Medical Practitioners and the Gardens They Shaped in the Late Eighteenth Century

The late eighteenth century represented a high point for botanic collecting and garden creation in Britain as new plants and seeds arrived from overseas and were grown with much excitement and fascination in institutional, public, and private gardens. Medical practitioners, who studied botany as part of their training, were in an excellent position to capitalise on this fashionable interest in plants. Those that did created gardens that were key sites for the development and exchange of scientific, horticultural, and agricultural knowledge during this period. To get a flavour of the range and variety of these landscapes, Clare Hickman, author of The Doctor’s Garden: Medicine, Science, and Horticulture in Britain has identified six significant examples of medical practitioners and the places they shaped

The only known image of John Hope, who is depicted with a gardener presumably at
the Leith Walk garden. Coloured etching by John Kay, 1786. Credit: John Hope. Coloured etching by J. Kay, 1786.

John Hope and the Leith Walk Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

In the 1760s, John Hope, the Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and King’s botanist, created a state-of-the-art botanic garden at Leith Walk, Edinburgh. As the study of plants formed the focus of the course, botany for medical students was traditionally taught within the botanic garden itself. This garden provided the necessary specimens for Hope to conduct a sensory approach to his teaching. In his introductory lecture he outlined his belief that “we derive more knowledge from the senses viz. the taste and smell, than from all books together.” The design of the garden with its winding paths, hot houses, and purpose-built gardener’s cottage with a classroom on the first floor provided a model for later experimental and teaching gardens. Gardeners were key as their knowledge, particularly of new plant material arriving from overseas was invaluable. The first head gardener, at Leith Walk, John Williamson, helped with the creation and maintenance of the garden as well as plant experimentation and teaching, and was memorialised by Hope on his death, as being “esteemed for eminent skill in his profession”.

John Fothergill and Upton House (now West Ham park), London

John Fothergill’s garden at Upton which is depicted with the essential team of gardeners as well as exotic plants and birds. Engraving as reproduced in A. Logan Turner, Joseph, Baron Lister: centenary volume, 1827-1927 (Edinburgh & London: Oliver & Boyd, Credit: Joseph, Baron Lister : centenary volume, 1827-1927 / edited for the Lister Centenary Committee of the British Medical Association, by A. Logan Turner.

Gardeners as specialist technicians were essential for all these gardens but perhaps particularly when their employer was a busy medical man with a large practice. Dr John Fothergill, for example, rarely saw his garden in Upton, as he was kept away by work but he nevertheless had 15 gardeners constantly employed to maintain it and to grew new specimens. His friend and mentee, Dr John Coakley Lettsom described Upton as a “perpetual spring … where the elegant proprietor sometimes retired for a few hours, to contemplate the vegetable productions of the four quarters of the globe united within his domain; where the spheres seemed transposed, and the arctic circle to be joined to the equator.” This Edenic flattening of the globe within the garden was both a symbolic organization, as well as a physical manifestation of the vegetable productions of the British Empire which was stretching ever further across the known world. The numerous plants arrived at Upton via his networks of plant hunters, collectors and grateful patients demonstrating how these gardens were connected via networks of trade and friendship. This reconnection of gardens to their broader context also helps to reveal elements that are often hidden in relation to garden creation and maintenance including the labour of women and gardeners, as well as the interlinking of the arrival of exotic plant material, and animals, via trading routes, including those of enslaved people.

William Curtis and the London Botanic Garden, Initially Based in Bermondsey, London

William Curtis and friends on a botanising expedition as depicted on the frontispiece to Curtis’ Flora Londinensis, which catalogued and described the plants found in the London area. Stipple engraving by W. Evans, 1802. Credit: William Curtis: (above) portrait; below, Curtis and friends botanizing. Stipple engraving by W. Evans, 1802.

In 1770 the apothecary William Curtis met Lettsom and Fothergill for dinner to discuss the concept of establishing a subscription botanic garden, in which all the species of plants that had been identified in the London area would be grown, with a central purpose to teach botany and the uses of plants, as well as providing a place for horticultural experimentation. This garden became the London Botanic Garden, originally based in Bermondsey. Curtis stated that it was “designed for the use of the physician, the Apothecary, the student in Physic, the scientific Farmer, the Botanist (particularly the English Botanist), the lover of Flowers and the Public in general.” This is a much broader remit than institutional botanic gardens designed for the training of medical practitioners. This is suggestive of a need for a wide base for subscribers to the garden to make it financially viable, and also an awareness of the growing popularity of botany and the acquisition of botanical knowledge by the public at large. Other successful subscription schemes followed in regional centres, and these were seen by the commercial classes as a way to encourage the dissemination of a utilitarian understanding of plants and highlight their potential economic importance. Their role as places of education, rational recreation and civic pride can also be seen as fore runners of more freely available public parks, libraries, and museums.

John Coakley Lettsom and Grove Hill in Camberwell, London

Dr John Coakley Lettsom and his family in their garden at Grove Hill, Camberwell, London, painted in oil in around 1786 by an unknown artist. Licence: Public Domain Mark Credit: M0000746: John Coakley Lettsom (1733-1810), physician, with his family. Wellcome Collection.

Botanic collections could also be found in domestic settings. According to his 1794 guidebook, Lettsom’s country house at Grove Hill was laid out so that, “the library opens by a glass door into the garden through the greenhouse; and by another door into the museum or repository for natural history and other curiosities.” This physical relationship highlights the close connections between different collections (botanic, book, object) and the ways in which these were used to develop an understanding of the natural world. The botanic garden, by having species of plants that were easily identifiable by their labels and catalogued, meant that it was, like other scientific collections, arranged to be read in a similar manner to libraries. Here the domestic home garden was treated as a scientific space, with labelled specimens, horticultural experiments and even an observatory containing scientific instruments. The existence of a guidebook also highlights the growing interest in garden visiting by the public which went beyond elite gardens such as Stowe in Buckinghamshire.

John Hunter and Earl’s Court House, London

John Hunter’s House at Earl’s Court as imagined by the rival surgeon Jesse Foot in his own extra-illustrated copy of his 1794 work The Life of John Hunter, (Vol. 3, 1822). Note the fantastical two-headed beast in the background on the right, which highlights Jesse’s depiction of its unreal quality and the use of the illustration to imply Hunter was acting in an immoral, God-like manner with his animal experimentation. Licence: Public Domain Mark Credit: Earls Court House, with animals from John Hunter’s menagerie. Watercolour attributed to J. Foot, ca. 1822. Wellcome Collection.

While Lettsom was experimenting with new agricultural plants such as Mangel Wurzel (a type of turnip/beetroot formerly grown in other European countries), the surgeon John Hunter was conducting other types of experimentation in his garden in Earl’s Court. In 1793 Thomas Baird visited the Hunter’s garden as part of his research for his General View of the Agriculture of the County of Middlesex, and wrote of “John Hunter, the celebrated surgeon, who is trying many experiments, which may be of considerable service, both to the gardener and the husbandman”. Here Hunter was singled out for attention due to the wide use of his garden for horticultural and agricultural experimental activities. Baird also recorded that, “the variety of birds and beasts to be met with at Earl’s Court… is a matter of great entertainment. In the same ground you are surprised to find so many living animals, in one herd, from the most opposite parts of the habitable globe. Buffaloes, rams and sheep from Turkey, and a shawl goat from the East Indies, are among the most remarkable of those that meet the eye.” Although Baird stated that they were a matter of entertainment, thereby implying the animals were an element of spectacle within the landscape, the most exotic that he described on this visit were still animals that were bred first and foremost for wool and meat production. Like Lettsom, with his Mangel Wurzel experiments and interests in bee keeping, the garden is providing a space for agricultural experiments. Although there were also clear interests in keeping animals for display and entertainment. For example, Lettsom recorded his gardeners feeding tortoises lettuce during their lunch breaks and Fothergill had bullfrogs from America living in his garden pond.

Edward Jenner and The Chantry in Berkeley, Gloucestershire

Painting of Jenner sat outside his Temple of Vaccinia. Date and artist unknown. Licence: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) Credit: Edward Jenner seated outside summer-house, the ‘Temple of vaccination’. Wellcome Collection.

Edward Jenner, a surgeon most famously known for his work on smallpox vaccination, was similarly involved in horticultural experimentation, however, the most interesting physical structure in his garden was the summerhouse known as the ‘Temple of Vaccinia’, in which he conducted free vaccinations for the poor. On 19 May 1804, a letter to Lettsom recalled how at Jenner’s over breakfast a visitor had observed, “a great number of females with children in their arms or by their side, passing down this walk”. Jenner went on to explain that one morning a week he inoculated the poor against smallpox hence women and children, and that he had turned his summerhouse over to this use and renamed it the Temple of Vaccinia. Here the once ornamental garden retreat had been transformed by use into a site of early public health intervention.

Although these gardens were also used for sociable activities from small groups playing sports, such as lawn bowls, to parties involving several hundred people, they were clearly more than places of leisure for these medical practitioners – they were also places of scientific, medical, horticultural, botanical, and agricultural significance. I would argue that by focusing on how they were used and experienced we can create fresh narratives for today’s historic garden visitors.

About the Book

The Doctor’s Garden
Medicine, Science, and Horticulture in Britain

Clare Hickman

A richly illustrated exploration of how late Georgian gardens associated with medical practitioners advanced science, education, and agricultural experimentation

“In her stimulating and original study, Hickman turns away from the traditional focus of garden history — great aristocratic and royal estates — to consider more modest gardens, mostly situated on the periphery of London…In reconstructing and animating landscapes, now mostly buried under city streets, Hickman has recovered a lost world of medical gardens.”—Kate Teltscher, Spectator

“This beautifully written book illuminates our understanding of gardens as centers of medical teaching and research, as sources of experimentation, as places of sociability, and as productive spaces.”—James Beattie, co-editor of the Routledge Research on Gardens in History series, and Chair, Garden History Research Foundation

Featured Image: Engraving as reproduced in A. Logan Turner, Joseph, Baron Lister: centenary volume, 1827-1927 (Edinburgh & London: Oliver & Boyd, Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0.

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