500 Years is a great milestone to celebrate and the Royal College of Physicians at London has a host of special events for both locals and visitors to attend over the course of this year.
Fancy a tour with gardens that are very different? Must say I like the idea of spending a season of afternoons on a garden tour exploring medical plants and herbal medicines from both the past and present.
The college has gathered ‘world renowned experts to deliver talks on themes as diverse as plants in anaesthesia; a history of plant products used in general and local anaesthesia, including curare, opium, cocaine – and lettuce!’
In true British style, you can also help celebrate the 400th birthday of one of Britain’s most influential books of medicines; describing poisons used in the works of mystery murder novelist Agatha Christie.
The program starts Monday, July 16, 2018: with Dr Kathryn Harkup the author of ‘A is for Arsenic: the poisons of Agatha Christie’. A study of addictive substances derived from plants, from alcohol to morphine and cocaine, by Professor Graham Foster, Royal College of Physicians Garden Fellow and Professor of Hepatology… will be sure to attract the curious.
On Monday September 10, you can learn all about ‘Neutraceuticals’ with Professor Ruth Andrew of the University of Edinburgh, who will examine plant-based supplements and fortified food.
And I can also hear you singing… Oranges and Lemons’, but no it’s not about the bells of St Clemens, instead it is all about relating ‘the true story of citrus fruits in scurvy by Dr Henry Oakeley, a Royal College of Physicians Garden Fellow and retired consultant psychiatrist.
Throughout history gardens have evolved to meet man’s ever-changing needs and aspirations and they change all the time, delighting us with their variety and impermanent nature. The story of their development has been long and complex with gardens becoming integral to our world collective cultural heritage.
Primitive man, as a hunter and gatherer, was fully aware his existence relied on his knowledge of the land and its flora, fauna and their importance in his life cycle. As the frozen remains of ancient hunters and gatherers have been found during the twentieth century without exception, the seeds of plants needed for personal sustenance or those he wanted to plant when he eventually reached his destination were found with him.
In ancient Egypt Tutankhamun reigned for eight years from 1339 to 1337 BCE and when his tomb was uncovered, archaeologists found buried with him bread, fruit, wine, ointments and other materials of plant origin, which have since been identified.
Soft branches of olives were intertwined with willow to create wreaths. Wild celery, lotus, cornflowers and mandrake fruits were all present with bouquets of persea and olive leaves tied to a stick of common reed, which was also used for making arrows.
Bows were made of flowering or manna ash (Fraxinus ornus) Oils included olive, linseed, almond, sesame used for anointing the head and body and incenses came from the frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra) with myrrh gleaned from the Commiphora myrrha.
The story of the three Kings who visited the baby Jesus in The Bible is also a testimony to the importance of plant material, as the symbolism attached from to their gifts Frankincense and Myrrh could have only grown out of long familiarity.
During the Roman era, roses found in Europe and around the Mediterranean have been classified as Damasks, Albas, and Gallicas. During the European Middle Ages, they retained a religious use, not only as decorations and adjuncts to (now Christian) holy festivals, but also as denizens of medicinal gardens.
Their medicinal associations as well as the simple human delight in their fragrance brought about the distillation-of-rose-essence industry, which still holds importance today.
This painting by Dionisio Baixeras Berdaguer depicts the arrival in AD951 from Constantinople of a Monk, who had come to the court of Ab ar Rahman III Emir and Caliph of Córdoba (912–961), to translate the text of Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides the De Materia Medica into Arabic.
Dioscorides had been a physician and contemporary of Roman man of letters, Pliny the Elder, in the first century. His famous herbal contains the names, descriptions and healing virtues of herbs.
He mentioned 500 plants that he had observed during all the seasons on the year and gave detailed instructions on how to gather and store them. The earliest copy in existence dates from the sixth century and was discovered in Constantinople in the 1560’s. It has some 400 full page colour illustrations, of which this is one.
During the eleventh century books about the practice of medicine by important Muslim physicians like Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE) and al-Razi (864-930 CE) were translated into Latin and brought into European universities, where they were used for centuries to come.
Places at the super range of garden afternoons by the Royal College of Physicians in London are strictly limited and subject to high demand.
Every Thursday until October 2018
500 years of medicine: Discover Medical London Walking Tour
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018