University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > Invisible gardeners? The role of Scottish botanic gardeners in knowledge creation and exchange in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century

Invisible gardeners? The role of Scottish botanic gardeners in knowledge creation and exchange in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century

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Like many technicians in the history of science and medicine, the gardeners who managed, developed and disseminated knowledge obtained via botanic collections have generally been overlooked. Although unlike Shapin’s earlier scientific technicians there are indications that they were more visible to their peers. The focus of academic work in this field has mainly concentrated on the superintendents or members of the medical faculty (in the case of the university botanic garden) who used them as teaching spaces (Findlen), or else the collections themselves as representatives of national identity creation (Spary and O’Kane) or products of Empire (Drayton). This paper will instead concern itself with a small number of head gardeners at the Edinburgh and Glasgow botanic gardens and re-consider their roles in the teaching of botany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As with many lower status groups, the evidence pertaining to their lives and work is fragmentary but there are indications in both the archives and material features of the gardens that such men were crucial in the creation and dissemination of botanic knowledge. The 1770s–1800s also mark a point when botanic knowledge becomes more specialized and they seem to be developing a professional identity. The paper will explore these themes by considering the following head gardeners: John Williamson and Thomas Somerville at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden in the 1770s and 1800s respectively, and William Lang at the University of Glasgow in the 1800s.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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