Pierre Magnol was born in 1638 to an apothecary’s family in Montpellier. He enrolled as a medical student at the University of Montpellier in May 1655.
By Magnol’s time, Montpellier was an important, long-established commercial and educational center. Montpellier was the first university in France to establish a botanic garden for medicine and pharmacology.
After receiving his degree (MD) in 1659, Mangol’s attention shifted to botany. In 1687, he became Demonstrator of Plants at the botanic garden. Magnol was appointed Director of the Montpellier botanic garden in 1696, later Inspector of the Garden until his death in 1715.
Magnol’s most important contribution is the concept of plant families. He developed 76 tables, which not only grouped plants into families but also allowed for easy and rapid identification, an important step towards a tree of life.
Magnolia as botanical nomenclature first appeared in Charles Plumier’s Genera (1702) for a flowering tree in Martinique. Much closer to home, William Sherard, who studied botany under a pupil’s of Magnol (Tournefort,) adopted the name Magnolia in the taxonomy of Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1730) for another flowering tree.
It’s almost certain Linnaeus never saw a specimen of Plumier’s Magnolia, if one even existed, and left with a scribbled description and a scrawled drawing, must have taken it—rather despite the yawning geographic disparity—for the same plant described by Catesby.
Things eventually ironed out. Initially, Linnaeus described a monotypic genus, with the sole species being Magnolia virginiana—which we know as the sweetbay magnolia—and assigned it five varieties. He later raised these to species status. The Madagascan plant Plumier described is now known as Magnolia dodecapetala.
The name Magnol now adorns a genus with anywhere from 210 to 340 species (we have 8 in the southeastern US), a family (Magnoliaceae) with two genera, Magnolia and Liriodendron (tulip trees), and division (Magnoliids) with more than 10,000 species.