striped forms are mentioned. Dodonaeus listed Peru as the native home of the sunflower, and for a time it went under the name Chrysanthemum Peruvianum. There is no evidence to substantiate the pre-Colombian occurrence of the sunflower in South America. The assignment of plants to “Peru” in the early herbals cannot always be taken literally, but simply as indications that the plant came from somewhere in the Americas. The first introduction of the sunflower into Europe probably came from Mexico by way of the Spanish explorers and subsequently from “Virginia” and “Canada” by the French and English. There can be little doubt that the sunflower went to Europe from somewhere in North America. As previously pointed out there are no records of its cultivation in South America in prehistoric times, and its cultivation there today can be dated as very recent. The wild sunflower extends into northern Mexico which also was the southern limit for the cultivation of the domesticated plant. 131_176_243_12 (pp.165-6)

What about the ‘plants and seeds’ Columbus brought back?

Well, the negative case is overwhelming against any of those ‘plants and seeds’ having included viable sunflower seeds or plants.  No-where in the modern literature, or indeed the remaining  Columban records does one find it suggested that sunflowers or viable sunflower seeds reached Europe before the sixteenth century.  At least not that I can find; you may have better luck.  One reference I’ve not yet had opportunity to consult, and for which I’m indebted to John Sandbakken, President of the (American) National Sunflower Association, may say more and better:

  • Albert Armin Schneiter, Gerald J. Seiler, J. M. Bartels, Sunflower technology and production, American Society of Agronomy (1997).

However, in 1992, Griffenhagen’s detailed study of Columbus’ efforts to find spice-plants in those lands which Columbus did visit – believing till the day he died they were the (eastern) ‘Spice Islands’ – also lists the sources we have for Columbus’ voyages including those of his  boticário  ‘Maestre Diego’ who wouldn’t have seen a sunflower, either.

And on the subject of what plants Columbus did bring back, believing them the ‘materia medica’ of eastern spices, Griffenhagen quotes Samuel Eliot Morison, an historian specialising in  Columbus’ life and voyages:

Gumbo limbo tree, native to the jungles of Venezuela.     photo courtesy of the Green Shop.

 “How pathetic it is that Columbus loaded his vessels’ holds with worthless plants such as agave (thought to be aloe),  gumbo-limbo (thought to be mastic), false cinnamon, nuts that weren’t coconuts, and false rhubarb- while ignoring other products that subsequently spread worldwide”

  • George B. Griffenhagen, ‘The Materia Medica of Christopher Columbus’, Pharmacy in History, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1992), pp. 131-145 quoting Samuel Eliot Morison and Maurício Obregon, The Caribbean as Columbus Saw It (1955) n.54.

So, not Columbus.

Not 1493.

(Ok so far?)

nor have I found any suggestion in the literature that Columbus brought back an herbarium (a collection of dried plants).

Could it still be a sunflower? (Iconographic notes):

Even if – just for argument’s sake – we imagine a longer period between the vellum’s making and its being inscribed, the idea makes no historical or iconographic sense.  Suppose we imagine that date even as late as Panofsky’s joking “1510”.

In 1510, who is likely to have drawn the plant in the way we see it in the Beinecke manuscript?

Not Europeans, who had loved drawing petals and leaves for centuries by that time, and who continued to emphasise those elements in the earliest European drawings of the sunflower.  The first known was by a Fleming who hadn’t even been born in 1510, but let’s not worry about that! O’Neill certainly didn’t trouble to check the feasibility of his notion, and none of the ‘New World’ theorists seem to have done so since then.

Below, the first illustration of the sunflower known from Europe: Dodoens’, published in 1568 … and next to it another unmistakeably European drawing: from Matteolus’ herbal of 1586…  Note how the westerners always show the leaves veined and heart-shaped and do not include root-systems as part of  the main ‘portrait’.

Fig.7 (a) and 7 (b)

But what the hey… let’s go a whole two hundred years past the vellum’s date, to  drawings made in 1615 by Francisco Hernández, court physician to King Felipe II of Spain. See again: the European botanists see a plant chiefly in terms of the flower, and always include the petals as well as rendering carefully the leaves’ veination.

Fig 8 (a) and 8 (b)

Not like plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript at all, are they?

What about the native Nahua?

Well, it’s true they didn’t draw like Europeans, and they didn’t find it necessary to include petals – but then they didn’t include the sunflower’s leaves, either. Europeans saw things one way; they saw them another.  Neither – even in the  sixteenth century, saw sunflowers in a way remotely like the picture on f.93r.

We know about the Nahua conventions in art because a number of sunflowers appear in friar Bernardino de Sahagún’s forty-five year labour to document life among the Aztecs. Not that it matters; his work began far too late (1545) and wasn’t available before it was completed at his death in 1590, but just to settle the point I add illustrations.

(I am indebted to Dr. Magnus Pharao Hansen, University of Copenhagen, for responding to my query to his blog, and directing me to the website from which I have the following detail from the Florentine Codex).  Sunflowers in the visual language of the new world are nothing like sunflowers in the visual language of sixteenth-century Europeans.  And neither speaks the same visual language as the imagery in Beinecke MS 408 – just as the Voynich text does not speak Nahuatl. (Thanks to Prof. Hansen for proving that, and to Nick Pelling for drawing attention to Prof.Hansen’s work).


The difference between the Nahua drawings and the European drawings is not due to their drawing things differently;  Nahuas, and the Europeans  drew plants in different style because they apprehended plants differently.  Between the eye and the mind, information is processed and filtered, and among those filters are cultural, religious, customary and expected outcomes.  What the mind ‘sees’ is not identical to what the light upon the eye makes. What we have are called different ‘ways of seeing’ and they are extraordinarily difficult to erase or replace. That’s why we can provenance pre-modern imagery by reference to stylistics.

About O’Neill’s idea   everything is wrong:  codiology, iconography, history, and his own lamentably poor ‘method’.

What is so infuriating is that those  flaws were obvious – and had been told to O’Neill – before he submitted that cursory ‘note’ for publication.

We know this from two letters which Fr. Petersen wrote to Anne Nill – one before, and one after, the article appeared in print in 1944.

I had hoped to link to those letters directly but since I find them no-where else online, I’ll copy what I quoted on my own (now-unavailable) blog in 2016, from Zandbergen’s account of them.  Zandbergen’s site re-presents a large selection of researchers’ work, past and present, though all  bearing the stamp of Zandbergen’s personal ‘take’. Zandbergen’s tagging O’Neill a “herbal expert” and Fr. Petersen  as ‘mortified’ will do as well as any other  example: see notes on those two men at the end of this Page.

What Zandbergen had earlier said, apparently quoting the two letters – included the following:

From a letter by Fr.Petersen – date given as July 27, 1942.

Dear Miss Nill,

I was very much mortified when I saw in yesterday’s “Sunday Star” …. a gabled [read ‘garbled’ -D] report of the short article which Dr. O Neill wrote for the “Speculum” and which has not yet appeared in print. …. Dr. O’Neill has not partially translated the cipher manuscript; nor was he the first to notice that two of the drawings resembled the sunflower and the red pepper. Moreover, if his guesses were to prove correct he would have no right to argue that the MS should be dated at least a century later than Roger Bacon, but he would have to maintain that the MS was 2 ½ centuries later than R. Bacon in which claim no paleographer can support him. ..

Note that important comment – “no palaeographer can support him”.

The second letter was said by Zandbergen (in 2016) to have been dated December 1st., 1944:

I personally am sorry that he wrote that note for the “Speculum”, for I am certain that he is wrong in his conclusion. I have told him many times that he is wrong, that the MS is certainly older [i.e. earlier -D] than 1493. He did not show me his manuscript before he sent it to the “Speculum” …

Note that Fr. Petersen is *not* complaining that he should have precedence for these ‘identifications’ but saying that others had noted that resemblance but (unlike O’Neill) had not confused a personal impression with an understanding of the maker’s intentions.

So let’s look again at O’Neill’s short paragraph:

“fol. 93  is …  Helianthus annuus L.”…

Such an idea   doesn’t fit the vellum’s date, nor the date of the binding, nor the style of  European images of the sunflower which begin from the late sixteenth century.   Nor does the folio show the Nahua convention for a sunflower.

Six botanists have agreed with me on this determination.

None are named and none are cited.  That’s not how any  botanical identification is made.

This immediately recalls the date 1493, when the seeds of this plant were brought to Europe for the first time (by Columbus on his return from his second voyage). 

Wrong – and irrelevant.

So whose ‘way of seeing’ informs the plant-picture on folio 93r?

This isn’t the place to answer that question because the answer’s obviously not going to involve sunflowers or the Americas.

Here it’s enough to say it wasn’t the  Nahuas, nor does it reflect the customs of  European plant-pictures of the fifteenth, sixteenth or seventeenth centuries – especially not drawings meant to make a ‘portrait’ of a plant for the purposes of botanical identification and description.

And if the picture isn’t intended to offer a ‘real portrait’ then trying to identify the plant by presuming literalism is an exercise in futility – as indeed efforts have largely been since 1912.

Without being told that the Nahua sunflower was a sunflower, I daresay most who saw it would be as bewildered as they are by the imagery in Beinecke MS 408.

Below is a single, composite image, of a kind now found everywhere in Voynich sites and writings and whose aim is to create a predominantly visual argument for identifying one of the images with this plant, or that.

Figure from: Ellie Velinska (blog) ‘Plant id list‘ July 14th., 2013. Note that in ‘Voynich studies’ no distinction is made between assertion and determination. e.g. Sherwood asserted an image ‘the banana’; unaware of this, I published a 5,000 word study, including detailed iconographic analysis, identification and determination with cultural and other sources employed to provenance the image and explain its every detail –  and make clear how my determination was gained.  The only source normally mentioned by Voynicheros (including Velinska) is Sherwood.

In showing that example above, I’ve chosen  the best example I know from the  best ‘Voynichero’ writer whose identifications are offered in this form and online.  (I’m sure I’ve not seen them all and if you prefer another, leave a comment).

Ellie Velinska does attend to the plant’s habit (as so many others do not), and does  pay attention to the way a leaf attaches to the stem.  I can think of no other Voynichero who has paid such close attention to the advice and examples I offered in writing about the plant-pictures between  2010-2012 inclusive.  Velinska has also adopted the desirable practice of accompanying her proposed identifications with a global distribution map.

What her work lacks is analytical-critical commentary on the Voynich images, and historical commentary demonstrating that the proposal is historically valid, being compatible with her proposed date and cultural origin for the image’s first enunciation.   These elements being absent leads her sometimes to an awkward position – such as accepting O’Neill’s sunflower on the one hand, but on the other proposing that the image on another folio is meant for  India’s ‘jaggery/sugar’ palm. How she imagines both could occur in a manuscript dated to 1404-1438 and which (as I understand) she imagines made in Germany at that time is a major problem in her work left un-addressed. It speaks very well of her honesty, therefore, that despite being unable to create a comprehensive explanation, she follows the evidence and does not fudge her conclusions the better to have them fit a pre-determined ‘theory’ – as so many have done, and still do.

But if only O’Neill had employed Velinska’s level of care, it would have been a massive improvement and he might even have ditched that ‘note’ before sending it for publication.

Hugh O’Neill and Fr. Petersen ‘A fool rushes in where an angel will not go.’

References still on  Zandbergen’s site today read as follows.

[1] Some ‘furore’ was generated in the 1940’s by the identification of a Sunflower and a pepper plant by the herbal expert* O’Neill, suggesting that the MS postdates Columbus’ second voyage to America, in 1493. These identifications are far from being generally accepted, however.

the phrase ‘herbal expert’ is misleading. O’Neill had no particular knowledge of medieval manuscripts including medieval herbals.

[2] O’Neill was a Benedictine monk and botanist at the Catholic University who identified some plants in the MS as being New-World species, specifically Sunflower and Capsicum, see O’Neill (1944). He is also quoted frequently in the hand transcription of [Fr. T.O.] Petersen. and in his p

and in his page ‘Voynich solvers’ Zandbergen presently writes (n.22)

[3]”In a letter to Anne Nill, [no details offered] Petersen is “mortified” about this paper [by O’Neill], among others because, as he says, O’Neill was not the first to tentatively identify the sunflower and capsicum.”

As you see the important information – the information beginners really need if they are not to be misled – is absent, viz. that O’Neill’s ideas are impossible; that the better-informed Fr. Petersen knew it, and that O’Neill had insisted on publishing an idea that he had already been told was impossible. Fr. Petersen’s feeling of ‘mortification’ was the frustration and embarrassment he felt at seeing someone with whom he was associated publish a nonsense – and despite his own best efforts. 

Petersen vs O’Neill

Fig. 10
Fr. Theodore C. Petersen C.S.P.

Like Erwin Panofsky, Theodore Petersen was German by birth {though born in India] and a German-trained art historian and scholar. Petersen’s area of specialisation was medieval Christian German art, love of which led him to change his original intention to become a Lutheran pastor, and instead convert to Catholicity and then undertake the decade’s study in medieval and modern religious and philosophical studies (most in Latin) then required to become a Catholic priest. He finally joined the Paulist order – gaining the letters C.S.P after his name.  So he certainly read Latin fluently in addition to his deep knowledge of medieval art. And he had also taken classical Greek.

I found the above biographical information partly in Petersen’s Obituary notice from Boston College in The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 54, Number 8 (7th. August, 1915) p.114 col.3 and partly here.  When I re-published it in 2016, I found the details no-where else in ‘Voynichland’ – though of course that situation may since have changed.

  • D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Comparing… the issue of ‘translating’ imagery Pt2’ (voynichimagery, July 28th., 2016)

Petersen’s close familiarity with the manuscript was recorded by d’Imperio and was early commented upon in the first mailing list as  e.g. by Luis Vélez, who wrote  (08 Jun 2002):

I was intrigued by the fact that Father Petersen had spent some time studying Lull’s works, among others. D’Imperio tells us that Father Petersen spent 4 years transcribing the VMS (approx. 250,000 characters), spent $25.00 of his 1931 money over 122 photostats from Ms. Voynich’s copy, and spent at least 14 years of his life studying the MS.

Petersen had been involved longer, was better qualified to provenance the imagery, gave and shared his substantial body of research, and was overall the most thoroughly involved outsider permitted to communicate with the NSA cryptanalysts after the ‘shut-down’ which Friedman apparently instituted in the early 50s.(see previous ‘Military cryptanalysts….’ posts).

Fr. Petersen’s being  formally  qualified to analyse and provenance imagery is not the least important aspect of his involvement and is something which (though few realised it) is essential to any study which must begin by determining the degree to which the draughtmen intended, or wanted, literalism.

Neglect of that question of intent  has been the chronic failure in modern  writers’ – and especially of botanical scientists’ – assertions about the manuscript’s images.

Too few have bothered to consider the  distinction between this  manuscript’s drawings and what is routinely expected today from students of botany or biology.  To gloss the – very obvious – disparity between modern custom and what is found in this manuscript, the habit has been as constant as irrational to resort to imagination – to imagine that the draughtsmen  *should* have drawn in a style more legible to the modern amateur westerner, and then to invent for the unhappy artisans a character that is supposed mad, incompetent or immature…because they didn’t draw that way.  It is a position as ridiculous as asserting that an insular carpet page is a ‘poor effort at Arabic calligraphy’. But since few really think, or read, enough to become conscious of their own implicit argument, this fundamental error repeats.. and repeats… and repeats.. and repeats … in Voynich-related writings. We are told, over and over again, in effect, that the twenty-first century amateur’s theory describes not what is on the page, but what ‘ought’ to be imagined there.  That because the manuscript does not conform to the theory, the theory (and not the manuscript) should be taken as the ‘true and righteous measure’.

Interestingly, both those specialists in German Christian art, Panofsky and Petersen, saw nothing of German Christian art in the manuscript. Both – before Friedman became involved – gave their opinion (Panofsky in a private assessment of 1931) that the manuscript suggested Spain or ‘somewhere southern’.

..and so, having now done something to repair any misunderstanding about Fr. Petersen’s qualifications and studies, let me now turn to correct any false impression of Hugh O’Neill….

Hugh O’Neill & Albert O.Tucker

I’ll begin by quoting an announcement about his ‘Note’ to show the general tone of writings about the manuscript at that time.

According to a Science Service report which appeared in the New York Times, July 30, 1944, botanical evidence has been produced which allegedly militates against the authorship of the famous Voynich Manuscript. This unsolved cipher is usually attributed to Roger Bacon, who died in 1292. The new evidence against his authorship consists in the fact [sic!] that at least two of the plants depicted in its illustrations were unknown in Europe until after Columbus returned from the New World. One of these illustrations is that of a sunflower; but it is definitely known [sic!]  that sunflower seeds were first brought to Europe in 1493. Thus Professor Hugh O’Neill, botanist of the Catholic University, fairly well established a formidable probability against the Voynich Manuscript being the handiwork of Roger Bacon.

  • Irenaeus Herscher, O.F.M. (St. Bonaventure College, St. Bonaventure, N. Y), in ‘Items of Interest’, Franciscana: Franciscan Studies, New Series, Vol. 5, No. 2 (June1945), pp. 197-206. The passage occurs on p.204.

As you see, O’Neill is described simply a botanist employed at the Catholic University of America, Washington. There is no claim made about supposed eminence, or expertise in [medieval] herbals, and the general absence of ‘O’Neill’s name from any modern index of botanical science would suggest  his place in that history is minor.

This is the most enthusiastic account I’ve found of O’Neill’s career:

The herbarium at the Catholic University of America languished until the appointment of the Rev. Hugh Thomas O’Neill (1894-1969), who served on its faculty from 1930 to 1956 (Anonymous, 1934; Grimley, 1969) and formally established LCU during the first year of his tenure (Holmgren et al., 1981). An energetic promoter of this institution’s herbarium, the Rev. O’Neill was instrumental in organizing the deposition of collections at LCU from various Catholic institutions and collectors around the world (Anonymous,1934; O’Neill, 1933). The Rev. O’Neill was also an energetic collector himself and authority on the Cyperaceae, depositing vouchers at LCU from his trips throughout Maryland, the Bahamas, southern Florida, Yucatan, and (in 1936, sponsored by the University of Michigan) British Honduras. He was the major professor on 15 Ph.D. (Table 1) and 43 M.S. dissertations (Table 2) on topics ranging from monographs (mostly of the Cyperaceae) to local floras, the vouchers for which, in all cases, were filed at LCU. In addition, the Rev. O’Neill established an extensive exchange program with duplicate specimens to augment the LCU collections. In 1934 alone, he sent out 13,607 exchange specimens (mostly from Florida and the Bahamas) to over 33 institutions around the world ..and eight minor institutions not listed in Holmgren et al. (1981) (Anonymous, 1934). Many important sets of temperate and neotropical exsiccatae (most notably those of Ynes Mexia, C. L. Lundell, Bento J. Pickel, P. H. Gentle, H. S. Gentry, and G. Klug, among many others) thus found their way to LCU.

  • Arthur O. Tucker, Muriel E. Poston and Hugh H. Iltis, ‘History of the LCU Herbarium, 1895-1986’. Taxon, Vol. 38, No. 2 (May, 1989), pp. 196-203.
Fig. 11

Note that one of those authors –  ‘Arthur O.Tucker’  – is a Voynich writer espousing the ‘New World’ idea and specifically reworking a  ‘Nauhatl’ theory first proposed and argued by Comegys (whose precedence Tucker rather improperly fails to acknowledge).  error corrected 2/04/2019 with apologies to Tucker, whose version of Nahuatl owes little to Comegys’.

Tucker’s ideas were issued in print in 2013, reviewed by Pelling in 2014 – and were then discovered by the (then-new) Voynichero,  J.K.Peterson who wrote:  (28th. Jan 2016)

One of the more interesting ideas on the origin of the VMS was offered by Arthur O. Tucker, botanist, and Rexford H. Talbert, an information technologist with an interest in chemistry and botany. Tucker and Talbert’s 2013 paper was published in the American Botanical Council’s journal, the HerbalGram. A New World origin was proposed, with the suggestion that an extinct form of the Nahuatl language underlay the text.

Thankfully – as you will know – that Nahuatl idea has been  demolished recently, brick and stone,  by  Magnus Pharao Hansen.

Back to O’Neill as alleged ‘herbal expert’:

O’Neill is credited among the dozen and more persons who helped Donovan S. Correll find source-materials for an article about Florida’s ferns in 1938.

  • Donovan S. Correll, ‘A County Check-List of Florida Ferns and Fern Allies’,  American Fern Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1938), pp. 11-16.

A very general mention in Lepage’s Acknowledgements for a paper of 1951 (see further below)

  • Ernest Lepage, ‘New or Noteworthy Plants in the Flora of Alaska’, The American Midland Naturalist, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Nov., 1951), pp. 754-759.

It appears that O’Neill first became acquainted with LePage’s colleagues, Dutilly and Duman, having published (as ‘junior author’) a joint paper with the last-named in 1937.

This paper is based upon the study of the large collections of Carex made during eight consecutive summers in eastern and western Canada by Rev. Artheme Dutilly, O.M.I., as well as those made by the junior author in 1938 at various points from Churchill, Manitoba, to Winter Island in Fox Basin and in Northern Ungava, and our joint collection in 1939 on the coasts of Labrador, Hudson Strait and the eastern coast of Hudson Bay and James Bay”

  • Hugh O’Neill and Maximilian Duman, ‘A New Species of Carex and Some Notes on this Genus in Arctic Canada’, Rhodora, Vol. 43, No. 513 (September, 1941), pp. 413-425.

For just one year – 1947 –  O’Neill was among those ‘occasional third parties’ who went along on the still well-known expeditions of Legpage and Dutilly. The protocols for scientific work then saw O’Neill’s name duly added to their discoveries for 1947, e.g.

ABIES LASIOCARPA (Hook.) Nutt. N. Am. Sylva 3: 38. 1849; Central Pacific Coast Distr.: Chugach Mts., Anchorage, Dutilly, Lepage & O’Neill 20537, June 30, 1947.

  • ibid., p. 755

In speaking of O’Neill, both Boivin (and Lepage) employ a tone which professional scholars will doubtless recognise; that which maintains scrupulous professional courtesy yet conveys a sense of dismissing the ‘hack’ colleague.  Thus, Boivin:

Starting with 1943 most expeditions, except in 1948-49, 1959 and 1962, were joint enterprises between Dutilly and Lepage. Third parties are often present: P. Dagenais in 1945, M. Duman in 1951-52, H. O’Neill in 1947″  (p.93)

Dutilly is known to have started his collecting in 1933 and to have added to his private herbarium until 1964. Collections were mostly from Quebec, Ontario, the arctic islands, Keewatin, Mackenzie, Yukon, Alaska, Labrador, Greenland and a limited amount from Manitoba and Alberta. It held a partial set of Dutilly’s own collecting and of joint collections with Lepage and also included a good showing of Lepage duplicates and limited amounts from M. Duman and H. O’Neill. Some exchange was also received from a variety of sources, including DAO and DISKO. Dutilly’s herbarium probably held more than 100 isotypes, mainly of taxa described by Lepage,(p.94)

Probably more than half of [Lepage’s]  herbarium was named or checked by specialists and possibly 75% of it has been cited in the botanical literature. Mostly, his herbarium holds his own collections and a rather good set of those of Dutilly after 1943 as well as a good showing of M. Duman and H. O’Neill. There is also some material sent to him for identification but only a limited amount of exchange. Although Lepage was an excellent collector and he picked up as much duplicate material as his primitive travelling conditions would permit, he was not too keen on acquiring exchange material. He preferred to send his duplicates away for identification or in return for a verification. (p.95)

  • Bernard Boivin, ‘Ernest Lepage and Artheme Dutilly, Their Travels and Herbaria’, Taxon, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Feb., 1983), pp. 92-96.

I find everywhere the impression conveyed that O’Neill was a minor figure, more-or-less  in tagging along with more eminent associates, chiefly by way of Duman, and this impression is reinforced by the complete absence of specifics in Lepage’s own acknowledgements:

The writer gratefully acknowledges assistance from Hugh O’Neill, Professor of Botany, of The Catholic University of America, from Herman Persson, Stockholm, for determinations of mosses and liverworts, from A. E. Porsild, National Herbarium of Canada, Ottawa, for revision and criticism of two specimens of Carex, and from A. Dutilly, Director of Arctic Institute, Catholic University of America, for bibliographic data provided. (Lepage, op.cit. (1951) p.759

The following two-page article by O’Neill offers a taxonomic argument; whether the argument stood the test of time, I don’t know:

  • Hugh O’Neill, ‘Cyperus Polystachyos var. filicinus’, Rhodora, Vol. 42, No. 495 (March, 1940), pp. 84-86.

I find no evidence that he had any particular expertise, or interest in, medieval European herbals.  His papers concern new world species gathered in the field and were published chiefly (and perhaps only) in Rhodora, the Journal of the New England botanical club. He understood how to maintain an herbarium, but that is rather a different thing from being a ‘herbal expert’.

If you’re really interested in this subject, you might read

  • [pdf] Claude Roy,  Mémoire de l’Herbier Louis-Marie (No 31)Catalogue des types des innovations taxonomiques décrites par l’abbé Ernest Lepage. (2009).

But the main point, I suppose, is that when seeking confirmation of his ‘sunflower’ idea, the above are the persons O’Neill is  likely to have turned to, and who were most likely to humour him.  Since he mentions none by name, and quotes the opinion given by none, their ‘confirmation’ may be as overstated/misleading as Zandbergen’s idea of O’Neill as “a  herbal expert”. And of course, the whole idea of the botanical imagery as intended for a ‘herbal’ is another Wilfridism – or perhaps one should say a Newboldism.  All efforts at proof presume the things they should be investigating, and assert what they should prove.

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