Garden as Laboratory

When we think of historic gardens we tend to envisage landscapes with rolling lawns, lakes and ornamentation such as urns, follies and statues. These are visual delights and, although we may walk around them, touch the leaves and smell the flowers, they are primarily to be enjoyed in the manner of a three-dimensional painting from the comfort of a shady seat. In contrast, I have begun to examine the concept of gardens as scientifically active spaces. I am employing garden history methodologies to explore the use of gardens by doctors in relation to their medical practice during the long eighteenth century.

This use of garden history methodologies in relation to medical practice is innovative, and builds on my work on hospital gardens. In this way I aim to extend our knowledge concerning the use of gardens and associated landscapes for scientific purposes, as well as botanical, agricultural, scientific and natural history work conducted by medical professionals. This will hopefully add a significant dimension to our understanding of botanical education in the period, how scientific work in the domestic space related to medical practice and how interests in agricultural science related to the rise of chemistry, medical professionalization, economic concerns and politics. It will also relate to the growing interest in the study of the development and practice of science outside of the nineteenth century construct of the laboratory.

This builds on a pilot study, ‘Laboratory and Spectacle’, which was conducted in 2011 and focused on the gardens of eighteenth-century physicians, Edward Jenner (pioneer of the small-pox vaccination) and John Hunter (surgeon and collector). Funded by a small travel grant from the Wellcome Trust, the use of gardens as laboratory spaces was examined in relation to the medical practice of these men and it was found that they both used their domestic gardens for agriculturally related and other scientific experimentation. These results have been published in various publications as laid below and can be read by anyone due to Wellcome Trust funded open access.


  • Forthcoming in 2020 a monograph with Yale University Press. Title to be confirmed
  • ‘Curiosity and Instruction: British and Irish botanic gardens and their audiences, 1760-1800’ Environment and History 24 (2018), 59-80
  • ‘The Garden as a Laboratory: The role of domestic gardens as places of scientific exploration’. Post-Mediaeval Archaeology 48: 1 (June 2014), 229-247

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