History of the Department
In the 21st-century Department of Plant Sciences, specialists in rainforest ecosystems rub shoulders with molecular geneticists, and students hear lectures by experts in cellular structure before examining biodiversity in the University Botanic Garden. This exceptional breadth results from the very prolonged development of botany as an academic subject, particularly in Cambridge.
Botanical teaching and research in Cambridge dates from the time of William Turner (who graduated from Pembroke College in 1526). Turner's New Herball of 1551-68 records the botanical features of 238 plants native to England, and marks the beginning of UK plant systematics and taxonomy. Turner and his colleagues studied plants with a view to elucidating their pharmaceutical properties - a powerful impetus which still lies behind much of today's research.
The guiding genius in the development of Cambridge botany was John Ray, one of the energetic English Renaissance scholars who established natural science as a field worthy of academic study. John Ray was the son of an Essex blacksmith, admitted to St Catharine's College in 1644, and a Fellow of Trinity from 1649. Ray was passionate about botany, and searched the University for someone to instruct him,
But, to my astonishment, among so many masters of learning and luminaries of letters I found not a single person who was deeply versed in Botany, and only one or two who had even a slight acquaintance with the subject . . . so why should not I, endowed with ample leisure, if not with great ability, try to remedy this deficiency . . . ?
Thus determined, Ray shored up Cambridge botany by giving instruction himself, and by publishing seminal material, including the first flora of Cambridgeshire (1660) and of England (1670). By then he was a Fellow of the recently-established Royal Society, and amongst the most renowned scientists of his generation.
Botany, like other natural and experimental subjects, languished in the 18th century, although, curiously, the first Professor of Botany was appointed in that century, in 1724. Richard Bradley was already a Fellow of the Royal Society, having been elected at the age of 26. He was a prolific writer, and is known now for his Historia Plantarum Succulentarum (1716-27) and New Improvements of Planting and Gardening (1717-18), one of the first works on horticulture.
He also studied the plague in Marseilles, and his speculations about the cause of this plague may be seen to prefigure modern bacteriology. Despite Bradley's learning and the range of his interests, he was badly thought of by his successors in the Chair of Botany, John (1733-62) and Thomas (1762-1825) Martyn, who - rather cheekily, given the rather obvious prima facie case of nepotism which might be levelled against them - believed Bradley to have self-interestedly lobbied for the creation of the Chair and his appointment to it.
John Martyn's most important work, the Historia Plantarum Rariorum (1728-1737), is of particular interest as it contains some early examples of colour printing from a single-metal plate. Thomas Martyn is a more significant figure, who recognised the importance of the Linnean system of nomenclature; he is also remembered, along with the benefactor Richard Walker, as a founder of the Botanic Garden, which became an early site for experimental botany. At this New Garden 'trials and experiments' would be 'regularly made and repeated' in order to discover the virtues of plants 'for the benefit of mankind'.
The election of John Stevens Henslow, with his knowledge of entomology and mineralogy, to the Chair of Botany led to a rejuvenation of the subject, so that it came to encompass the whole of natural history. This accounts for Henslow's crucial influence on his most famous pupil, Charles Darwin. Botanical specimens from Darwin's voyages - part of the empirical evidence behind the theory of natural selection - are still housed in our Herbarium.
Our present home on the Downing Site was established in 1904 through the extraordinary scientific and administrative ability of Harry Marshall Ward, a product of the new popular education in experimental science. Ward's interest in German scientific advances and his experience of practical forestry are examples of the international co-operation which is such an important part of life in the contemporary Department of Plant Sciences. The Elementary Laboratory founded by Marshall Ward has been refurbished for the 21st century, and for the centenary of our building in 2004.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the new subjects of genetics and ecology were coming into their own. The Botanic Garden played an important role in the very early days of genetic studies by providing facilities for growing the families of experimental plants studied by such pioneers as Bateson and Saunders. The development of modern British was shaped by A.G. Tansley, who combined the taxonomic and experimental approaches to the study of vegetation. Tansley had a lectureship at Cambridge between 1906 and 1927. He was also an early disciple of Freud, and the Tansley archive in our Library is an important source for those researching the links Tansley made between psycho-analysis and ecology.
In the earlier part of the twentieth century there was a diversification into bryology, the study of mosses; mycology, the study of fungi, and also the quaternary sciences: the latter have helped to show how the earth's climate has changed. Since the 1950's we have seen the rise of molecular and cell biology, followed by plant pathology and plant biochemistry.
The founders of botanical science would not recognise many of the methods and techniques employed by modern plant scientists, but without their pioneering work on naming and classification, and their early experiments on the function, structure and growth patterns of plants, no current work at the molecular level - which enables us to make advances in the breeding and conservation of plants - would be possible.
We are indebted to S.M. Walters' 'The Shaping of Cambridge Botany' for much of the information given here. This book was published by Cambridge University Press in 1981, and reprinted by the Friends of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden in 1996. Dr Walters is a former Director of the Botanic Garden.