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In September the Chelsea Flower Show will once again open its doors to the public after a long lockdown. Let Special Collections Information Assistant, Anne Marie McHarg, open a book or two to showcase the wealth of rare books in our collection on plants and wildlife. 



Are you one of those green fingered people who spends their time knee deep in cow dung or horse manure spreading the fragrance around your garden for better results for your plants and evergreens? Have you got an eye for designing your garden for the next horticultural exhibition or do you just like to dabble amongst flower beds, moving your cosmos, pansies, or lavender plants from one corner to another and colour coordinating as you go along? Do you like the wildness of an unkempt garden where the beauty of nature comes into full bloom with insects, bees and butterflies taking up residence and the local wildlife visiting from time to time? Or do you have a veggie patch with carrots, swedes and lettuce all growing for the pot and the latest al la carte menu for the family Sunday lunch?  As you are planting your thousands of seeds have you ever looked at the seed packet and wondered about where the Latin names come from, the history of the plant, botany? Well, let me enlighten you and introduce you to Aristotle’s friend Theophrastus the father of botany.


Theophrastus circa 371 – 287 BCE

We can trace the roots of botany to Ancient Greece and one Greek man, Theophrastus (c. 371–287 BCE), the “Father of Botany”. He was a student of the renowned philosopher of Aristotle. Theophrastus meticulously wrote and described botany in a systematic and scientific manner. He invented many of the principles of our modern-day botany. Theophrastus wrote two very important works in the field of botany: On the Causes of Plants and On the History of Plants.  In both texts he outlines the basic concepts of morphology, classification, and the natural history of plants. In our collection we have the book below: 

The characters of Theophrastus: with a strictly literal translation of the Greek into Latin, and with notes and observations on the text, in English: for the benefit of Hertford college by the late R. Newton


Nehemiah Grew, 26 September 1641 – 25 March 1712

Grew was renowned for his work as an English plant anatomist and physiologist, known as the “Father of Plant Anatomy”. He was born 380 years ago this week, in Warwickshire on 26 September 1641. His father was the vicar of St. Michaels Coventry, a nonconformist divine vicar. Nehemiah was his only son. He went up to Cambridge and graduated from Pembroke College in 1661. Ten years later he studied at Leiden University and qualified as a Doctor of Medicine. His thesis was entitled: “Disputatio medico-physica de liquore nervoso”.

In the year 1664 he began his observations on the anatomy of plants and wrote detailed notes on his studies; by 1670 he had begun his essay on “The anatomy of Vegetables”. A Bishop Wilkins, an Anglican clergyman, natural philosopher and author, and one of the founders of the Royal Society had communicated to the Royal Society a recommendation for Nehemiah to become a member of the Society. A year later he was elected a fellow. In 1672 his essay was published. 

Not long after this his next move was to London. Here he settled down and started a practice as a physician. By 1673 he had published his ideas of Physiological History in the form of his articles for the Royal Society. By 1677 he became secretary at the Royal Society taking over the chair from Henry Oldenberg. 

His greatest work, and what he is best known for, is his Anatomy of Plants which is divided into four books. The books are illustrated with eighty-two plates and include seven papers on chemical character. The Anatomy’s most important feature is the descriptions of plant structure. Grew describes most of all the key differences of morphology of stem and root.  It also shows certain flowers built up in multiple units or layers and contains the first known microscopic description of pollen. Grew collaborated with the Italian Marcello Malpighi who was a biologist and physician and founder of microscopical anatomy-histology. However, Grew’s work was more extensive than Malpighi’s and through his research he showed that all pollen is roughly globular, but the size and shape are different between species.  This discovery is central to Palynology.

His research led him to the similarities and differences between plant leaves and fingerprint striations. In 1684 he presented a paper on the subject at the Royal Society. Malpighi was greatly inspired by Grew’s findings. He went on to study the layers of the skin and found Grew correct. This was the early stages of fingerprinting as we know it today. Other publications include Seawater made Fresh in 1684.  The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named a genus tree Grewia in his honour.

Nehemiah Grew should be remembered for his pioneering work in the establishment of modern biology.


Charles Alexander Johns

He was born on 31 December 1811 and died in 1874. He was a 19th century botanist and educator who was the author of a long series of popular books on natural history.

Charles Alexander Johns was born in Plymouth on 31 December 1811. His father Henry was a banker and poet. Charles was one of eight surviving children. He had two sisters Emily and Julia would later become very talented botanical artists in their own right.  

In 1825 an economic crisis swept through London resulting in bank closures. This had a huge impact on the Johns family because Henry Johns was a working partner in the bank at this time. This brought financial hardship and tough times ahead for the family. After losing his job, Henry Johns decided to leave smoky London for the fresh air of the south of England to settle in Plymouth and teach at the local grammar school.

From a very early age Charles's father had encouraged and nurtured an interest in natural history in all his children. By the time Charles left school he decided to enter the church and follow a long tradition of “parson naturalists.”

Although Charles was mainly self-taught, he did have encouragement and was given a guiding hand by George Banks, who was then the local silversmith and amateur botanist; Banks had published a study of English botany in 1823.

By 1830 Charles' father had suffered a stroke and slowly his health deteriorated. This once more led to hardship and uncertainty for the family. Charles’s long cherished idea of going to university was put on hold.

Instead of university he took up a teaching post at his father’s old school, as an assistant master under the headmaster Derwent Coleridge, the son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet.  While teaching at the school, another of his young charges was the future novelist Charles Kingsley, who would later praise him as the country’s “most acute and preserving botanist.” 

Six years after his father illness and four years of teaching, Charles left the shores of England for the ivory towers of Trinity College Dublin to combine teaching with part time studies. By 1839 he had gained his degree and began to put pen to paper writing books on natural history. The first book to be published was Flora Sacra in 1840. This volume of work had poetry to inspire a love of nature, with illustrations of dried plants with religious significance that featured in the bible.

When he was only twenty-five, he was elected Fellow of the prestigious Linnean Society of London. He married and had four children and after being ordained and spending some years as a Deacon, which he did not find fulfilling, he and his wife dedicated themselves to establishing private schools, with a full classical syllabus, that prepared young men to go off to public schools such as Eton and Harrow. He died in 1874. 

We hold a copy of Johns’ Flowers of the Field in our rare books collection. Our book is illustrated by E.N. Gwatkini and includes woodcuts and colour plates with a colour frontpiece with tissue guard paper.


George Robert Milne Murray

George Robert Milne Murray FRS FRSE FLS was born 11 November 1858 (he died on 16 December 1911) in Arbroath, Scotland.  He was educated at the local high school. After he finished his formal education he went to Europe, to the University of Strasbourg to study cryptogamic botany; Murray became an assistant and by 1895 had succeeded William Carruthers as Keeper of Botany.

His main interests as a naturalist were as a diatomist and algologist. He knew and collaborated with T. H. Huxley and with the Discovery Expedition. In 1886 he sailed with the expedition on the solar eclipse to the West Indies. He studied and collected marine organisms, leading to valuable work on the Atlantic coast of Ireland in 1898. 

We hold An Introduction to the Study of Seaweeds in our collection. 

Title page from An Introduction to the Study of Seaweeds by George Murray

Plate showing types of seaweed from An Introduction to the Study of Seaweeds

Another copy of this is held by the National Library of Australia, which has a book plate ‘stating that this book is from the library of the S.S. "Discovery" of the Antarctic Polar Expedition, 1901-4, and was presented to the Library by Sir R. Leicester Harmsworth’. Murray edited 'The Antarctic Manual' in 1901 and set out on Robert Falcon Scott's National Antarctic Expedition of that year but left the 'Discovery' at Cape Town.


Ellen Delf Smith Born 31 January 1883 – Died 23 February 1880 Botanist.

Ellen Marion Delf Smith studied natural sciences at Girton College, Cambridge. She studied there from 1902 to 1906, holding a Clothworkers' Scholarship, and gained first class marks in both parts of the Tripos, specialising in botany.

At the age of twenty-three she arrived at Westfield College, where she took up a post teaching the science of botany. Ellen found that the laboratory she was given was very basic. The equipment she had was old and needed updating or replacing. There were ten bottles with bits of plants, mostly in very poor condition, almost dying. With determination she managed to build up a good reputation and slowly the school of botany under her leadership made a name for itself.

 Page from one of Ellen Delf Smith's specimen books

A page from one of Ellen’s specimen books (ref EMDS/2/3/2/1)

Ellen Delf Smith was interested in the transpiration of plants, particularly in seaweeds. This is the process by which moisture is carried through plants from the roots to small pores on the underside of leaves, where it changes to vapour and is released to the atmosphere.

By December 1916 Ellen Delf Smith was a research assistant at the Lister Institute Preventive Medicine. Her research was on the vitamin content in foods. This research included military rations especially for the Mesopotamian campaign that was taking place.

Research abroad

Four years later, in 1920, Ellen held a temporary post in researching the vitamin C content of mine workers’ diets In Johannesburg South Africa. Their health greatly improved. While in Cape Town South Africa she turned her research to Marine Algee and seaweed.

A year later Ellen Delf Smith returned to England and took up a lectureship back at Westfield College where she eventually became head of department of the botany faculty in 1939. During WW2 she relocated out of London to Oxford University where she continued teaching and she remained there after the war. She retired in 1948 but continued with her connections with Westfield College. Between the years 1950-55 she served on the council, she was elected president of the Alumnae association, in the same year 1955 she was again elected an honorary fellow and a fellow to the Linnean Society. 

Through common interests of drawing, gardening she had met and married her artist husband Percy John Smith in 1928 and took his surname, becoming Delf Smith. It was a happy marriage till the death of Percy in 1948. At the age of ninety-seven on the 23 February 1980 she died. 


During the Victorian era, when the steam railway was invented and opened up the English countryside, people began to flock in their droves to the wide-open spaces and green fields; to the inviting salty air to dip a toe in the seaweed sea; the seaside beckoned. This was their chance to leave the smokestack chimneys and the hustle and bustle of crowded tenement houses. This was the family day out.

Michael Portillo took his classic train timetable, by George Bradshaw, with him on his journeys. It was Charles Johns’ pocketbooks on the country’s flora and fauna that the Victorians would take on their journeys and days out. It was noted by his sister Emily Johns in her personal diary that the young Charles had laid very early plans to write a book “to introduce the lover of nature to an acquaintance with the common British flowering plants, to teach the unscientific how to find out the names of the flowers met with in the course of country rambles”.

Over the years we have established horticultural societies and large gardens like Kew and Wisley where people can spend the day, strolling, looking and touching the plants. Kew has an international reputation for preserving and propagating rare species and helping to discover medicinal cures for diseases.

We now look to the future at Queen Mary, and with the help of the residents and our community, we came together in August 2021 to plant eleven rare Black Poplar Trees in the grounds of the college.

Photograph of two of the black poplar trees recently planted on the QM campus

Two of the black poplar trees recently planted on the QM campus

We look to the next generation as our own future lies in their hands. With climate change here to stay, we should take inspiration from the world of botany and encourage the younger generation to take a leaf out of our illustrious botanists such as Ellen Delf Smith and Charles Johns. We hope to teach and inspire them to love and care for the planet we live in, which they will inherit.



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