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Augusta’s physic garden

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Princess Augusta (Callie Jones)The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew were founded in 1759. Since the precise foundation date is unknown, the 250th anniversary of the gardens is being celebrated throughout the summer.

Kew Gardens began life purely as a physic garden, created for Princess Augusta, the widow of Frederick, Prince of Wales.

The garden was constructed within an area of land that had been owned by royalty for centuries, and when Augusta died in 1772 her son, George III, enlarged the garden by merging it with adjacent royal land.  

Kew’s original role as a physic garden is embraced today by its economic botany collection, devoted to the human use of plants for medicine, food, clothing, utensils, etc. Incorporated into the collection is a large hoard of materia medica gathered by the early Pharmaceutical Society.

Soon after its foundation in 1841 (also the year Kew was acquired by the nation), the Society began a museum of materia medica as a teaching aid for its school of pharmacy and a reference source for pharmacists. The Society’s holding was augmented over the years by some important donations.

After the School of Pharmacy transferred to the University of London in 1948, the use of the collection declined and the Society decided to offer it to an institution that could get more value from it.

After a period at the University of Bradford, the Society’s hoard was in 1983 integrated into Kew’s economic botany collection, where it now forms the cornerstone of a history of medicine section.

The medicinal use of plants is also an important aspect of Kew’s research activities. One major project aims to document and explain some of the traditional uses of plants and to identify further plant species that can be employed sustainably in the treatment of medical conditions or for other economic and social uses.

For example, information has been collated on plants frequently used to treat diabetes (1,700 species), malaria (over 3,000 species), tuberculosis (over 1,300 species) and cancer (over 500 species). And among Kew’s partners in the project is the School of Pharmacy.

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