n the early decades of the nineteenth century, almost the only way to earn a living from botany was by teaching medical students. Botany was not considered important enough to warrant study in its own right. As late as 1857, the Athenaeum complained that "Of all the natural sciences Botany is perhaps worse treated in this country than any other", because it was "tacked on as an appendix to a course of medical study, and gets little or no consideration in any other direction".
Nevertheless, botany's role as part of English medical education (after the 1815 Apothecaries Act), did at least ensure a growth in botanical teaching positions. Yet because it was part of the materia medica, botany was primarily associated with the lowly apothecaries, who ranked below physicians and surgeons because they engaged directly in trade, selling medicines in shops. By contrast, physicians avoided manual work and regarded dispensing medicines as deleterious to their social and professional standing. In George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, set in the 1830s, Dr Lydgate displays his pretensions to social and professional status by deciding to "simply prescribe, without dispensing drugs or taking percentage from druggists". Although dispensing drugs brought in a secure income, ambitious doctors like Lydgate sought to climb the social and professional scale by breaking their link with shopkeepers.
Nevertheless, the main reason why botany was taught in universities for much of the century was because of its medical uses, and the steadily growing numbers of medical students were an important market for botanical books, lecture courses and collecting equipment. Some career-minded botanists might have wanted to break their science's link with medicine, but few could afford to do so.
Last modified 8 March 2008