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Timely cures: a new pharmaceutical garden in an old one

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The Pharmaceutical Journal Vol 264 No 7102p956-958
June 24, 2000 Articles

Timely cures: a new pharmaceutical garden in an old one

By Peter J. Houghton

On July 6 the Chelsea Physic Garden will celebrate the new millennium by launching "Timely cures: pharmaceutical plants at the millennium", a new pharmaceutical garden and an exhibition of photographs by Sue Snell of medicinal plants and patients who are being treated with medicines derived from them. This article describes the new garden and outlines the importance of the physic garden as a centre for plant sciences over the past 300 years

In one of life's little ironies, it was only 25 years ago that the clerk to the charity then running the Chelsea Physic Garden stated, rather dismissively, that "the title of the garden and its original history lead the general public to expect the Chelsea Physic Garden to be a herb garden".
This comment was intended to emphasise the neglected, and largely unknown, contribution made by the garden to other aspects of botany throughout much of 20th century. However, along with many others, he failed to foresee the renaissance of public and scientific interest in medicinal plants and herbs in the latter years of the 20th century, and the consequent attraction of the traditional aspects of the garden, which now results in about 18,000 visitors annually who can view more live species of medicinal plants than in any other garden in the United Kingdom.
Most of the credit for re-emphasising the medicinal plant aspects of the garden must go to the present curator, Sue Minter. Sue has been in post since 1991 and, in addition to changes in the layout and content of the garden, has been instrumental in expanding its educational role. She has also written ?The apothecaries' garden', the first comprehensive history of the garden, which was published very recently and gives a fascinating account of the key role that four acres have played, not only in science, but in the world economy.
In its 327 years of existence, the physic garden, and people strongly associated with it, have been responsible for several important developments in agriculture. These include the improvement of the cotton industry in Georgia, United States, the rubber industry in Malaysia, the growing of tea in the Indian subcontinent and the "green revolution" of the late 20th century.
From a more pharmaceutical perspective it is interesting to observe that the garden now plays a role closer to that for which it was originally planted than it has done for most of its history.

opium poppies
The author examines opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) growing in the pharmaceutical garden

An influential history

The garden was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, which wished to have a base for training its apprentices in the recognition of medicinal plants. Soon afterwards the first heated greenhouse in the UK was constructed in the garden so that exotic plants sensitive to cold English winters could survive.
One of the earliest plants to be grown was a Cinchona species, the source of quinine. The bark of this tree was just being introduced into the UK as a treatment for malaria after decades of suspicion in protestant Britain because of its associations with the Jesuits.
One doctor who benefited from the use of quinine was Hans Sloane (later knighted) who with the proceeds (but also helped by marriage to a rich widow!) was able to buy the Manor of Chelsea, which included the physic garden. Sloane generously transferred ownership of the garden to the Society of Apothecaries through a deed of covenant, now on display at the physic garden, which was exceptionally well formulated and has saved the existence of the garden on several occasions. The purposes of the garden were confirmed as a teaching establishment that "apprentices and others may the better distinguish good and usefull plants from those that bear resemblance to them and yet are hurtfull".

Visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden

The Chelsea Physic Garden is at 66 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London SW3. It is open to the public on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons from April to October (admission £4). Friends of the Physic Garden (details from the Garden Office, tel 020 7352 5646) have free entry in office hours.

The golden age

During the 18th century, under the curatorship of Philip Miller, the garden became one of the best-known botanical gardens in Europe and was the centre of plant introductions from the parts of the world that were being discovered and colonised by the British. Many of these species were distributed to the great landscape gardens of Britain which were then being developed and which still form a unique feature of the British countryside.
Miller wrote books describing the new species and one of these, named Vinca rosea by Miller but now known as Catharanthus roseus, is the source of the antileukaemic drug vincristine. It can still be seen growing in the greenhouses at the physic garden. However, the role of the garden had extended far beyond its original purpose of displaying only medicinal plants and this set the pattern for many years to come.
Unfortunately, the garden became rather neglected by the Society of Apothecaries and in 1837 John Lindley, the praefectus horti (or director) strongly criticised the state of the medicinal plants, the lack of names and the fact that they were vastly outnumbered by non-medicinal species. He set about cataloguing the plants present and developing the collection of medicinal species.

The fruits and leaves of mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), the roots of which contain hyoscine

Chelsea and tropical cash crops

Lindley clashed in these views with William Anderson, the curator, who nevertheless deserves special mention because of his development of the Wardian Case, an invention of a member of the committee, Nathanial Bagshaw Ward. The Wardian case was in effect a small glasshouse, and enabled live plants to be shipped across the oceans, protected from salt spray and winds. Wardian cases were much used by British agricultural developments in the world and were the means by which tea plants were brought from China to India, rubber plants from Brazil to Malaya and Cinchona plants from South America to British and Dutch plantations in south-east Asia.
The subsequent curator, Robert Fortune, travelled to China several times in the mid-18th century, mainly concerned with the development of the tea industry but also collecting Chinese plants. In these days, when Chinese herbal medicine in the UK is receiving much attention, it is interesting to read of his successful treatment of a fever by Chinese medicine and his comments on acupuncture and other aspects of Chinese medicine.

Madagascar periwinkle
Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) in a Chelsea Physic Garden greenhouse

Growth under threat

During the second half of the 19th century the expansion of London threatened the existence of the physic garden both because of its prime site as building land and because of the construction of Chelsea Embankment along the side of the river Thames.
At one time the Society of Apothecaries decided to sell the garden but eventually it was persuaded to keep it. New glasshouses were constructed and classes for medical students recommenced. New medicinal plants were added from Kew. A notable feature of the educational side of the garden during this time was the large number of women attending classes, in general botany rather than medical botany. With the decline in plant-based medicines in the late 19th century, the garden was once again at risk because it was considered by some to have outlived its original educational purpose for the study of medicinal plants.
The wider remit of general education was a contributing factor to the survival of the garden because of the burgeoning movement of the time of giving education to women and working class men. The City Parochial Foundation, which had been recently founded "for the poorer classes of the Metropolis", took over the garden as it was perceived to offer a valuable educational resource for students in botany. This much wider botanical basis was reflected in the research undertaken at the garden during the first three-quarters of the 20th century, particularly from Imperial College in nearby South Kensington.

Agricultural science

During the 1920s, the garden became the centre of several studies that had a huge influence on agriculture. These included research into pests, proteins in beans, aspects of plant physiology and leaf fall.
Probably the most far-reaching research involved studies on the effect of day length and temperature on seed setting by cereal crops and on the compounds known as gibberellins which affect plant size. This research was a major influence on the so-called "green revolution" of the 1960s, in which new varieties of cereals with short stalks and greater yields of seed were developed.
Although somewhat eclipsed by such research, the medicinal side of the garden was not completely forgotten and during both world wars it supplied medicinal plants and their seed for the production of medicines while for a time plants were stored for use in anticancer research by the Chester Beatty Research Institute.
From about 1970 onwards the garden regained some of its traditional role as a centre for the study of medicinal plants. Work on the medicinal fungus ergot was carried on by Professor Peter Mantle of Imperial College, while Professor E. J. Shellard of Chelsea College department of pharmacy rented space in the laboratory and used the garden for growing plants used in his research. These included the tropical Mitragyna species grown from seed in the greenhouses.
The garden was also used in studies by Dr Peter Hylands from Chelsea College on the antimigraine properties of feverfew, a plant now widely known and sold as a herbal product. Allen Paterson, the curator in the 1970s, laid out a herb garden in the shadow of the great bay tree in the north-east of the garden.

Storm and calm

The financial problems of the time precipitated the garden into another crisis of ownership, since the City Parochial Foundation withdrew its support. Eventually the situation was resolved by the formation of a body of trustees with the condition that the garden be made open to the public. The garden was to be run by a management committee, assisted by an advisory committee which included representatives from various professional bodies with an interest in the garden. The advisory committee includes a representative from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, as the previous committee under the City Parochial Foundation had done.
The garden has increased its public profile considerably in the past 20 years and now admits a healthy number of visitors each year, participates in a variety of educational activities for children and adults and stages annual exhibitions of plant-related topics.

Pharmacy and the garden today

In 1982, Professor Arthur Bell, then director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, stated: "It would be valuable and appropriate to restore the garden to its original function and lay it out as a classical herb garden . . . to incorporate display material showing how plants are still the basis of a great number of modern medicines and that the search for medicinal plants and medicinal compounds derived from plants still goes on. . . . I think that a development of this sort . . . could become a major tourist attraction."
It would be safe to say that the vast majority of those who know the character and work of the garden do not want it to become a major tourist attraction, but recent developments have been designed to attract visitors with exactly those interests that Professor Bell mentioned.
In the past 10 years, the pharmaceutical aspects of the garden have increased considerably, but modern developments of interest in plant-based medicines from other cultures are reflected in the plants on display. Two major sets of beds have been introduced. The first of these, constructed in 1993, was the Garden of World Medicine, where medicinal plants from the indigenous cultures of several parts of the world can be seen growing. These include plants from South Africa, China and India, and also those used by Maoris, aboriginal Australians and North American Indians.
Some of the plants on display, such as ginseng, podophyllum, lemon grass and ginkgo are well-known to modern pharmacists as herbal products or as substances used in aromatherapy, but there are also many unfamiliar names, several of which have never been scientifically investigated.
The most recent set of beds has only just been inaugurated and is called the Pharmaceutical Garden. This garden has been set up in honour of Dr Arthur Hollman, who served as the representative of the Royal College of Physicians on the advisory committee for 25 years.
In contrast to other arrangements, where plants are grouped according to their botanical family or the chemical type of active ingredients, this new garden is divided into 10 beds associated with disease states. Several species which are the source of recently-introduced drugs are included as well as all the old faithfuls with which every pharmacist should be familiar.
Thus in the bed marked "psychiatry" one finds valerian, the herbal tranquilliser, together with the bean Vicia faba, the source of levodopa for Parkinsonism, and Narcissus species as the source of the recently introduced galantamine as a choline esterase inhibitor used to treat early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
The immense debt owed to the flowering plants by cancer chemotherapy is demonstrated by the oncology bed, which contains Taxus species, source of paclitaxel and related compounds, Podophyllum peltatum and P hexandrum, from which etoposide is produced, and the Chinese plant Camptotheca acuminata, from which topotecan and related compounds are derived.
The physic garden is beautifully laid out and is very small, but containing over 6,000 species of plants, so it is a perfect place to spend one or two hours reflecting on both the historical and modern aspects of the value of plants to pharmacy in a tranquil corner of a busy part of London.

Professor Houghton is the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's representative on the advisory committee of the Chelsea Physic Garden. He is professor of pharmacognosy in the department of pharmacy of King's College London

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 20001915

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