In this series of posts, I’m writing about books that look at botany more broadly, that is not just scientifically, but also in terms of various aspects of cultural history. Here I want to explore a recent book by Clare Hickman (2022), The Doctor’s Garden: Medicine, Science, and Horticulture in Britain. Hickman has chosen an interesting lens through which to examine gardens. She looks specifically at those created by wealthy British physicians in the 18th and early 19th centuries when botany was an important part of medical education. But these men invested in their gardens for many reasons beyond their profession. Gardens were considered important status symbols and were also significant sites for both entertainment and experimentation. Hickman covers all these aspects.
A major focus is on John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815), born in a West Indian Quaker colony and sent to England for his education. He developed an early interest in botany, acquiring a copy of John Gerard’s Herball and starting a herbarium that eventually grew to 62 volumes. He was befriended by the Quaker physician and gardener John Fothergill who arranged for Lettsom’s medical training at a London hospital. Lettsom had to return to the islands when his father died. As an avid abolitionist, he freed the slaves on his father’s plantation and started a medical practice. He did well and returned to Europe to receive his medical degree at Leiden University in the Netherlands, since Cambridge and Oxford Universities were not open to Quakers. Thus early in life his development was shaped by the culture in which he was immersed.
Lettsom eventually practiced in London and bought an estate close by called Grove Hill where he developed an impressive garden. He kept in touch with John Fothergill, who had an extensive garden with greenhouses and over 3,400 species of exotic plants as well as 3,000 other plant species. When Fothergill died, Lettsom was allowed to move the latter’s greenhouses as well as 2000 plants to Grove Hill, creating a solid horticultural foundation for his estate. He designed a walk lined with 400 European species arranged according to the Linnaean system which had become popular in England.
One of Hickman’s major points is that gardens served a multiplicity of purposes among physicians, who were supported by experienced gardeners behind the scenes. Gardens were used for experimentation in hybridization, in cultivating delicate species by finding the right mix of conditions, and in manipulating conditions to increase crop yields including with the addition of compost and fertilizer. There were also experiments on increasing the amounts of active ingredients in medicinal plants. As Hickman notes, botany, medicine, and agriculture overlapped in doctor’s gardens.
Gardens were also important sites for social interactions. A garden displayed not only an owner’s wealth in importing expensive exotics and the expertise to select and grow them. Visiting gardens became a common pastime among the wealthy, in part to cement social, economic, and political ties, but also to pick up ideas for their own gardens. When for a short time Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were both on diplomatic missions to England they took the opportunity to visit a number of estates for all these reasons, as well as for the simple pleasure of being in beautiful surroundings (Wulf, 2011). Hickman emphasizes the sensual aspects of gardening beyond the visual. She cites the influence of a late 17th-century physician John Floyer who argued that a great deal about plants could be learned from smell and taste. The latter was “not mere recreational grazing;” it could aid in identifying medicinally useful plant material (p. 21).
Gardeners like Lettsom also supported the colonial enterprise by raising exotic plants and then passing on seeds and seedlings in trade with other gardeners, so that more of them could experiment with and learn about a species—how to cultivate it and whether it had commercial potential. Fothergill financially supported collectors, including John and William Bartram on their tour of the Southern colonies. He also paid William Bartram not only to collect plants but also to draw and write about them, financing William’s later trip South. So gardeners’ spheres of influence were indeed broad. Many documented their choice plants by having them painted by botanical illustrators, often keeping volumes of drawings in their libraries along with extensive collections of botanical works.
Lettsom was so proud of his garden that he wanted others to know about it. He wrote several editions of a guide to visiting Grove Hill, describing the distinctive plants found in different areas of the estate. This was not only for visiting friends, but also for wider distribution, including for those attending on open days when the public could roam the grounds. This became a popular custom, sometimes as a form of noblesse oblige with fees charged in support of a charity . The success of these events led to the development of several urban gardens, such as one created by William Curtis, founder of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. He sold subscriptions to the garden as a way to support it. Eventually, free public gardens in cities replaced most of these sites. In tracing such trends from doctor’s gardens, Hickman ends her study with an essay on the continuing significance of gardens and the benefits of simply walking through them. She also stresses the importance of “leaping the fence of disciplines,” to deepen our understanding of the garden’s place in our culture.
Hickman, C. (2021). The Doctor’s Garden: Medicine, Science and Horticulture in Britain. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Wulf, A. (2011). Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. New York: Knopf.