Tag: Botany

Grading Sir Hans Sloane’s Research Paper

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It’s that time of year when grading is on an academic’s mind. With first-year assignments still fresh in my head, I recently found myself frustrated by Sir Hans Sloane’s “Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane” (Philosophical Transactions, volume 38, 1733-4).

Letters by Sir Hans rarely feature on this blog—and that’s for a good reason: there aren’t very many by him in his correspondence collection. But he did, occasionally, send in reports to the Royal Society… some of which were better than others. I love reading the early eighteenth-century Philosophical Transactions; many of the authors knew how to tell a cracking story, with a clear narrative arc of event, evidence and interpretation.

Not so much this offering from Sloane.

Filberts. Credit: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Wikimedia Commons.

Filberts. Credit: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Wikimedia Commons.

Sloane’s account began in 1729 when “a Person came to consult me on an Accident, that befell four of his Children, aged from four Years and a half, to thirteen Years and a half”. The children decided to have a foraged snack from the fields by St. Pancras Church, thinking that the seeds they’d found were tasty filberts. But foraging can be a risky business and the children took ill. Their symptoms included great thirst, dizziness, blurred vision, delirium and sleepiness. For Sloane, the symptoms suggested henbane poisoning; Sloane’s initial diagnosis was reinforced after examining the seeds that the father had brought in to show him. Sloane prescribed bleeding, blistering at multiple points, and purging at both ends: “And by this Method they perfectly recovered.”

This could have made for a solid medical case study: who better to bring together clinical observation with botanical detective work? But for Sloane, the real story was the seeds rather than his diagnostic prowess. I withheld judgement. At this point, I was curious to see where Sloane, the narrator, would take his readers.

Four poisonous plants: hemlock (Conium maculatum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), opium lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Four poisonous plants: hemlock (Conium maculatum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), opium lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane went on to describe how the symptoms of delirium can offered important clues. Henbane delirium was very different from regular fevered delirium, but had much in common to the delirium caused by datura (“a species of stramonium”) and bang of East-India (“a sort of hemp”–indeed). Unfortunately for the reader, he did not describe any of these forms of delirium.

He then noted that the delirium from all three herbs was different from that “caused by the rubbing with a certain Ointment made use of by Witches (according to Lacuna, in his Version and Comments upon Dioscorides)”. The witches’ ointment instead would “throw the Persons into deep Sleep, and make them dream so strongly of being carried in the Air to distant Places, and there meeting with others of their diabolical Fraternity; that when they awake they actually believe, and have confess’d, that they have performed such extravagent Actions.”

I see. From faux-filberts to witches’ ointment in four easy steps…

A sculpture of a man with toothache. Wood engraving after Mr. Anderson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A sculpture of a man with toothache. Wood engraving after Mr. Anderson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Henbane wasn’t all bad, though. Sloane recounted, for example, that several years before, a “Person of Quality tormented with this racking Pain [of tooth-ache]” was treated by an empiric who used henbane. The sufferer was desperate—“his Anguish obliging him to submit to any Method of procuring Ease”—and he allowed the empiric to funnel smoke into the tooth’s hollow before (allegedly) removing tooth-worms. If this case sounds familiar to regular readers, it should be. Sloane procured one of the maggots from the sufferer, then sent it to Leeuwenhoek who examined it in detail and found it to be an ordinary cheese worm rather than a so-called tooth-worm.

Although Sloane knew that the wormy tale was fake, he pointed out that “upon the whole”, the henbane would have offered pain relief. And in any case, presumably, a good tale about tooth-worms bears repeating. Sloane also took the chance in his conclusion to make a dig at empirics who, through “slight of Hand” acquired a reputation for their remedies’ success, “which from the Prescription of an honest Physician would be taken little Notice of.”

So ends the account

****

Essay Comments

Sir Hans,

There is much of interest in this paper: your medical cases on henbane and tooth-worms are intriguing and your ability to identify both seeds and poisoning is impressive. I also appreciate the historical perspective that you bring to this study with your discussion of witch ointments.

However, there are a few ways in which this essay could be strengthened. The essay lacks analysis as you move quickly between subjects–a recent case, types of delirium caused by different seeds, and an old case. These are all fascinating issues in their own right, but you lapse into storytelling with each instance without ever going into detail about their significance. For example, in the middle section, you aim to connect different seeds to different types of delirium, but you never provide any discussion about the specifics (apart from the witches’ delirium): how did the childrens’ delirium present? What does delirium caused by bhang or datura look like? In what ways are each of these similar or different? This would help the reader to understand your thought process in diagnosing the patients and in identifying poisons.

It is also worth more carefully considering the title you’ve chosen: “An Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane”. A good title should reflect the content of the essay. However, only the first section of your paper considers symptoms actually caused by eating henbane seeds. The second section is potentially related, but needed to be more closely linked to make the connection clear; this would have been done to good effect by comparing the specifics of each drug and their symptoms to the case of henbane poisoning you introduced. The third section is only tangentially related—although you discuss a medical case and henbane is involved, you consider henbane’s therapeutic qualities rather than symptoms arising from its use. You could usefully have omitted the case in its current state, particularly since the section focuses on making value judgements about empirics and examining tooth-worms. That said, if you really do think it necessary to keep the section, you needed to consider henbane’s effects in more detail. Even more crucially, you might consider changing the title: “An Account of the Effects of Henbane” would have neatly pulled the three strands together in a more coherent fashion.

This essay has the potential to be a wonderful example of your diagnostic and botanical mastery, especially if you took more time to consider the narrative arc. Rather than scattering your energies by telling several stories (henbane, witches or tooth-worms), focus instead on one strand. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn by showing off what you know and how you know it, instead of just sharing a collection of interesting tidbits.

So what grade should we give it…?

Sloane becomes a BBC Radio 4 Natural History Hero

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By Victoria Pickering

On Monday 28th September at 1:45pm, BBC Radio 4 aired the first segment of their ten-part series about Natural History Heroes and what would be my very first foray into sharing my research on national radio. It was a lot more nerve-racking than I expected, but also an interesting learning experience.

Iplayer Radio, BBC Radio 4. Image Credit: BBC.

Iplayer Radio, BBC Radio 4. Image Credit: BBC.

In April of this year (2015), the Natural History Museum (NHM) announced a BBC Radio 4 Natural Histories series. This would be a partnership that would ultimately allow the NHM to share extraordinary stories surrounding their vast collections, as well as the expertise of its scientists. The second element of this collaboration–Natural History Heroes–would then allow a range of experts from the Museum to select and discuss predecessors who inspired their work and lives. Finally, four prominent authors will write original short stories inspired by the incredible narratives uncovered during this partnership.

Wonderfully (and quite rightly!), Sir Hans Sloane was chosen to be the first Natural History Hero. Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Museum, Dr Mark Spencer, spoke charmingly about the incredible Sloane Herbarium. This is currently housed in the Historical Collections Room in the Museum’s Darwin Centre. This purpose-built space,  kept at a strict seventeen degrees Celsius, holds Sloane’s collection of ‘Vegetable Substances’–my obsession for the last three years.

Because of my PhD research on the collection, Mark invited me to be part of this programme. In July, the programme’s producer, Ellie Sans, contacted me. Ellie and I talked at length over the phone about the historical research I’ve been doing with the vegetables, particularly my interest in the people who sent botanical material from all over the world to Sloane in London. Ellie was particularly interested in the larger project that surrounds Sloane: Reconstructing Sloane (as well as Reconnecting Sloane) and the significance of this collaborative research.

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane in the Historical Collections Room, Darwin Centre, NHM London. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane in the Historical Collections Room, Darwin Centre, NHM London. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

Mark recorded his part of the programme in the Historical Collections Room itself and I think this worked really well. It gave a great sense of what it’s like to be working in that room, at that temperature, with the objects themselves. I recorded my section a few weeks later and in hindsight, I should have suggested that we did this too. Instead, we spent about 20 minutes searching for a room in the Museum that was quiet enough to record without any background noise. It turns out, this is pretty difficult to do.

Three rooms and three recordings later, in a random but quiet Press Office Room, Ellie had recorded about forty-five minutes of me talking about who I am, where I’m based, what my research is about, what I’ve been doing, and why this is significant for today. Beforehand, Ellie had sent me a list of questions she would ask me, and I spent lots of time preparing my answers and thinking about the best way to reflect on my research. It really made me question why researching Sloane in different ways might be relevant to someone listening to the show.

I generally really enjoy presenting my research–and the wonderful thing about working with a Museum collection is the opportunity to share my work with all sorts of audiences through different public engagement activities. But I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel with a microphone under my nose while trying to talk ‘naturally’ about what I do and why this is important. It’s amazing how people involved in broadcasting make it look and sound so effortless. At the end, Ellie mentioned that experts react in different and surprising ways when asked to do similar recordings. This definitely made me feel better!

Drawers containing Sloane's collection of 'Vegetable Substances'. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

Drawers containing Sloane’s collection of ‘Vegetable Substances’. Image Credit: Victoria Pickering and NHM, London

By the end of the interview I had relaxed and was feeling more comfortable… and especially happy that this hadn’t been a live broadcast. I had no idea what the final show would sound like or how much of what I said would be included, but I thought that Ellie did a beautiful job of editing it.

It was primarily Mark’s show, so I was really pleased to have been included as much as I was, with my interview woven through the programme in such an interesting way. Ultimately, I’m just delighted that I could talk about  broadcast Sloane, his incredible collections and the research that a number of us are undertaking, to a national audience. Working with the NHM provided me with this exciting opportunity.

Now, I hope, the programme’s listeners are intrigued and keen to know more about Sloane and his astonishing eighteenth-century natural history collections.

Public and Private Gardens in the Eighteenth Century

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By Chelsea Clark

Sloane was unique in his collecting habits and connections to gardens. He was passionate about obtaining plant specimens and discovering their various medical uses, however, appeared to be less interested in being personally involved in gardening. This is apparent when comparing his practices to those of his friend and colleague, Richard Richardson.

Despite the growing popularity of private gardens in England, Sloane did not have a garden of his own. His method of collecting botanical specimens was to dry them and press them in books, or keep them as seeds. Many of his letter correspondents cultivated gardens of their own and experimented with acclimatizing foreign specimens to English soil. Why did Sloane assist the Chelsea Garden at its time of crisis (mentioned in first post) if he was not trying to gain access to a garden of live specimens? How did his apparent abstinence from gardening connect with his support of the Chelsea Garden for the advancement of pubic botanical knowledge?

Sloane valued the plant knowledge that could be obtained from the garden knowing that it would indirectly aid him in his own pursuits as well as the greater scientific community. The published catalogue of the first transfer of fifty specimens (Philosophical Transactions, 1722) stated that Sloane’s motivation was to “encourage and promote an Undertaking so serviceable to the Publick.”

Curiously, there were no records of letter communication from Phillip Miller, the botanist placed in charge of the Chelsea Garden, to Sloane in regards to the Chelsea Garden. It seems most likely that the lack of correspondence reflects Sloane’s close proximity to the garden and opportunities to see Miller in person. (Though, arguably, it might also suggest that Sloane was disconnected from the garden.)

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richard Richardson, maintained a garden of his own at his home in North Bierley. His private garden earned a reputation as the best in North England and housed both native and foreign plants, including a hot house for growing exotic fruits. Richardson collected for his garden himself on explorations as well as obtained specimens through his associations with other private and public gardens. From his letters to Sloane, Richardson appears passionate about exotic specimens, whether it was acclimatizing them to English conditions or fabricating greenhouses to mimic their native growing conditions. This was a much different approach to specimens than Sloane’s.

Richardson mentioned his garden in North Bierley several times to Sloane. It contained botanicals that even the Apothecaries’ Chelsea Physic Garden lacked. Richardson obtained plants for his personal garden from public gardens, such as the Edinburgh Physic Garden. This exchange of plants between private and professional gardens is an interesting feature of English gardens.

These private collectors were also part of an exchange network with Dutch and French professional gardens. One reason was that the men who were collecting, like Richardson, had the wealth and leisure to maintain a garden and were associated with scientific societies like the Royal Society of London. Their collection of botanicals was not just for aesthetic reasons or to display their status, but their scientific functions gave collectors the authority and expertise to trade with the professional gardens of physicians and apothecaries.

In a letter to Sloane dated 13 November 1725, Richardson mentioned an “unfortunate accident” that occurred to some “scotch plants” from the Physic Garden at Edinburgh which he “proposed to have brought back … for my garden.” In addition to collecting from other gardens to fill his own, Richardson mentioned also wanting to make his collecting habits useful to others by collecting plants from northern England for the Chelsea Physic Garden and Mr. Miller. Unfortunately, he ran into some difficulties in creating such a relationship with Miller. On 8 April 1727, Richardson wrote about exchanging mosses with Miller for some seeds. On 19 November 1728, Richardson mentioned receiving a list of desired plants from Miller and had been collecting what was still in season from his garden to send to Chelsea.

Richardson’s attempt at a reciprocal relationship of exchange from his garden to the Chelsea public garden soon fell apart. By 16 March 1729, Richardson had stopped receiving letters from Miller. Even after a visit to Chelsea in the summer, during which Miller promised he would send Richardson a letter detailing which plants the garden was lacking, Richardson wrote to Sloane on 3 November 1729 that he had not received a letter of this sort. For some reason, unknown to Richardson, their amicable exchange ceased. (For more on relationship etiquette see this post regarding Abbe Bignon and Sloane).

Richardson sought out associations with other gardens, and he demonstrated great attachment to and took great care with his own garden. It is likely that Sloane received dried plant specimens or seeds from Richardson’s personal garden that had originally come from Miller at the Chelsea Garden, given that he was recieving other dried specimens from Richardson. Other than that, Sloane’s involvement in the Chelsea garden appears to have been kept separate from his desire to collect and classify, stemming instead from his desire to expand the public’s botanical knowledge and to ensure supplies of medical specimens.

 

Eighteenth-Century English Gardens and the Exchange with Europe

This post was originally published on this site

By Chelsea Clark

Statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Society of Apothecaries Physic Garden in Chelsea. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Society of Apothecaries Physic Garden in Chelsea. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Sloane Correspondence is a rich source of information about gardening in the eighteenth century. The science of gardening at this time was a shared experience between friends and colleagues who traded specimens and cultivated their collections with great curiosity. Although gardens could be either privately or publicly managed, the collaborative aspect of gardening served many different purposes depending on the individual collectors or institutions involved.

English gardens were built for multiple purposes, from personal and private pleasure gardens to university organized and maintained medical gardens. Both the Chelsea Garden and several private upper class estate gardens during the latter half of the eighteenth century in Britain were a combination of these purposes. They were both aesthetic and practical, housing rare exotic treasures to display the owner’s status as well as contained local and distant medical botanicals for practical medicinal uses.

Apothecaries and physicians relied on many botanical remedies and thus needed access to gardens. This resulted in many of them becoming expert gardeners. According to a Parisian physician at the time, Jean Fernel, a competition between apothecaries and physicians inspired an invigorating cultivation of gardens with both common and acclimatized plants in order to maintain “dignity and authority” over the other.[1]

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a plan view. Engraving by John Haynes, 1751. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a plan view. Engraving by John Haynes, 1751. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Chelsea physic garden was originally property of the apothecaries of London, though it fell on hard times in the early eighteenth century. Physician, Sir Hans Sloane, become benefactor to the garden because he saw the value in the botanicals it provided and its potential to provide benefical botanical knowledge for the public. Sloane saw the importance of the garden for all types of medicinal use as well as for the maintenance and growth of botanical trading within England, Europe, and the newly acquired Colonies.

In 1722, Sloane leased a parcel of his land in Chelsea to the Company of Apothecaries of London on the condition that they maintain the garden for “physick” and send the Royal Society fifty specimens per year until 2000 specimens had been given.[2] The reason given for requiring the annual gift of specimens was to encourage the constant growth of the garden and to ensue it continued to be used for its proper purpose.[3]

French gardens were similarly split between public and scholarly gardens, however French gardens were steeped in state involvement with the promotion and running of gardens. The Jardin du Roi, established in 1640, was in name and function the garden of the French King, Louis XIV.  It was also used by the Academie des Sciences for their exploration and acclimatization of botanicals and open to the public. The garden was maintained under state direction, as was the search and collecting of new specimens to fill the garden. It was managed as an economy that was “simultaneously social, financial and natural historical.”[4]

Jardin des Plantes, Perpignan. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Jardin des Plantes, Perpignan. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

French botanical collecting was tied to their colonial expansion and French collectors were most interested in botanicals with economic value.[5] As a result of higher state involvement, French motivations were focused on economic gain rather than scientific curiosity; collecting and cataloging the world’s botanicals was less of a priority, resulting in the cultivation of different types of plants than in England, which centered on medicinal rather than economical specimens.

The discussions about gardens between Sloane and many of his British correspondents did not mention any state support or involvement. Their collecting appeared to be motivated by a desire to discover all the local and exotic species and where they were naturally found. As was the case for France, English collecting in its colonies did have an economic component; however, the perceived economic value of plants was not mentioned as the primary motivator of botanical collectors.

Without immediate state direction both personal and professional English gardens became significant players in the European exchange of botanicals. English private collectors and gardeners were successful at expanding their knowledge of species and contributing to scientific knowledge, while the French were successful at extracting economic value from their exploration of plants. Even though the French gardens were open to the public, the English exchange relationship between the personal collectors and the professional gardens allowed for information about botanicals to spread freely and the development of gardens across England. English gardens had perhaps less economic value than their French counterparts, but provided an abundance of natural history knowledge and practical medicinal value for its public.

 

[1] Harold Cook, Matters of Exchange New Haven: Yale University Press, (2007): 31.

[2] Isaac Rand, “A Catalogue of Fifty Plants Lately Presented to the Royal Society, by the Company of apothecaries of London ; Pursuant to the Direction of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. Bresident of the College of Physicians and Vice President of the Royal Society,” Philosophical Transactions, 32 (1722).

[3] Ruth Stungo, “The Royal specimens From the Chelsea Physic Garden, 1722-1799,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 47, no. 2 (July 1993): 213.

[4] E. C. Spary, Utopia’s Garden Chicago: Chicago University Press, (2000): 51.

[5] Spary, “ “Peaches which the Patriarchs Lacked”: Natural History, Natural Resources, and the Natural Economy in France,” History of the Political Economy 35, 2003: 14-41.