Botanists: the Publishers and Writers
Some of the botanists produced significant publications. They were generally intended to explain aspects of botany to a lay audience, at a time of increasing interest in gardens and medicinal plants. They were also often valuable contributions to the rapidly developing science of botany.
William Curtis (1746 – 1799) was apprenticed to an apothecary, with a view to becoming a doctor. However he soon decided that his real interest was in botany and entomology. He lived in Gracechurch Street and became friendly with one of his neighbours John Coakley Lettsom. He was also friends with John Fothergill. In 1772 he opened a small botanic garden in Bermondsey, designed to teach visitors about indigenous plants. From 1772 to 1777 he worked at the Chelsea Physic Garden, before setting up the London Botanic Garden at Lambeth Marsh, near where Waterloo Station now stands, in 1779. Over the next 20 years (1777- 98), with scientific and financial support from John Lettsom, he published Flora Londinenses in six volumes, describing the plants that could be found within a ten-mile radius of London. It was not a financial success but was nevertheless a great achievement.
His other publishing venture was much more successful. Due to the variety of exotic plants coming into the country there was a desire for a publication that gave information about them including their cultivation. Curtis started to publish The Botanical Magazine in 1787. It featured 3 plants per issue, and was published regularly once a month, and limited to beautiful exotic specimens. The illustrations were by eminent botanical artists. He charged one shilling per month and had 2000 subscribers. Curtis had no more financial troubles for the rest of his life. The Magazine still exists today and is said to be the oldest continuously published magazine with coloured illustrations in the world. After some changes of name it is now known at The Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.
Samuel Curtis (1779 -1860) was the cousin and son-in-law of William Curtis. He took over the publishing of The Botanical Magazine after William died. His son Henry Curtis was a skilled rose grower and produced a two volume work ‘The Beauties of the Rose’.
James Maddock, (the Elder) (1715 – 1786) founded the Walworth Nursery. He wrote ‘The Florist’s Directory, a treatise on the culture of flowers’. This was the first book to deal with florist’s flowers. It was published posthumously by his son in 1786.
Humphrey Marshall (1722 - 1801) was a cousin of John Bartram. His treatise on forest trees and shrubs in America ‘Arbustrum Americanum: the American Grove, or an Alphabetical catalogue of Forest Trees and Shrubs Natives of the American United States’ was published in 1785.
Priscilla Wakefield (1751-1832) wrote several factual books for children. One of them was ‘An Introduction to Botany, in a series of Familiar Letters, with illustrative Engravings’ which was so successful that it appeared in eleven editions over forty years. She became a philanthropist, focussing on charities to do with women and children, and must have been a good example to her niece Elizabeth Fry, of the role women could play in society.
William Woodville (1752 – 1803) was a physician and botanist who wrote ‘Medical Botany containing Systematic and General Descriptions, with plates of all the Medicinal Plants, indigenous and exotic, comprehended in the Catalogues of the Materia Medica, as published by the Royal College of Physicians of London and Edinburgh: accompanied with a circumstantial Detail of the medicinal Effects, and of the diseases in which they have been most successfully employed’. The book was illustrated with beautiful hand coloured engraving by the master botanical illustrator James Sowerby. A second volume was published in 1792 and a third the following year. In 1794 he produced a supplement which included plants not listed in the Materia Medica. It is invaluable as a record of the herbs and plants that were used in medicine in the 18th century. It became the standard work for physicians during most of the 19th century. It was described as the best work on medicinal herbs of its time and was valued for its scientific approach. Woodville was made a Fellow of the Linnean Society in honour of his botanical work. He established a garden close to the Smallpox Hospital near Kings Cross, London.