Category Archives: General interest

Visit to Oxford University Botanical Garden, June 2017

On the 14th June, 19 members visited the Oxford Botanic Garden for a guided tour. We were fortunate in having a beautiful sunny afternoon, and for our benefit our two guides concentrated largely on the history of the garden .

The land had been a Jewish burial ground until the Jews were expelled in 1290, and later Church hospital burials took place on the site. The Garden itself was first endowed for the sum of £5000 by the 1st Earl of Danby in 1621, and 5 acres of land were enclosed by stone walls. These were double skinned, the centre being filled with rubble. They also extend as far below ground level as above.

This was to be a physic garden for medicinal plants to support the University’s teaching, and only gardeners, dons and students were allowed access. The general public were not allowed in until 1880, and then only men were allowed for a very limited time with close supervision.

Our first stop was at the magnificent Danby Arch, designed by Nicolas Stone. It was built of Headington stone and there had originally been a large wooden door closing off the entrance, the metal tracks of which are still visible. We learned some fascinating detail about features under the Arch – the small pieces of metal protruding from the sides are of 15th C origin, and
are thought to have come from the tomb of St Frideswide, and to have supported cages holding monkeys in the 19th C.

The second phase of the garden’s development extended beyond the walled garden to the south, and was bordered by the Cherwell. The land here had to be raised considerably to prevent flooding. This is evident when you look over to the level of the playing fields on the other side of the river.

The rock gardens are situated in this area, as is the magnificent herbaceous
border along the south-facing wall.

The garden has also been used to supply much-needed food at least twice in its history, firstly during the siege of Oxford in the Civil War, and then in the ‘Dig for Victory’ movement in the Second World War.

The garden also followed popular fashion in the plants grown, particularly the pineapple which needed specially constructed beds consisting of a pit with a base of pebbles, then manure and tanning waste. The fruit could be hired out for a guinea a night if returned undamaged, otherwise they cost two guineas.

The garden also followed Chatsworth in building a pond to house the Amazon Lily. We were able to visit the pond in one of the glasshouses.

The garden itself was founded in 1632. It was the first of its kind in England. The first Superintendent was a German named Jakob Bobart, who was appointed by Henry Danvers, First Earl of Danby. He had the right to sell fruit and vegetables from the Garden, which was necessary as his pay was £40 per annum, from which he was required to stock the Garden.

In 1648 Bobart published a Catalogue in alphabetical order of 1600 plants in his care.

Another important figure in the early history of the garden was Robert Morison. After the Restoration, Morison was appointed Superintendent of all the Royal Gardens, and in 1669 he became the first Professor of Botany in Oxford. In 1670 he gave the first lecture in the world on Plant Diversity, and he published “Praeludia Botanica”, which put the stress on the structure of
plants’ fruits for classification. He was also the first person to write on a specific group of plants – the Umbelliferae.

The Sherardian Chair of Botany was established in 1734 following an endowment by William Sherard. He stipulated in his Will that the first holder of the Chair should be Johann Dillenius. After his death his collection of manuscripts and books, and dried plants came into the possession of Oxford University.

Dillenius was followed by Humphry Sibthorp, and later his son John, who took part in the foundation of the Linnean Society in 1788. In 1794 he published ‘“Flora Oxoniensis” and founded Oxford’s Sibthorpian Professorship of Rural Economy.

The last significant name to be mentioned on our tour was that of Charles Daubeny. He conducted experiments on the effects of soil, light and the composition of the atmosphere on vegetation. He was also a good fundraiser and engaged well with the public.

During the course of the afternoon we learned a great deal about the Garden, not least that the oldest plant still existing – a yew tree – is the last survivor of the original planting.

The Work of the City Archaeologist – “Looking for King Alfred”

On March 9th we were given a talk by David Radford the Oxford City Archaeologist on his work, with special reference to King Alfred the Great, and his possible connections to the founding of the city of Oxford in the Saxon period.

He explained that the legislation requiring developers to facilitate archaeological excavations on sensitive sites resulted in the need for this work to be monitored by the city Archaeologist. We were told that there were three possible candidates for the founding of Oxford, of whom Alfred was one, but also his son Edward the Elder and Aethelflaed his daughter.

The main focus of the talk was on the various excavations around the city to determine the location of the ramparts defining the boundaries of the early settlement. The best preserved section is near the North Gate and Ship Street. We were shown an interesting Henry Taunt photograph of an excavation on the site of the New Bodleian.

Many excavations took place in the grounds of Oxford colleges during the development of new buildings. These included Wadham, Queen’s, St John’s and Corpus Christi. Remains of the ramparts have also been found in the Castle quarter where evidence shows them leading towards the Tower. The pottery finds in various sites have been difficult to date with any
accuracy as there was no defining style or composition.

The biggest and most recent excavation has been of the Westgate area prior to its redevelopment. This has exposed the largest range of mediaeval buildings yet uncovered in the city, including the remains of a Franciscan priory.

It was shown that it is still quite difficult to determine the dating and location of the early beginnings of Oxford in the Saxon period, but there is still much to be learned from the finds on this extensive site.

Oxford and the History of Medicine

Medicine in Oxford from the 13th to the 21st Century On Thursday 9th February, the History Society heard a fascinating talk by Victoria Bentata on the subject of Medicine in Oxford from the 13th century onwards.

She started with the legend of St Frideswide, whose well in Binsey was said to have healing properties. In Medieval times Science and Religion were very closely linked.

But the first true scientist was Roger Bacon, in the 13th century. He was a Franciscan Friar whose ways of thought were very much ahead of his time. He believed in the importance of experimentation in pursuit of his studies. This approach has relevance today.

The next important figure was John of Gaddesdon, member of Merton College and Doctor of Physik in Oxford, who lived into the 14th century, and was probably the model for Chaucer’s Doctour of Phisik in the Canterbury Tales. He wrote a treatise on Medicine, called Rosa Medicinae, which was widely read, and drew largely on Greek sources.

In the 15/16th Centuries one of the most important Oxford figures was Thomas Linacre. He doesn’t seem to have practised medicine while in Oxford, but later he practised at the Court of Henry VIII, and was one of the founders of the Royal College of Physicians.

Robert Burton, born in 1577, an eminent scholar from Brasenose College, specialised in “Melancholy”, and indeed wrote from personal experience. His treatise on “The Anatomy of Melancholy” was very widely read, But he himself suffered from depression, and is said to have hanged himself in Christ Church.

In the 17th Century, there appeared a group of academics, under the name of the “Oxford Philosophical Society”, led by John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College. They were very active, conducting many experiments in Wadham College gardens.

William Harvey (b.1578), who was the first to discover and describe the circulation of blood in the body, also became Royal Physician to King Charles the 1st, and 1 accompanied him to Oxford, where he stayed until the city’s surrender to the Parliamentary forces.

Thomas Sydenham (b. 1624) might be regarded as the English Hippocrates, or as the father of English Medicine. He wrote on the best way of treating patients, but he also worked on a drug to cure malaria, among other things.

Thomas Willis (b. 1621) was an early neurologist who performed many dissections, and was a founder member of the Royal Society. His home in Oxford was opposite Merton College, and was notorious for the smells of decaying bodies emerging from it. He worked with the future Architect Christopher Wren, who made a drawing of the human Brain from one of Willis’s dissections. Hogarth, too, included scenes of dissections in his pictures.

Connected with Thomas Willis was the story of Anne Green, who was convicted of the murder of her baby (born after she had been raped), and sentenced to death. The execution was carried out, but the next day she was discovered to be still breathing. Several doctors including Willis set about reviving her, and they were successful. She was pardoned – her revival was seen as an act of God. Later, she married and eventually had three children.

Dr John Radcliffe (b. 1652) graduated from University College, Oxford, eventually became Royal Physician to William and Mary, and became a very rich man. He was said to be an outstanding diagnostician, hence able to choose patients whom he expected to survive – so he enjoyed a very good success rate. When he died he left an enormous fortune, most of which went to charity, and to developments in Oxford such as the Radcliffe Camera and the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Henry Acland (b. 1815) was a life-long friend of John Ruskin, and helped to found the Oxford Natural History Museum. He made a study of the Cholera outbreak in Oxford in 1854, and explored ways of caring for the poor.

William Osler (b. 1849) was a Canadian who spent his early life in Baltimore at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He developed a patient-centred way of working, advising doctors to ‘listen to the patient, who will tell you the diagnosis”. He was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford in 1905, and soon met the young William 2 Morris, who repaired his Renault car. This was the beginning of a long friendship between them. As a result, Morris (Lord Nuffield) endowed 5 new professorships, and created the Iron Lung which he distributed to every hospital in Britain.

Hugh Cairns (b. 1896) was born in South Australia, and came to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. He became the first Nuffield Professor of Surgery, and treated T.E.Lawrence after his motorbike accident. As a result of that, he designed a motorcyclist crash helmet, which was used by despatch riders during the War, and he treated 13,000 servicemen.

Sir Ludwig ‘Poppa’ Guttmann (b. 1899) Although he was a Jew, he was ordered by Hitler to go to Portugal to treat a friend of the Dictator Salazar. Afterwards he came straight to the UK, where he settled in Oxford and carried on his research in Neurosurgery. Later, he worked at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and was a leading force in the development of the Paralympics.

Howard Florey (b. 1898) and Penicillin. With his team, he worked on research into Penicillin, and treated his first human patient (an Oxford policeman) in 1941. By DDay enough penicillin was being produced to use on wounded soldiers. Florey refused to patent Penicillin, or to talk to the Press. A Memorial to the work of the Laboratory is in the Rose Garden in Oxford Botanic Garden.

Dorothy Hodgkin (b.1910) in 1945 she solved the structure of Penicillin.

Richard Doll (b.1912) Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. He made an important study of the effects of Smoking and its connection with Cancer, and revolutionised the organisation of the OU Medical School.

Joshua Silver developed the self-refracting glasses, which enable patients everywhere to benefit from glasses, whether there’s an optician near or not.