The Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine was founded in 1972, as an inter-faculty and inter-disciplinary venture. It is now a leading international centre for graduate research and teaching in many aspects of the history of medicine. The Unit comes under the general supervision of the Board of the Faculty of History within the Humanities Division. Over the years, the Unit has developed a particularly strong interest and international reputation in the social history of medicine in Britain, but also has particular strengths in the history of medicine in the non-Western world and the former colonial territories.
The Unit offers both MSc (one year) and MPhil (two years) degrees, and supports a strong doctoral program. Graduate students have produced outstanding theses in a wide array of subjects relating to the history of medicine, particularly in medicine in the non-Western world. Pre-clinical students have also been supervised by staff and the Unit has continued to attract many distinguished scholars who have made valuable use of the Unit’s outstanding collection of library materials.
Graduate seminars are held each week of the three teaching terms, together with a number of conferences and workshops each year. The Unit also has a substantial library of around 7,000 volumes in the history of medicine, and is particularly strong on the history of public health and tropical medicine.
Wellcome Unit Garden
First, to provide some historical background. In 1979-80, measures were taken to improve the appearance and security of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, then based in 47 Banbury Road. The Director, Dr Charles Webster, donated a small collection of medicinal herbs and shrubs (c. 150 species), which were planted in the back garden of the Unit. This collection was intended to replicate the major characteristics of the Renaissance herbals, in particular the Kräuterbuch of Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554). In the following year, the garden was extended so include c. 250 species. These included medicinal and kitchen herbs like sainfoin, mint, marjoram, and angelica, but also fruit trees, like quince and medlar, and species roses and other scented plants which were frequent in early modern recipes. Plans were also made to add to the next-door garden behind 45 Banbury Road, which was not occupied by the Unit until 1983. By 1984, c. 500 species and varieties flourished in the gardens of both 45 and 47 Banbury Road. Charles Webster resigned as Director in 1988, after which the gardens became difficult to sustain.
In 2017, plans to resurrect the garden were made, as students from the department’s master’s programme in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology were encouraged to revive the garden tradition. Two students, Rebecca Charbonneau and Sofie Illemann Jaeger, joined the project for different reasons. Although Rebecca is a twentieth century historian of space science, her undergraduate thesis in Art History concerned a seventeenth century naturalist illustrator named Maria Sibylla Merian, who spent two years living and painting plants in the jungles of Suriname. As a result of this project, Rebecca developed an interest in horticulture. Additionally, as a native Floridian who is most familiar with a subtropical environment, Rebecca was very keen on learning about British plants and wildlife, with which she quickly became acquainted. To her utter delight, slugs. To her lesser delight, stinging nettles. As for Sofie, she was roped into the project, lured by promises of cake and coffee. As it turns out, she was unable to coast by for the sake of cake, as she was also the one in the group with the most prior gardening experience and the only one with the essential knowledge of the difference between a spade and a shovel. Cake-motivations aside, the main focus of Sofie’s graduate thesis ties into the idea behind the herbal garden, as her work involves early modern recipe books and female alchemists’ use of herbs for medicinal purposes.
The new garden was planted in early August and currently consists of rosemary, sage, lavender, apple mint, marjoram, and lemon thyme. The plants were selected based on their presence in early modern recipe collections and it is the hope of the department that the garden will be maintained and expanded through the participation of incoming graduate students. Although certainly not as elaborate as its predecessor, over time and with continued engagement and contribution, the Wellcome Unit garden will serve as an example of History of Science and Medicine in action and as a reminder of the significance of the inclusion of material culture in the study of history.