The Ingenious Mr. Fairchild

The Ingenious Mr. Fairchild

by Michael Leapman

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"By the early eighteenth century, botanists were inching toward the shocking conclusion that plants had male and female organs and reproduced sexually. The first person to realize the practical implications of this was Thomas Fairchild, a London nurseryman, and celebrated author of The City Gardener. By transferring the pollen of a sweet william into the pistil of a…  See more details below


"By the early eighteenth century, botanists were inching toward the shocking conclusion that plants had male and female organs and reproduced sexually. The first person to realize the practical implications of this was Thomas Fairchild, a London nurseryman, and celebrated author of The City Gardener. By transferring the pollen of a sweet william into the pistil of a carnation, he created a new plant that became known as Fairchild's mule. The first man-made hybrid in Europe, it heralded the thousands of new varieties available to gardeners today." "This primitive form of genetic engineering aroused as much of a storm as genetic modification provokes today. As the scientific and religious debate raged, satirists wrote lewd verses about sex in the flower beds and railed against meddling with God's design." "Michael Leapman, a horticultural writer, has unearthed fascinating and colorful detail about the life and times of Thomas Fairchild, a troubled, gentle soul whose pioneering work changed the course of horticulture and paved the way for the growth of gardening as a cultural obsession."--BOOK JACKET.

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St. Martin's Press
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5.75(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.00(d)

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An evening at Crane Court

Yes, love comes even to plants, males and females; even the hermaphrodites bold their nuptials, showing by their sexual organs which are males, which are hermaphrodites.

At 52, Thomas Fairchild, gardener and lover of the outdoors, was still a fit man, although as he had grown more prosperous he had put on flesh. At most times of the year he would have walked the two and a half miles to the City of London from his home and nursery at Hoxton, just north of Shoreditch. But this was a cold Thursday afternoon in early February 1720; there had been a frost the previous night, and the piercing north wind was enough to penetrate the heaviest cloak. Although the sky was clear, the sun was sinking fast and it would be dark soon after five. Not just that, but he was carrying a small and quite precious parcel.

Rather than tramp in his best frock coat through the muddy lanes around Smithfield, where herdsmen would be driving sheep and cattle for Friday's market, he would surely have ridden in a hackney carriage, a short stagecoach or a slow but comfortable sedan chair. For a shilling or less, he and his little package would be carried snugly from his prosperous suburb, admiring as he went the newly built Aske's almshouses and school. Passing the half-completed Charles Square, soon to be one of the most fashionable addresses in the neighbourhood, he would have been carried along Old Street to Clerkenwell, crossing stinking Fleet Ditch close to the new St Paul's Cathedral, and from there into Fleet Street, at the busy western end of the City.

It was important that he should be there in good time and good order, for this evening was to be a landmark in his professional life. After 30 years, Fairchild had gained a reputation as one of the most skillful nurserymen in England, always experimenting with new techniques to produce better flowers and fruit and to make them flourish over a longer season, and especially adept with tender or ailing plants. He was one of several in his trade known as 'curious' gardeners, in the old-fashioned sense that they displayed intense curiosity about every aspect of their craft. At a time when England was experiencing a real upsurge of interest in gardens and what grew in them, more and more people were flocking to Hoxton, then a leading centre of the trade, to gaze at the latest wonders on display at his and a clutch of neighbouring nurseries.

This evening he was going to meet some of the finest scientific minds in the country -- perhaps even the great Sir Isaac Newton himself -- who were to be told the results of an unprecedented experiment in botany, then a young and undeveloped science. He was heading for Crane Court, an alley on the north side of Fleet Street just east of its junction with Fetter Lane. Since 1710 it had been the headquarters of the Royal Society, the prestigious scientific institution founded in 1662, just after King Charles II's restoration. The building, which sealed the long alley at its north end, had been converted from an old house by one of the Society's founders and its most illustrious Fellow, Sir Christopher Wren -- then eighty-seven and with three more years to live.

There Fairchild would have paid off his coachman or chairmen and walked up the broad front steps, framed by iron railings and lit by a single overhead lantern. The steps narrowed as they approached the tall front door, opened for visitors by a liveried doorman whose uniform bore the Society's coat of arms in silver. That touch of obsequious ceremony - introduced by Newton, the Society's President since 1703 -- would not have done anything to ease Fairchild's apprehension, and nor would the collegiate atmosphere evident in the ground-floor lobby, with groups of learned men conversing earnestly, occasionally looking towards him and wondering who exactly was this chubby outsider with the ruddy, weatherbeaten face, carrying his mysterious parcel.

The meeting-room, equally grand, was on the first floor at the back of the building, with four tall windows overlooking the garden. There was a clear division at the midpoint, where Wren had knocked two rooms into one. A low central beam was supported by two fluted columns that derived from the architect's favoured Palladian architectural style. The ceilings on either side of this divide were elaborately moulded in two similar but separate designs, with oil lamps hanging from the centre of each. Wood panelling around the walls rose about three feet from the floor, and at one end was a fireplace with moulded decoration.

Fairchild was not going to address the gathering himself but had been asked to attend by his friend Patrick Blair, a doctor, amateur botanist and a Fellow of the Society. Blair had undertaken to tell members about Fairchild's experiments, in a paper supporting his theory that plants reproduced in a way somewhat similar to animals and that, crucially, they were equipped with male and female organs. Once that fundamental principle was accepted, it would be a short step to working out how flowers could be bred deliberately, and even have their characteristics manipulated to man's design.

Today it seems odd that such a comparatively straightforward discovery was so long delayed -- it was, after all, a full 30 years since Newton had published his work on the rather more complex laws of gravity. But to accept that man could so radically interfere with what God had created posed ethical and moral dilemmas in the religious climate of the early eighteenth century. Some disapproved of Fairchild's experiments and questioned whether they did not amount to blasphemy. Did they not deny the biblical account of the Creation, which credited God as the creator of all species, and had until now been taken to mean that His scheme was not subject to alteration? Was Fairchild not interfering with the prerogative of the Creator -- the 'Great Author of perfection' as the Revd William Stukeley would put it in 1760, in a sermon preached in the nurseryman's memory?

There is not much doubt that Fairchild shared these misgivings. He struggled with his conscience and suffered spasms of guilt that, at the end of his life, he tried to purge through good works. His torments were comparable to those that in the following century were to plague a more celebrated pioneer in the natural sciences, Charles Darwin. No wonder, then, that Fairchild felt some trepidation as he entered the meeting-room and took his seat among the Fellows who had come to hear Dr Blair's paper.

In the event Newton was not there. Though usually an assiduous attender, he may, at 77, have been disinclined to venture into the cold night air. The meeting was chaired instead by someone not quite as distinguished but more appropriate. Sir Hans Sloane was a respected and much honoured doctor, physician to the late Queen Anne. Born in Ireland in 1660, he had been a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1685, its Secretary from 1693 to 1712 and was now its Vice-President. As Secretary he was credited with having rescued the Society from a period of financial and intellectual decline and contributed several papers to its Philosopbical Transactions, often on bizarre subjects such as the feathers of a condor or people who ate stones.

This was a time when science was viewed as much as a freak show as a serious academic discipline, and when it was thought that knowledge could be advanced by the study of extreme phenomena. So little was known about anything, by comparison with the body of knowledge we have today, that it was impossible to be sure whether any particular odd occurrence or found object would help advance science or was merely a curiosity.

It had been like that ever since the Royal Society was founded. The diarist Samuel Pepys, admitted as a Fellow in 1665, recorded that at one of his meetings he 'saw a cat killed with the Duke of Florence's poison, and saw it proved that the oil of tobacco drawn by one of the Society do the same effect, and is judged to be the same thing with the poison both in colour and smell' -- an early and vivid instance of anti-smoking propaganda. In 1682 another diarist, John Evelyn, was present when a French doctor demonstrated the first pressure cooker, making 'the hardest bones as soft as cheese'. With it, he cooked a meal of fish, beef, mutton and pigeons, which the Fellows devoured with relish.

What now seems to us as mundane, even ludicrous, commanded as much earnest attention as genuine scientific advance simply because it was impossible to judge whether or not it would turn out to have any broad significance. All this was a gift to the emerging tribe of satirists, such as the anonymous author of a periodical published in 1709 called Useful Transactions in Philosophy and Other Sorts of Learning. In the preface to the first issue he declared: 'It may not improperly be said at present that there is nothing in any art or science, how mean so ever it may seem at first, but that a true virtuoso, by handling it philosophically, may make of it a learned and large dissertation.'

In a later edition of the periodical, purporting to be the notes of a quizzical traveller returned from abroad, the satirist developed the theme: 'Feeding of fowl, the education and discipline of swine, the making of beds, the untying of breeches and loosening of girdles, with many other things described by this author, may seem at first to be trivial, yet contain in them great penetration of thought and depth of judgement.' Sloane himself makes an appearance, in the guise of the accident-prone Dr Van Slyboots, who remarks:. 'I think it one of the most necessary things in the world for a physician when he sets up in any place, to look out for proper and convenient burying-places for his patients.' Some 200 years later, George Bernard Shaw would be making the same point in The Doctor's Dilemma.

Sloane had been a member of the Royal College of Physicians since 1685 and was elected its President in 1719. A wealthy man, he gave money to several London charities and was said to be considerate to his servants, including one from Africa. In 1712 he had purchased the manor of Chelsea, bordering the Thames to the west of London, which included the Society of Apothecaries' garden. In 1722, two years after meeting Fairchild at the Royal Society, Sloane would give the garden's freehold to the apothecaries, along with some money for its improvement, on condition that he remained involved in its direction. He was responsible for installing the great Philip Miller as head gardener. It is largely thanks to Sloane that the Physic Garden survives as the oldest public garden in London, with his statue by Joannes Rysbrack standing appropriately in the centre.

Sloane had developed an interest in plants and gardening when he worked in Jamaica as physician to the governor, the Duke of Albemarle. It was here, too, that he first came across the cocoa bean, and through it made perhaps his sweetest contribution to the culture of the Western world. In Jamaica he came across chocolate for the first time, observing that the local women fed it to sick children. When he returned to London in 1689 he took some beans with him and experimented by mixing their powder with milk. The result was so palatable that he sold the recipe to a London grocer, whose successors sold it on to the Cadbury brothers, whose milk chocolate was to conquer the world.

Because early eighteenth-century medicine was based to a large extent on herbal remedies, many doctors became involved in botany. When Sloane returned from Jamaica he brought with him, as well as the cocoa beans, samples of some eight hundred plants that grew there. He published a catalogue of them seven years afterwards, eventually expanding the work into an account of his journey and a full-scale natural history of Jamaica. But as his biographer E. St John Brooks has observed, 'like many fashionable doctors he was a courtier rather than a scientist'. He hosted a weekly dinner party at his Bloomsbury house and invitations were highly coveted: although the fare was not extravagant, he would sometimes serve game sent to him by landowning patients. Later he was to be a prime mover in the establishment of the British Museum.

Fairchild was the only man in the room on that cold February night who was not a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was never to become one, probably because his education had been practical rather than intellectual. After the minutes of the previous meeting had been read and approved, the Fellows had to give their formal consent to his attendance. That done, Blair stood up to present his paper. He had just published a book of botanical essays, mainly concerned with plant reproduction, and he had offered to mark its appearance by talking to the Royal Society about his conclusions. He was unashamed about promoting his work, going so far as to give specific page references for his theories about sex in plants and the circulation of sap that were confirmed by the experiments he was describing.

The first of them had been carried out by Thomas Knowlton, then a young gardener at Offley Place near Hitchin in Hertfordshire, later a close friend of Fairchild's and ultimately one of the most influential horticulturists of the eighteenth century. Knowlton, who was not present that evening, had used two different methods of sowing wheat. He put some in rows, sowing each grain individually, and the other batch he scattered in drills 'promiscuously', as Blair put it. 'That which was sown singly shed its dust [pollen] before the female embryo began to appear,' he reported. Hardly any of that batch ripened, and the yield was minimal. The other seeds, however, produced plentifully. This, said Blair, 'confirms that the union of male and female flowers is necessary to fructification'.

Then he came to Fairchild's experiment. As Blair described it, the Hoxton nurseryman had found in his garden a plant 'of a middle nature between a sweet william and a carnation', at a spot where seeds of the two flowers had been scattered accidentally -- close enough for the pollen of one to enter the stigma of the other. Responding to Blair's cue, Fairchild opened the package he had been cradling so carefully and produced a specimen of the unique flower, pressed and preserved, and passed it around the gathering.

Copyright ©(2001) by Micheal Leapman.

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