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Image of the book cover of The Multifarious Mr Banks by Toby MusgraveForeword by Tony Grant, the reviewer. Before I start into Toby Musgrave’s well researched and deeply considered and heartfelt life and times of the ”father of Botany,” Joseph Banks, and all its implications to us and our world today, I’d like to say a few words about the author. Apart from reading his very short biography in the blurb on the back of the fly leaf to this book, and his even shorter dedication of no more than two short sentences to his brother, I have not ventured into discovering more about him. The book reveals all that is necessary to know about Musgrave’s passions and life’s work, and about the author himself. I felt by reading this biography of Banks that I was also, at a subliminal level, learning about Mr. Musgrave. A short dedication to his brother also reveals so much. His brother had an untimely death. The two of them had researched and written about Banks together in the late 1990s. I got the sense from this dedication that not only was the book for his brother, but his brother was also involved in the writing of the book. The intensity and passion of Musgrave’s work attests to this.

I must admit that as I read The Multifarious Mr. Banks I became totally involved in the worlds Musgrave was telling me about. It brought up so many questions. From the evidence the author provides and the stories he tells, I made my own conclusions. It is a very honest book with lots of research. If you want an intense absorption into the world of the 18th and early 19th centuries, then this book is for you.

Oil portrait of Joseph Banks, ca 1771-1773, Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Joseph Banks, ca 1771-1773, Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Childhood and early education:

Joseph Banks was born February 13th, 1743 at 30 Argyll Street in SOHO, London into a very wealthy family of landowners. In 1717, the first Joseph Banks – there were four of them – started buying land and estates in Lincolnshire. He bought Revesby Estate, which was to become the main home of the Banks family. Click on this link and scroll down to view Revesby Abbey.

The fourth Joseph Banks, who Toby Musgrave deals with in this book, inherited the extensive family fortune and lands. Joseph Banks IV’s early childhood was therefore spent on the 340-acre estate of Revesby. He was allowed to wander freely and explore the natural world around him. In April 1752, at the age of 9, he was sent to the free Grammar School run by John Lyon at Harrow, north west of the centre of London. Here he mixed with the aristocracy. On the 11th September 1756, at the age of 13, he attended the lower school of Eton near Windsor Castle in Berkshire.

Joseph Banks apparently lacked academic ability. Latin and Greek were not his strengths. He made friends easily, and because he was physically strong and big for his age, did not suffer from the bullying regime found at many of this type of school. It is said that young Joseph’s walks beside the River Thames near Eton and experiences in the natural world of the river bank and the surrounding countryside inspired his interest in botany. Rather than coming to grips with Latin and Greek and the classics, he set out to hunt plants and insects in the surrounding countryside. Botany was not a subject that was taken seriously in academic circles at the time. It was seen as an amateur interest. This of course brings up the question: what is learning and what is education, and, of course, what is intelligence? I could go on forever about that.

Laying the foundation of his life at Oxford:

After attending Eton, Banks went on to Oxford University. You might wonder at this with regards to his lack of academic achievement. Wealthy landowners and the aristocracy could send their sons to Oxford or Cambridge because they could afford to. The most important subjects at Oxford were again the study of Latin and Greek and the classics. The study of Hebrew and religion were also important areas for study. Joseph was a sociable person and made friends easily. He met the sons of many important people, aristocrats, politicians, and the people who ran Britain and its burgeoning Empire. Many of his friends at both Eton and later Oxford became people of influence in government and the Empire in their own right. Not only did Joseph make friends easily, he kept friendships for life. These contacts proved vital to his later pursuits in life. Arguably, his ability to influence these people through his friendships with them changed the course of Britain. It helped develop the Empire and affected the world we know today. In a world of a strongly designated class system underlain by a generally illiterate and uneducated working class, Joseph Banks had all the benefits of birth, wealth and contacts. He could fill his time with whatever he wanted to do. Very few people can attain that sort of situation in life in any century.

At Oxford, Banks became friends with Daniel Solander, the Swedish botanist who had been a pupil of Linnaeus, who invented the binomial system of classifying plants. Banks also spent some time at his mother’s house in Chelsea and became friends with her neighbor John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who became First Lord of The Admiralty. In Chelsea, Banks visited the physic garden, where he met Philip Miller, who ran the garden and where Banks enjoyed learning about botany and horticulture. In these early experiences we can see the beginnings of the arc of Bank’s life and work.

Discoveries and explorations:

At the treaty of Paris in 1763, w ith the end of the seven years war between France and Britain, and their allies, British expansionism could begin. Britain had gained Canada in the treaty. The fisheries protection ship, HMS Niger, was sent to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766 to map and explore those areas. Joseph Banks and his wealthy friend, Constantine Phipps, saw this as an opportunity to follow their interests. This became Banks first independent scientific research. Using his own finances, Banks supplied himself with botanical research equipment and also an extensive reference library.

Image of Newfoundland, A General Chart, 1775, Captain James Cook,

Newfoundland, A General Chart, Captain James Cook, 1775, Heritage website

It seems strange to us that at this time science was often the pursuit of enthusiastic amateurs. These amateur scientists were wealthy and well-connected. Banks wanted to learn. He acquired research skills in botany from others in a voracious manner. He wanted to learn, and read and talked to people, and made life-long friends with people who had the know-how. He was persistent and determined. Today we think of Elon Musk and Richard Branson with their plans to take people into space as tourists. Banks and his wealthy friends were something like this; they were amateurs setting on a course that interested them, but they were also pioneers in their pursuit of scientific interests.

Journal writing:

Joseph Banks kept journals of his journeys of exploration, but he published very little of his own writings. Instead, he supported others in publishing their research and their illustrations. His existing journals are available for us to read today. For instance, the State Library of New South Wales has his Endeavour journals online for anybody to access. Banks’s journals are idiosyncratic to say the least. They demonstrate poor grammar and spelling and he writes often in a detached scientific voice. His writing is understandable, nonetheless. Banks described botanical specimens, as well as geological, ornithological, and marine specimens. He made military observations. This was evident during HMS Endeavour’s journey back to Britain when Captain James Cook called in at Batavia in Jakarta, run by the Dutch East India Company. Once again Banks poor literacy skills brings into question what education is about, for he was definitely learning and immersing himself in topics he was deeply passionate about.

Two open pages of a Joseph Banks Journal, State Library of New South Wales

Joseph Banks Journal, State Library of New South Wales

Journeys and expeditions:

Banks collected seeds and live plant specimens from his various expeditions, many of which didn’t survive the return journey to Britain. He took along the equipment to press and dry plants, which did survive. He named these specimens and described them, and used his reference library to recognise species and discover new species. In all his journeys, he discovered hundreds if not thousands of new species of plants that had never been discovered before by Europeans. He also brought his own group of botanists and servants, and artists, whose illustrations of plants we have today.

Voyages and peregrinations:

The voyage to Newfoundland in 1766 was Bank’s first real experience at research and exploration. He felt its joys and its hazards and the cramped quarters of life on board a ship and learned the absolute necessity for people to get on and to make compromises living in close proximity. On the trip to Newfoundland, he met Lieutenant James Cook who was charting its coast. Banks’s reports and journals were given to The Admiralty back in London, but he kept his plant specimens and began to accumulate his personal Natural History Museum in his house at number 30 Soho Square, London.

Banks, it appeared, had an addiction to finding out about the world around him. After Newfoundland, he made what he termed a ”Peregrination” around Britain, a meandering journey that took him wherever the next point of interest and investigation led him. He travelled to places as diverse as Pembrokeshire in West Wales, Kent, and Dorset. He explored the heartland of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution took place all over the British Isles, but Derbyshire and Shropshire in the North were major centres. Banks was interested in engineering technologies, manufacturing, chemical works, mining, and quarrying. He also took interest in an archaeological excavation of a Bronze Age round barrow in Llansadwrn in Wales. There seemed no stopping his boundless energy.

The Transit of Venus:

Banks then heard rumours about an expedition to observe the Transit of Venus. Here again he used his contacts. The Earl of Sandwich was the first Lord of the Admiralty and the admiralty were to supply a ship and a crew to take the astronomers who were chosen by The Royal Society to one of the locations in the south seas which they deemed a suitable place to make the observations. They also chose sites in the northern hemisphere as well as in Britain. The Transit of Venus occurs in a pattern that generally repeats every 243 years, with pairs of transits eight years apart separated by long gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years. They are important because the size of the solar system can be worked out from the measurements using trigonometry to measure the Earth to Venus and then the distance to the Sun. This particular transit was due in 1769.

HMS Endeavor and a voyage around the world:

In 1768 Joseph Banks lobbied the Royal Society to include a group of botanists, artists and his good friend Solander, the Swedish botanist, who he would lead. The foremost hydrographer of the time, Alexander Dalrymple became the scientist who would measure the Transit of Venus. Eventually Banks was given permission by Lord Morton, the President of The Royal Society, to take his entourage to discover and illustrate new plants that would be beneficial to Britain and the Empire. Banks was always adept at combining his own interest, the interests of Botany and the national interest in his schemes. The captain for the trip was Lieutenant James Cook, who Banks had met in Newfoundland. This was to be a multi-purpose expedition. The main task was to measure the Transit of Venus, but Cook was also the Navy’s greatest map maker and navigator. He would chart the coasts of unknown lands.

Banks persuaded everyone that collecting and finding out about the botany of the southern oceans was important too. Plants were vital for food production and other economic pursuits. Another crucial aspect of exploration was trade and the extension of the Empire. In order to maintain its pre-eminence, Britain needed to keep its lead over other nations. The stories and sightings of what sailors thought was a southern continent also needed to be explored. Did this fabled southern continent exist? As a result, this expedition would become one of the most important voyages in history.

On the way south through the Atlantic, Banks and his team had many opportunities to botanise on the Atlantic Islands, such as The Canaries and the Azores. They also botanised on the coastal areas of South America and inland when they were permitted. To get to the Pacific Cook sailed through the Straits of Tierra Del Fuego from the Atlantic. They eventually landed in Tahiti where the Transit of Venus was to be observed and measured.

Oil painting of Endeavour Leaving Whitby, by Thomas Luny, 1768, Wikimedia, creative commons

Endeavour Leaving Whitby, by Thomas Luny, 1768, Wikimedia, creative commons

What happened next is very telling and has repercussions to this day in the way ethnic minorities and people of other cultures were treated. It seems sometimes we have learned nothing. The indigenous people of Tahiti were friendly and welcoming They were interested in what these Europeans had to bring to them. In turn, the British were interested in what they could get from the Tahitians. Iron was scarce and an important trading commodity in these islands. The British under Captain Cook thought of themselves as the dominant culture. They wanted to be friendly and trade, but on their terms. Misunderstandings were bound to happen. Tahitian women, for instance, offered themselves as wives and sexual partners to the British explorers and sailors. Banks recorded this, as well as Cook and other members of the expeditions in their journals. This was seen as immoral from a Christian aspect, although the sailors didn’t refuse and neither did Banks. Banks had a history of sexual adventures with his friends in Britain. The view that Cook, Banks and the rest of the crew formed about the Tahitians had to do with misunderstanding of cultures. Later the French repressed the Tahitians cruelly when they took over the islands and made it a French colony. Christianity played a major role in this subjugation as well.

As an aside, Banks left the lady he was to marry, Miss Harriet Blosset, behind without actually telling her that he was leaving until the night before his departure. He asked her to wait for him, which she dutifully did. On his return to Britain, he eventually spurned and ignored her, which put him in a bad light.

Black and white illustration of an 18th c. map of Tahiti

Tahiti, 18th century map-The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain. This work is cc in the U.S

Toby Musgrave points out that curiosity and discovery was not solely a European thing. Tupai was a Tahitian navigator who traversed the ocean using wave patterns, the stars, the sun, and the prevailing winds. He and other navigators from the south seas created stick charts which showed the prevailing wave patterns around the islands and that also marked the positions of various islands . Tupai drew and sketched Tahitian life and the meeting of Tahitian people with Europeans. James Cook learned from Tupai and Tupai learned from Cook. They had a mutual friendship and admiration for each other. Tupai, wanting to explore the European world, asked to return with Cook to Britain. Unfortunately the navigator died in 1770 on the journey back.

Black and white engraving of Tupai, Tahitian navigator, creative commons, wikimedia

Tupai, Tahitian navigator, creative commons, Wikimedia

Sailing south:

After the transit had been recorded, Cook was permitted to open sealed orders from the Admiralty. As was expected, Cook and his ship were requested to sail south to ascertain the existence of a southern continent. They sailed first to New Zealand. The Maoris were much more warlike than the Tahitians. Although willing to be friendly, some did not take to the British landing on New Zealand and they greeted the Endeavour in war canoes on occasion. There were confrontations on land too. The ship’s cannons fired over approaching war canoes and Maoris were shot. The Maoris backed off each time. Banks advocated this show of force. He argued that they were there to trade and discover new lands for Britain. This seems to be rather patronising. I wonder how Londoners would have reacted if Maori war canoes had sailed up the Thames with weaponry more powerful than anything the British had. Trying to see the other side’s point of view is important, I think. Colonialism is not benign. It is rapacious in its taking of the resources of a country and the denigrating of other cultures, their beliefs, and their religions.

The Endeavour sailed south and the voyageurs discovered the fabled southern continent. They explored the east coast of Australia and came in contact with aborigines, who they described as shy and of no danger to them. They saw kangaroos, and Banks discovered plants never seen before by Europeans. Botany Bay has two headlands, one was named Cape Banks and the other Cape Solander. There were perils. The Endeavour was damaged on the Great Barrier Reef and had to be pulled ashore for repairs before it could sail home. The trip took three years altogether. Cook had become famous and so, too, had Banks, who was introduced to King George III and became a close confidant.

Endeavour is beached in Australia- the Great Barrier Reef. An engraving, John Hawkesworth's An Account of the voyagesCredit-National Library of Australia.

Endeavour beached in Australia after hitting the Great Barrier Reef. An engraving, John Hawkesworth’s An Account of the voyages, Credit: National Library of Australia.

Return home

While away from Britain, Banks had been elected to The Royal Society. He had become a household name, but fame went to his head and his ego was flattered. He formally broke off his engagement to Miss Harriet Blosset, who he had promised to marry. This was a shocking thing to do at that time and did him no credit.

A second circumnavigation was planned with James Cook leading the expedition. Banks, while he did not publish his journals, had gathered an enormous collection of specimens and was invited to go along. He prepared a group of botanists, as well as his friend Solander, and planned to provision them with the latest equipment, but because of his unreasonable demands and his efforts to have the ship adapted to his needs (which made the ship unseaworthy), he backed out.

Banks had two obvious sides to his personality. He could be vain and devious, and was not averse to getting rid of people who stood in his way, but he could also be thoughtful and caring towards friends. The group of explorers he had gathered for this expedition did not go without work. He quickly organised a trip to Iceland that would be led by him. Other scientists had botanised in Iceland, but Banks’s expedition added to the store of knowledge. He also became a champion for the Icelandic people against the Danish Crown, and is remembered fondly by the Icelandic people to this day.

Kew Gardens near Richmond upon Thames:

Banks discussed with the King George III the development of the Kings garden in the grounds of Kew Palace near Richmond upon Thames and became the unofficial director. There, he designed and built green houses for different types of plants to be cultivated.

Color illustration of Kew Gardens, 1754 by cartographer John Rocque. Kew Archives.

Kew Gardens, 1754 by cartographer John Rocque. Kew Archives

At Kew, he trained botanists who were sent around the world to develop botanical gardens in other countries. These Kew-trained gardeners sent back specimens of plants and seeds from colonial gardens the world over. Kew became the greatest depository of plants and seeds, a position it still holds today.

Cplor photo of Flowers in front of the Palm House, Kew Gardens. Taken by Daniel Case

Flowers in front of the Palm House, Kew Gardens. Taken by Daniel Case, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikipedia.

The father of Australia:

While he didn’t know it at the time, Banks was never to go on a trip of exploration again. He became an advisor and a facilitator of new botanical explorations around the world. An ardent colonialist, he promoted setting up a penal colony in New South Wales, which he planned to become self sufficient in agriculture, minerals and governance. The colony eventually became a net contributor in trade back to Britain. This is why Banks is often termed the father of Australia.

Banks also became interested in sheep. The Spanish had the best wool in the world from the Spanish Royal flock of Merino sheep. These sheep were hard to obtain, since the Spanish wanted to keep this rich resource from other hands. Through subterfuge and clandestine means, Banks managed to get hold of a number of Merino sheep, which he bred on his own estates in Britain and added to the Royal Flock at Kew. He had specimens sent to Australia and so launched sheep farming there.

Color illustration of A view of Kew Gardens with a flock of sheep, by William Woollett, c1765 (© Historic Royal Palaces)

A view of Kew Gardens with a flock of sheep, by William Woollett, c1765 (© Historic Royal Palaces)

Banks was also involved in plant cultivation and the movement of plants around the world for economic reasons, such as tea from China exported to Assam in India, which was governed by the British and resulted in cheaper tea for the British. He was concerned about transporting plants safely by sea and was involved in helping to develop different methods.

It is said he was anti slavery. He was indeed friends with William Wilberforce, the emancipator. He also expressed the view that it was immoral to use and treat humans like cattle, and was convinced other means of production rather than the use of slaves could be found, although he didn’t actively work towards the abolition of slavery. Perhaps this was another example of Banks being apolitical. He did support slavery in one way. The slave owners needed to feed their slaves as economically as possible. Banks suggested that breadfruit, a cheap and fast-growing crop, could be grown in the West Indies. As a result, ships began to transport bread fruit from Tahiti to the slave plantations.

Societies and memberships:

Joseph Banks liked to work unofficially for organisations. He remained apolitical throughout his life, not joining any political faction. He even went as far as to continue good relationships with botanists in France, the enemy of Britain, and also with botanists in many other nations around the world, since he considered science above nations and wars.

Through nefarious manoeuvrings, Banks, a member of The Royal Society, became its president. He was also involved in many other clubs and organisations. He helped set up the Ordnance Survey, which mapped the whole of Britain. He was interested in engineering and geology. On his estate at Revesby, he mined the mineral wealth from under his lands. In addition, he was involved in the Board of Longitude at Greenwich, and promoted watch makers, such as John Harrison, who eventually made the watch that was to transform navigation.

Banks also became a member of The African Association, which sent out explorers to find the fabled golden city of Timbuktu. He organised and planned the exploration of most of central Africa at that time, and facilitated the first expedition of the famous African explorer, Mungo Parks. Banks helped set up the Horticultural Society for developing plants for different economic, culinary and medicinal uses. Where other members of these organisations might attend occasionally, Banks would attend as often as he could. He read scientific papers, listened to lectures on a variety of subjects, and became knowledgeable about many strands of science, industry, and production. He was indeed, “multifarious.”

Banks was an enabler. Earlier I mentioned that he trained gardeners at Kew and sent them round the world to search for new plants in places not explored before, and also to set up other botanical gardens. He also supported people whom he thought worthy. The self taught astronomer William Herschel was famous for discovering a new planet first called The Georgian Planet and later named Uranus. After Herschel read a paper on his discovery to The Royal Society, he became friends with Banks. Herschel was poor and Banks supported him by introducing him to the King. When Herschel became the King’s Astronomer, he received a pension to live on. He moved from his home in Bath to a large mansion near Windsor at Datchet on the Thames. There he set up a 40 foot long reflector telescope in his garden.

Herschel_40_foot-wikipedia-publicdomain

Herschel’s forty foot telescope, the Great Forty-Foot, 1785-89. Public domain image, Wikipedia.

Banks kept up his interests throughout his life. His influence continued, and he often wrote detailed advice for the running and organisation of the colony at New South Wales. He also wrote thorough instructions to the botanists who had set up their botanical gardens around the world, and for any new botanists who ventured forth from Kew. Banks was appointed a member of the privy council in 1797, in which he acted as an adviser to King George III. As other scientists became more professional, however, many began to regard Banks as merely an enthusiastic amateur who wasn’t an expert in any field of study.

At the end of the book, author Toby Musgrave mentions Dorothea, Joseph Banks’s wife. Banks married Dorohea Hugessen, daughter of W.W. Hugessen, in March, 1779, and settled in a large house at 32 Soho Square. In his London residence he welcomed scientists, students, and foreign visitors. His friends Solander and Jonas Dryander, followed by Robert Brown, became librarians and curators of his collections. That year, Banks also took a lease on an estate called Spring Grove in Isleworth, located just a couple of miles west of Kew Gardens on the north side of The Thames.

Musgrave quotes from a poem Banks wrote to his wife. In it he suggested that after the years of travels and Tahitian mistresses and female acquaintances the botanist had settled down as a dutiful husband. It is difficult to tell what their relationship was really like. Dorothea never made public the letters Joseph wrote to her. The fact that they were together until Joseph died says something for stability and perhaps compromise. Joseph Banks was a poor writer on the whole. The fact he wrote a poem to his wife suggests he felt some love for her. 

“A husbands wish for his wife to Please

Abates not as the years increase

If it began in love…”

Joseph Banks died at the age of 77 on the 19th June 1820 at his house Spring Grove in Isleworth.

In conclusion, if you read this book, you will find Toby Musgrave an entertaining and lucid writer. He has a passion for his subject, but he doesn’t often give us his viewpoint and analysis. Perhaps that is the sign of a good biographer; they provide the evidence and describe the events and leave it to the reader to make their own analysis.

________________

Tony Grant has been a regular contributor to this blog since 2010. Find more of his writing at his blog, London Calling, and his other contributions to this blog by typing his name in the search bar at the top right.

References:

  • Musgrave, Toby. The Multifarious Mr Banks From Botany Bay to Kew, The Natural Historian Who Shaped the World.”by Toby Musgrave (Yale University Press 2020) ISBN: 9780300223835

  • The Library of Australia:

https://www.nla.gov.au/selected-library-collections/joseph-banks-collection

https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/6092946?selectedversion=NBD25010136

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“after descending to the brink of the river for the better inspection of some curious water-plant, . . .” –Pride and Prejudice, chapter 43; Elizabeth Bennet, the Gardiners, and Mr. Darcy do a bit of “botanizing” during their walk at Pemberley.

On May 30 and 31, 2020, Chawton House hosted a refreshing Virtual Garden Festival. If you missed it, you can still watch most of it online. You can virtually tour the beautiful Chawton House Gardens with Chawton House volunteer Yvette Carpenter or walk the Jane Austen Garden Trail with Clio O’Sullivan. An intriguing section of the gardens highlights a pioneering woman botanist of the eighteenth century. She lived in an era when science was the nearly-exclusive province of men.

The Elizabeth Blackwell Herbal Garden

The Elizabeth Blackwell Herb Garden is inside the Walled Garden built by Edward Knight. In Jane Austen’s letter of July 3-6, 1813, she wrote from her home, Chawton Cottage, that her brother Edward Knight was enjoying his property at nearby Chawton House. She said, “He talks of making a new Garden . . . at the top of the Lawn behind his own house—We like to have him proving & strengthening his attachment to the place by making it better.” The garden Edward built (which was finished after Austen’s death) has been restored, and the Herb Garden was added in 2016. 

Each section of the Elizabeth Blackwell Herb Garden is planted with medicinal herbs that were used to treat different parts of the body. For example, the Chest Bed includes herbs used to treat ailments of a person’s chest, such as coughs. The other sections are Head Beds, Digestion Beds, and Skin Beds. Carpenter tells us that many of these medicinal herbs, such as rosemary, were also used in cooking. Others have -wort as part of their names, indicating they were used for healing. For example, doctors today still recommend the use of St. John’s Wort for the treatment of mild to moderate depression. In the 1700s, Blackwell said it was used against “melancholy and madness.” Other herbs, as the narrator points out, sound magical, like the dragon tree, snakeweed, and mandrake.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Blackwell, Lady Botanist

The plants in this garden are described in a book owned by the Chawton House Library. A Curious Herbal (1737-9), by Elizabeth Blackwell, is said to be the first herbal produced by a woman. It was also far superior to other herbals available at the time. An “herbal” was a book of plants used as medicines. Blackwell drew and colored 500 meticulously-detailed color plates, each of a different plant, with its flower, seeds, and fruit. Along with each plate is the name of the plant in various languages, a description of it, and how it was used medically. The British Library shows 42 pages of A Curious Herbal online, with summarized information about 38 of the plants. (The Biodiversity Heritage Library offers a complete scanned version.)

Amanda Edmiston, an herbalist and professional storyteller, tells Elizabeth Blackwell’s story. According to Edmiston, Elizabeth was born around 1707 in Aberdeen, Scotland. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Elizabeth eloped with a physician named Alexander Blackwell. His medical credentials were called into question, so they fled to London and she set him up in a printing business. (In Scotland, unlike England, women kept their own property after marriage, so she had the money to do this.) Unfortunately, Alexander was also not qualified to be a printer. He got deep into debt, and ended up in debtor’s prison. Elizabeth, penniless, stayed loyal to her husband, and looked for a way to support herself and their young son, and to pay off his debts. 

Elizabeth Blackwell came up with a plan as she and her son enjoyed the Chelsea Physic Garden. Physic meant medical; the plants in this garden were used to treat illnesses. It was filled with exotic plants. Sir Hans Sloane, a respected doctor and renowned naturalist, had collected the plants on his botanical journeys around the world. Many, including cocoa, came from the Americas. Elizabeth became friends with Sir Hans, as well as with the director and the head gardener of the Physic Garden. They supported her idea of creating a whole new herbal, including both native and imported plants. The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, who rented the garden from Sir Hans Sloane, also officially approved her project. This support was crucial, since otherwise the scientific work of Blackwell, a woman, would probably not have been accepted and respected. 

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden, near the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, 1750. Wood engraving by T. W. Lascelles after H. G. Glindoni, 1890.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden, near the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, 1750. Wood engraving by T. W. Lascelles after H. G. Glindoni, 1890.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Even after Blackwell’s achievement, women botanists of the 1760s had to disguise themselves as men to study plants. In the 1790s, a clergyman wrote that it was “unseemly” for girls to study botany. But with the approval of medical and botanical experts, Elizabeth had been able to publish her groundbreaking Curious Herbal

A Curious Herbal

Before this time, most plants in herbals were not drawn from life. For example, mandrakes were often drawn with the root in the shape of an actual man and were said to scream as they were uprooted (as Harry Potter experiences in his magical herbology classes!). Elizabeth Blackwell, however, drew all 500 plants directly from real plants, some from the Physic Garden and others from other collections in Europe. Her illustrations were thus completely accurate. They can still be used today to clearly identify plants. 

It was said that her husband Alexander wrote the text of the book while he was in prison. Edmiston speculates that it’s more likely that Elizabeth did the writing herself. She had access to experts and to a library including texts that she often references. The idea that Alexander, a male physician, had written the text was probably a fiction to make the book more acceptable.

Elizabeth Blackwell published a section of the herbal with four plants every week, from 1737 to 1739 (about forty years before Jane Austen’s birth). Serial publication made her knowledge available and affordable for many, as well as giving her a regular income. The book did well and raised enough money for her to pay her husband’s debts and get him out of prison. However, he then took a job in Sweden. He got caught up in a plot there to overthrow the king and was executed, just as his wife was about to travel to join him. So Elizabeth and her son were on their own again; we don’t know much about the rest of her life.

 

 

 

In Edmiston’s further videos, she tells stories about many of the plants in Blackwell’s herbal. In Afternoon Tea with the Curious Herbal, we learn about cucumbers, tomatoes, green tea, chocolate, and coffee. Part 3, A Walk Through a Garden, includes stories about rosemary, St. John’s wort, lavender, yarrow, sage, and lemon balm. Take a look!

Other Lady Botanists

Blackwell was not the only woman botanist who published about plants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In “The Women Who Wrote Plants,” Katie Childs introduces us to other women whose books on botany are in the Chawton House Library. 

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White. Cover of the Penguin Classics edition

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White. Cover of the Penguin Classics edition

My favorite title is The Wonders of the Vegetable Kingdom, by Mary Roberts, published in 1822. The “wonders” are described in a series of letters; perhaps imitating the approach of the famous naturalist Gilbert White. (Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne in 1789 was a groundbreaking book on the natural world and ecology. You can visit his house, which is now a fascinating museum, just a short drive from Jane Austen’s house at Chawton.) Roberts also wrote A Popular History of the Mollusca, with 18 color plates showing varieties of seashells and the creatures that live in them. It doesn’t sound like a “popular” subject, but perhaps it was in her day!

While women were not expected to write adult books on botany during Austen’s lifetime, it was fine for them to write botany textbooks for children’s education. These are quite detailed, like adult books. Priscilla Wakefield’s text for children, Introduction to Botany, was published in 1796. She wrote it as a series of letters, with color illustrations. In Katie Childs’ presentation, she tells us that Wakefield was a Quaker social reformer who started a maternity hospital. Elizabeth Fry, the famous Quaker prison reformer, was Wakefield’s niece.

Cover of An Introduction to Botany by Priscilla Wakefield, Cambridge Library Collection.

An Introduction to Botany by Priscilla Wakefield, Cambridge Library Collection. 

Botany did become a fashionable pursuit for elegant ladies. Botanical Rambles (1826), by Lucy Sarah Atkins, is subtitled, “Designed as an Early and Familiar Introduction to the Elegant and Pleasing Study of Botany.” The ability to draw plants accurately became an “accomplishment” ladies aspired to. Books were written specifically on how to draw plants, including information about the plants themselves. Watch Ms. Childs’ talk for more about early female botanical writers, and to see illustrations from their books.

Beatrix Potter, Expert on Fungi!

Speaking of discrimination against women in science, especially in botany: Much later, in 1897, a paper on fungi by Beatrix Potter (yes, the author of Peter Rabbit) was presented at the Linnaean Society in London. However, since she was a woman, she was not allowed to present, or even to attend the meeting. Her paper, presented by her uncle, was not taken seriously since it was written by a woman. Today, though, Beatrix Potter’s illustrations of various fungi are used around the world to identify species of mushrooms.

Les Champignons by Beatrix Potter book cover, French Edition, ABE Books. ISBN 10: 2909808211 / ISBN 13: 9782909808215

Les Champignons by Beatrix Potter book cover, French Edition, ABE Books, ISBN 10: 2909808211 / ISBN 13: 9782909808215.

Highlight of the Festival: Gardens in Jane Austen

On Sunday, the Garden Festival offered some presentations specifically for gardeners, so if gardening is one of your passions, you may want to check those out.

For Jane Austen lovers like me, though, the highlight of the festival was “Love in the Shrubbery: Gardens in Jane Austen’s Life and Works.” Kim Wilson, author of In the Garden with Jane Austen, finished out the festival with this charming presentation. In it, she shows us gardens Austen knew. She also explains and illustrates those terms like shrubbery and wilderness, describing places where Austen’s ladies and gentlemen walk. Did you know that shrubberies had paths made of gravel to keep the ladies’ feet dry, since wet feet were considered potentially fatal? (Think of Marianne Dashwood, sitting in wet shoes and stockings before her near-fatal illness.) If you only have time to watch one video from the Chawton House Virtual Garden Festival, I recommend this delightful 28-minute presentation.

I also joined in an engaging creative writing workshop led by Claire Thurlow, “A Garden Writing Retreat.” Claire encouraged the participants to imagine ourselves in our own special gardens as we write. While that workshop is not available online, you might use Kim Wilson’s talk, or any of the virtual garden tours from the festival, to enjoy time in a virtual garden today. I hope it will refresh your soul.

Note for anyone who might be wondering: There was also a later Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman to graduate in medicine in the United States, in 1849. Both Blackwells were pioneering women in the medical field of their times.

A Word About the Author: Brenda S. Cox blogs on “Faith, Science, Joy, . . . and Jane Austen!” at brendascox.wordpress.com . Under the category “Science” at her site, you will find other articles on science in Jane Austen’s England, including women of science like Caroline Herschel and Mary Anning.

Quote from Austen’s letters is from p. 224 of Deirdre Le Faye’s fourth edition of Jane Austen’s Letters.

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