A visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden

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I enjoyed the best of the Easter Monday weather with a trip to the Chelsea Physic Garden yesterday afternoon.  After I don’t know how many years of good intentions, I finally got there and was rewarded with a gloriously sunny afternoon.  Many of the more tender plants were still warmly wrapped up in their winter layers of protective bubblewrap, but there were spring bulbs and green shoots poking through the bare earth.

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As children played hide-and-seek among the beds and glasshouses and adults enjoyed tea and very fine cakes from the cafe, it would have been easy to forget that this Garden is more than four hundred years old and not recreational.  The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673 to train their apprentices to recognise and understand the healing properties of the medicinal plants that would be used in their professional lives.

As I walked around, I stopped to read an information board about Carl Linnaeus and the naming of plants when my eye was caught by the paragraph at the end.

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I remembered that Elizabeth Garrett (later Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) had obtained her licence to practice medicine in England through the Society of Apothecaries. In 1815, the Society of Apothecaries was granted the power to conduct examinations, licence and regulate medical practitioners – John Keats, the poet, had been one of the first to qualify in 1816.  So confident were the Society that no woman would seek a medical qualification that, unlike the other bodies able to grant medical qualifications, they did not even specify that women were to be excluded.  Instead of referring only to ‘men’, the regulations of the Society of Apothecaries referred to ‘persons’ and it was this provision that allowed Elizabeth Garrett to gain her licence in 1865. (A loophole that was closed a couple of years later on Valentine’s Day 1867!)

Elizabeth Garrett had been inspired to become a doctor by Elizabeth Blackwell, an English women who qualified as a doctor in America. So I was intrigued to learn of an earlier Elizabeth Blackwell, a Scottish artist and engraver who used the Chelsea Physic Garden to produce A Curious Herbal between 1737 and 1739.

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Scottish Elizabeth had trained as an artist and formed a love match with her cousin Alexander. Alexander and Elizabeth fled to London when it was discovered that he had been practising medicine under a bogus license. In London, Alexander re-invented himself as a printer; again ignoring the regulatory niceties that, for his new profession, required him to have served an apprenticeship and belong to a Guild. Faced by heavy fines and having spent all of Elizabeth’s dowry, Alexander ended up in debtors’ prison and Elizabeth needed to earn enough to support herself and her family.

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Illustration from A Curious Herbal

Learning that a new Herbal was required to describe plants being brought in from the New World, Elizabeth decided to combine her own artistic skills with her husband’s botanical knowledge. She moved to be closer to the Chelsea Physic Garden and set out to provide the illustrations for her Herbal, taking her drawings to Alexander in prison so that he could supply the correct names in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German.

Revenue from the first two editions of the book provided enough to secure Alexander’s release, but not to match his spending habits. Alexander ran away again. This time to Sweden where he got himself involved in a conspiracy at the Swedish Court which resulted in his being hanged in 1747 before his wife could join him. Elizabeth lived for another ten years and is buried in All Saints Church, Chelsea.

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