UMass Amherst Professor Unearths the Shared Roots of Gardening and Science

AMHERST, Mass. - If Upjohn had existed 400 years ago, it would have been a botanical garden, says new University of Massachusetts history professor Brian Ogilvie.

Ogilvie, a specialist in the history of science, says the first botanists were actually Renaissance physicians who were exploring the medicinal benefits of plants.

"They were re-examining the wisdom of the ancients who had catalogued a variety of flora with alleged healing properties," Ogilvie says. "In doing so, they not only went out into the natural landscape on excursions, they also created Europe’s first botanical gardens."

These gardens, today the focus of many a tourist’s itinerary, are also the precursors of greenhouses throughout the world. Indeed, every time plant lovers visit Kew Gardens in London or the botanical gardens in New York, they are carrying on a tradition begun by these Renaissance physicians, says Ogilvie.

According to Ogilvie, interest in botany exploded in Europe between the 16th and 17th centuries, with numerous gardens being cultivated across the continent. Similarly, thousands of medical students in the region began studying the subject, and close to 200 textbooks were written where before few had existed. What Ogilvie finds so fascinating about these phenomena is how they seem to relate to broader trends in the period. As he says, not only gardening, but cartography, zoology, and, alchemy all experienced dramatic growth spurts during the era.

"The unifying thread seems to be a desire to create catalogues of nature," Ogilvie says. "The Renaissance scientist wanted to impose some sense of order on the world, and in doing so he created an element of the modern scientific method."

And yet, even as the Renaissance mind looked toward modern science, it also reveled in "curiosities, marvels, and wonders," Ogilvie says. Ogilvie points to the classic example of an Italian nobleman who collected oddities from around the world - among his treasures were gilded ostrich eggs, nautilus shells, and a stuffed crocodile, the entire collection being displayed by a court-appointed dwarf who became its stuffed centerpiece once dead.

"The Renaissance is a fascinating period in history, because in it thinkers were looking toward the classical past, but also creating the world of the future," Ogilvie says. "It’s a kind of link between the ancient and the modern - a fascinating and enlightening link."

Ogilvie came to this "fascinating and enlightening link" in a similarly "curious and marvelous" manner, having begun his undergraduate career as a physicist only to realize he was more interested in "people than particles." Combining his love of science with his new-found love of history, he focused on the origins of botany only to discover the link between medicine and gardening.

Now, as one of the professors affiliated with the new Renaissance Study Center at the University, Ogilvie spends much of his free time searching throughout Europe for archaic medical texts. Wandering from botanical gardens to college libraries, much in the manner of the original botanists/physicians who wrote these texts, he satisfies his twin cravings for science and history.

"I guess I love the curious and the bizarre as much as I love creating an order out of what seems random," Ogilvie says. "There is one definite difference between me and those Renaissance scholars though – I don’t have a single plant. Everything I’ve ever tried to grow has died."