Read The Physic Garden Online

Authors: Catherine Czerkawska

The Physic Garden (4 page)

BOOK: The Physic Garden
10.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The physic garden was dying. Thomas Brown and I were in
about that. When he asked if I would gather specimens for him, the state of the physic garden lay at the heart of his request. In fact, the state of the physic garden lay at the root of all that occurred over those next few years. There had been a slow but steady decline for a long time past and the miserable end of this once beautiful and productive garden was inevitable.

It all began with Alexander Wilson who was made
of astronomy in 1760, but he was already the official type founder to the university. This was his main trade; astronomy was but a pastime with him. These academic disciplines were often hobbies for men who made their real living elsewhere. Much, I suppose, as Thomas would have said that his real work was
, even while he was lecturing in botany. Professor Wilson soon petitioned Faculty for permission to build a type foundry in the grounds, a convenience for himself, since he was about to become resident in the college. Without reference to the
– for who ever would think to consult a common gardener on such a matter? – they allowed the foundry to be built on a small plot of land next to the physic garden.

The type foundry was much more important than the physic garden. The university needed printing of all kinds and it was an
expensive business, as I now know only too well. I always feel that there is a certain irony in the nature of my later profession: fate winking at me from behind her hand, so to speak. But life does sometimes seem to throw these strange coincidences our way. The first venture must have been very successful because they quickly allowed it to be expanded, and a second foundry was built beside the first. From that time onwards the garden deteriorated a little more each year.

My father had been working as college gardener while I was toddling about the place and getting up to all kinds of mischief. I spent my childhood running about the gardens, paddling in the burns with the other lads, guddling for the wee silvery fish that swam there, or catching them with nets and letting them go again. I was supposed to be helping my father, although perhaps
might be a better way of describing it. But he tolerated me and encouraged me in about equal measure. He was a good,
man, if a little dour.

I remember one time when I was running like the wind on an imaginary errand of my own. Oh I was well away, my feet scarcely seeming to touch the ground. I think I had some vague idea,
knowing anything save that these countries lay beyond the great river and the sea, that I might run to Africa or the Americas or some such place, that my legs might carry me over the water and beyond. I was brought down to earth from this engaging
when I collided with a professor, who was donnering down one of the pathways, deep in thought, his black gown flapping behind him. He was a small man and I ran right into his belly and for all that he was small of stature, his belly wasn’t that wee, I’m telling you. They were well fed, those professors.

I fairly bounced off him, and the collision released a cloud of snuff from his waistcoat. The impact took the breath from him and from myself too, and I fell over. I remember sitting there with my arse paining me, and my hands digging into the cold grit of the pathway, looking up at him staggering backwards with his mouth in a round ‘o’ of astonishment. I don’t know which of us was the
more surprised. My father had seen the whole thing and he came galloping over with his spade in his hand, brandishing it like a weapon. He was all for giving me a beating there and then, and I think he might have been tempted to use the flat of the spade to do it, so great was his wrath, compounded by embarrassment at his own son for being the perpetrator of such a crime. I expected it and thought my arse would be sore all over again. But the old man wouldn’t have it.

‘Na, na, na. Leave the wee man alane, Mr Lang,’ he said. ‘Let him be. He was merely doing what boys do.’

‘Aye,’ said my father drily. ‘Cause naethin but trouble! Will ye let me hammer the deil oot o’ him Master? Will ye?’

He was hovering there, wondering whether to drag me to my feet or brush the professor down or what to do next. The
surprised us both by letting out a wheezy chuckle, like a laugh that has gone rusty from lack of use. As perhaps it had.

‘Na, na, Mr Lang,’ he said again, shaking his head. ‘Leave the lad alane! It’s whiles a pleasure to see a wee lad runnin’ within the walls of this solemn auld place – and doin’ it for the joy of movement!’ he added. ‘My, my, but it’s the closest thing to
motion we’ll ever see, for all their wild propositions and experiments with wheels and vast quantities of mercury! Look to the lads, that’s what I say! Look to the lads!’ and off he went, still chuckling to himself.

I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying about
motion and mercury, neither of us did, although I found out all about it later, when I had more books in my possession, and how it was a sort of holy grail among scholars. But he seemed to be in high good humour, as though he had enjoyed the whole incident. While my father was gazing after him in some astonishment, I scrambled to my feet and took myself off before he could change his mind and give me a beating anyway for the good of my immortal soul.

* * *

My father’s predecessor, Sandy Adams, had been a fine gardener who had taught my father all that he knew. Adams’s
wife had set up a shop in one of the rooms of their house in Blackfriars Wynd, just outside the college. There, she would make herb ale (said to be a great tonic for the blood) and would sell it, along with all kinds of medicinal herbs, both dried and fresh, and distillations of these herbs, including cinnamon and peppermint as aids to digestion, lime flowers for the apoplexy and vertigo, elder with all kinds of curative properties, as well as common mint and pennyroyal, which, although its oil is very poisonous, will keep the flies away from your larder if you but place a pot by the door in summer. We still do that here in this house. There would, of course, be seasons when the produce of the physic
was abundant, and I think Adams must have sought and gained the permission of Faculty to use the surplus as he saw fit in the service of his other business.

By the time of Sandy Adams’s death, however, the type foundry was already exerting its malign influence and the garden was in decline. My father was a young married man by that time, steady and reliable, but already with considerable experience in the
gardens, and Faculty had no hesitation in appointing him in Sandy Adams’s place. When I grew old enough to become a real help to him, my father never tired of telling me that he judged the physic garden to be in a dreadful state. After his appointment as head gardener, he had attempted to remedy it and immediately ordered forty cartloads of dung for dressing the soil. I mind the stink of it yet for I played my part in shovelling it into and out of wheelbarrows. You could shovel all day long and the heaps never seemed to get any smaller or smell any sweeter.

Throughout my childhood, the botanical garden, as my father called the physic garden, became a constant cause for complaint. It was the focus for all his woes, a sad accompaniment to a
conversations. I would sometimes be sent to fetch him in when his supper was on the table – invariably broth, bannocks, a little crowdie with salt, since he was a man of regular, even
monotonous habits – and more often than not, I would find him foraging among the herbs, studying leaves and blossoms for signs of injury. But you didn’t need to look too closely to see that the garden was sickly, leaves yellowing and falling before their time or shrivelled, their growth stunted, so many plants afflicted with some dreadful malaise. It was a vegetable plague and just as deadly as the epidemics that from time to time would ravage the human population of the town.

Professor Hamilton, although I have small recollection of him, must have begun lecturing in botany around that time. He had studied under the celebrated anatomist William Hunter, in London, and so came with a reputation for an interest in
, that is, slicing into real, albeit dead human bodies, to find out what goes on beneath the skin. Professor Hamilton was a good friend to my father and when the post of college gardener became vacant, he thought that my father would be a very suitable person to fill it and recommended him to Faculty.

My father and Professor Hamilton used to have frequent
about remedies for the problem, much as Thomas Brown and I would later spend many hours wrestling with possible solutions for what was becoming an intractable state of decay. But I doubt if their relationship was anything other than formal. My father was the kind of man who knew his place and would offer due deference to men whom he thought of as his superiors in intellect and
, if not in the eyes of God. All men were equal in the eyes of the Lord. He would say that and I must suppose that he believed it. But although Professor Hamilton was youthful and gracious, he would have expected nothing less than respectful compliance with all his wishes, and my father would have thought this right and proper.

I have seen some of Professor Hamilton’s lecture notes. Like many another before him, he was convinced that plants gave off noxious substances by night, vapours inimical to the human frame, a belief which has persisted to this day. My late wife herself believed it, my daughter-in-law still does, and my grand-daughter is not even allowed her posy of wild flowers in her room at night,
although I myself remain unconvinced of it, perhaps because I slept in close proximity to all kinds of vegetable matter for a very large part of my youth, and apart from the occasional twinge of
and a little deterioration of my eyesight, have remained as active and healthy a man as it is possible to be.

Rather, I feel, it is the noxious effluents and vapours of such as the type foundry and numerous other manufactories, which have been established in our town, which destroy our trees and shrubs and flowers, which poison our rivers, which will, I do believe, ultimately destroy us all, for are we not made of the same organic matter? When the plants begin to die, we should look to ourselves and our own health to follow them into putrefaction.

Now, Glasgow is indeed growing and flourishing, but not in any way of which a gardener would approve. Not to put too fine a point on it, the town which, in my youth, was a place of many
and still full of the scent of flowers, now stinks to high heaven. The waters that were clear, in which the fish swam, over which the birds flew, are livid and sluggish as they flow through the town. The green leaves turn yellow and sour, even as they unfurl on the tree. The bark that should be silver or brown is as caked with dirt as the stones of this old house and even the statues on some of the new buildings, the gods and angels, already have a thin overlay of soot.

I have to remind myself that I am no longer a gardener and need not care for such things. But old habits die hard, and I do not like the smoke and the fog and the soot, even though I seem miraculously immune to its ill effects. There is nothing left of the dear, green place that Saint Mungo loved, and he would recognise no part of it. The folk of this town grow as stunted as the trees. They are pale and cough a great deal, and I think it was not so in my youth, no matter how hard the privations that the poor had to endure then. But progress must have its way, as my sons are always telling me and perhaps they are right.

My father and Professor Hamilton made strenuous efforts on behalf of the physic garden but they were sadly thwarted by Faculty itself, for a third type foundry was soon built. Everyone
knew what the effects of the smoke and fumes would be but nobody was prepared to make a decision to save the garden. And so we limped on in this fashion until Professor Hamilton himself took ill and died. He was then only thirty-two years old. It was in May of 1790 that Professor James Jeffray was appointed to the Chair of Botany and Anatomy in his stead. But in the type foundry next door they were melting lead, tin and antimony. You could taste them on your tongue. Like Canute, and just as helplessly wise, my poor father stood among his plants, head bowed before the onslaught of the incoming industrial tide.

Professor Jeffray had a fondness for wild experimentation and sensational ventures. His anatomical lectures were well attended because he was a great showman where these were concerned. But as I have said, his botanical lectures, which he was supposed to give in the summer months, were tedious affairs, blighted by his own lack of interest. A little while after the affair of the rat, he proposed that Thomas Brown undertake the lectures in his stead. Brown’s first course of lectures was successful and in May of the following year, he was appointed to teach botany in the university ‘so long as it shall be expedient’. The arrangement suited both men. But it meant that neither could afford to offend the other too much, although I cannot think that Jeffray was a man whom Thomas would have chosen for a friend, had circumstances been different.

Thomas, I have already begun to describe for you and now that I have made a start, I am afraid I shall write even more of him. Memories jostle my pen: the way he stood, his habit of
back and forth on his heels, the way he walked through the gardens with his head in the air, which gave him a haughty look, completely belied by his ability to focus all his attention on you, staring at you with those pale, clever eyes, as though your every word was important to him and for all I know, that may have been the truth. My words may have been important to him at that time. 

But I am somewhat at a loss to bring James Jeffray clearly before your sight because my judgement of him is clouded by subsequent events. He died only a few years ago. He had been professor of anatomy for fifty-eight years, and must, in that time, have
a prodigious amount to the study of medicine. Back then, as a young man, he was impulsive, intelligent, experimental. All these things. Mercurial. You could never quite pin him down.

There were those who called him a mere sawbones, myself included at that time, albeit in private, and only when I was in conversation with Thomas Brown. There were those who thought he was a genius. Perhaps both judgements were true. Most of his qualities would seem to be admirable. And yet, there was
repellent about his demeanour, or I always found it so. There was something about his ruthlessness in the pursuit of knowledge that gave the observer – this observer, at any rate – a certain
of revulsion, like a premonition of dreadful things to come. And yet, he was in no way to blame. In no way at all.

Much later, after all was said and done, something happened that may serve to explain both Jeffrey’s genius and my
. You will no doubt have heard the tale. I was not there. Oh no. I was certainly not there. And somehow, I do not think that Thomas would have been there either. Not by then. He would have learned his lesson all too well by then I think, and he had even resigned as lecturer in botany a couple of years earlier. But Professor Jeffray’s courses in anatomy were still
popular. The numbers who enrolled annually were
as many as two hundred. And as with botany, samples were required. But these were not things that could be gathered by young lads venturing into the countryside on fine days in June. Jeffray needed human specimens. And he needed them to be dead. Not surprisingly, there was some difficulty in obtaining subjects for demonstration. Executed criminals were fair game, but there were few such in Glasgow at that time. I would never have called this a law-abiding town, but murder was still
of a rarity.

However, in 1818, one Matthew Clydesdale, a weaver from Airdrie, was arrested and charged with murdering an old man in a fit of drunken violence. I suppose Clydesdale was neither
nor worse than many a working man who indulges a little too freely and loses his temper, but in this case the results were tragic. Clydesdale was a big man, and his much older victim could not defend himself. He fell down, banged his head on a flagstone and died. Clydesdale was brought to trial in Glasgow, found guilty of a murder, which was never, I think, his intention, and sentenced to be hung, with the additional judgement that his body was to be anatomised afterwards, a slightly more merciful version of the old, barbarous custom of hanging, drawing and quartering which was generally meted out to Scottish patriots by their neighbours, and latterly to young men such as Andrew Hardie and John Baird, tricked into acts of treason. There had not been a public execution, or indeed any execution for murder, in Glasgow for ten years. As I said, this is by no means a law-abiding town, but murder was still enough of a rarity to be cause for comment, speculation,
. It was by no means the only offence for which the penalty was death. Robbery was also a capital offence, but the additional
of being sent to the anatomists was generally the prerogative of foul murderers. Unless one of the professors tipped the wink to the hangman, and there were no close relatives with a prior claim on the body, relatives moreover who were ready to defend it from those who might come to dig it up again in the night. There was a highly lucrative trade in resurrected bodies at that time, certainly enough to encourage a few unscrupulous individuals to cut out the inconvenience of natural death and burial and facilitate the
of fresh bodies themselves.

Many people came to watch the execution that late autumn day. It was a regular day’s entertainment. I remember the crowds, although I myself kept well away from the jail square and the Saltmarket where the gallows had been erected in front of the brand new High Court building. There was ale for sale and
and all kinds of comestibles and sweetmeats. It was a grand
spectacle, so people told me afterwards. The children loved it, and if it taught them a lesson in good behaviour, so much the
. One mother actually said that to her ragged brood within my hearing as she herded them towards the High Court! The
even had to post soldiers by the timber footbridge over the river, lest the crowds overwhelm it with their numbers and caused a catastrophe as they struggled to get a better view of
. More fodder for the anatomists I suppose.

There were two hangings that day. A youngster called Simon Ross was hanged for theft, and I believe the poor lad took a long time to die, twitching and struggling on the rope, a truly dreadful procedure to behold. Clydesdale’s end was much quicker. He was by far the bigger man and the weight of his body must have pulled him down and broken his neck and hastened his end, thank-God. Once they had been pronounced dead, Clydesdale was taken down, placed in a cart and trundled up the Saltmarket, across Trongate and into the High Street, to the university college. Poor young Ross was handed over to his grieving relatives and buried somewhere in the Ramshorn graveyard, so the anatomists did not get their hands on him then, and his grave was well guarded, so that they would not get their hands on him afterwards, either. The resurrection men who were hard at work procuring corpses for scholars would have been sorely disappointed.

* * *

The anatomy theatre was very crowded. I suppose that some who had watched the execution came to watch the dissection. We are wont to talk of nature red in tooth and claw, but there are few creatures of the natural world so lacking in sympathy for the
members of their own species as human beings. The dog will fight his enemies to the death, but, on the whole, will spare the lesser canine who submits to him. Even rooks will mob the
hawk to protect their own kind. The casualties of the
rookery are few, and then only when the young tumble
from the nest. We are more like insects, I think, but even they eat because they must and that for the greater good.

The anatomists who received the body of the unfortunate Clydesdale were Jeffray and Doctor Andrew Ure, who seemed to have a touching not to say daft faith in the possibility that he really could reanimate a dead body and bring it back to life. James Jeffray, I’m absolutely sure, held no such illusion. He was no fool but he was quite prepared to experiment with galvanisation – the application of the mysterious current to the corpse – in an effort to observe the effects of such stimulation on the human anatomy.

One of the customers at our bookshop, Hugh Brodie, a Glasgow watchmaker who had a somewhat unlikely passion for the works of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, that is, for gloomy castles and distressed damsels and mysterious murders, came to the shop specifically to tell me all about it. I suppose it fed his taste for the bizarre. When I pointed out that reanimating a murderer might be something less than advisable, he became quite angry with me.

‘There’s no need to tak’ that tone wi’ me!’ he said, as though I had deliberately affronted him.

‘What would they have done if he had lived?’ I asked, amicably enough. ‘Would they perhaps have hung him all over again, do you think? And what would the legal position have been in such a case? Would it have been permissible?’

He departed, muttering and shaking his head, and that was a customer we had lost, but I found I didn’t care. Besides, the
was not such a foolish one after all, for I later learned that Ure had attempted to answer it for me.

‘This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and
contrary to the law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science,’ were his exact words.

Useful to science
. Ah yes. How many execrable acts have been justified with those glib words? How many will yet be justified? But I repeat that I do not think that Jeffray anticipated any such result.

The way it went was this. The men first dissected the body. There was no flow of blood. Clydesdale was well and truly dead. But they wished to expose areas where galvanisation might be applied. The connecting rods were fixed to heel and spinal cord whereupon Clydesdale’s knee flexed so violently that he appeared to kick one of the assistants in the ribs, thus causing the man almost to fall over, in a somewhat ironic recreation of the actions that had brought the weaver to this pass in the first place.

Then they connected the rods to what they called the phrenic nerve and the diaphragm. Ure thought to restore breathing to the corpse and, indeed, according to written reports at the time, the ‘chest heaved and fell. The belly was protruded and again collapsed.’

Tiring of this, at last, with the corpse showing no signs
of reviving permanently, they applied the current to the forehead and the heel, encompassing the whole man, as warlocks are said to do when they make their followers swear allegiance to Satan. Then they varied the voltage.

Expressions of all kinds appeared to flit across the
’s features in a terrible imitation of life. He seemed, by turns, enraged, horrified, despairing, amused and desperate. It was at this point, I believe, that several of the spectators turned sick and were forced to leave the theatre in order to vomit in the street
. One gentleman fainted and had to be carried out. However, some of the students, of a more sanguine disposition, were
heard to clap their hands, whistle and cheer, as such young gentlemen invariably will. The corpse remained resolutely dead, although to make doubly sure, Jeffray despatched him again with a scalpel, slicing right into his neck and almost decapitating the unfortunate weaver in the process.

Clydesdale’s corpse was eventually released to his wife. She, poor woman, had given birth to a son less than a month before the assault that was to result in her husband’s execution. I do not know where the body was buried, although executed murderers were usually laid to rest under the courtyard of the High Court building, with the weight of the forces of law and order pressing
down upon them, presumably to stop their restless ghosts from troubling the populace at large.

There can have been few murderers, however, who proved to be so resolutely, finally, unarguably dead as Clydesdale. Where
and the combined skills of two professors of anatomy had failed, even the saviour himself might have faltered, Lazarus notwithstanding. But I am an old man and must be allowed my fun, if fun it can be called. A gruesome joke, certainly. And I tell this tale only to bring Jeffray before your eyes. He was this kind of man, you see, quite ruthless in the pursuit of learning. The great mass of people may well approve of him and find his actions both explicable and even praiseworthy. It is universally accepted that the pursuit of knowledge is a very fine thing. And Clydesdale was, after all, a common murderer.

* * *

All of that came later and at the time I knew only that I found Jeffray and his obsession with anatomy disturbing. During the years when we were friends, Thomas would sometimes say to me that observing the way the human body worked was like seeing a machine, a complicated machine, where everything was
upon everything else.

‘So much sickness and misery,’ he would say, ‘is caused because the machine that we call our body breaks down. If we could only repair that machine, William! If we knew how these things worked. If we could effect adequate repairs, then so many lives might be saved, so much misery avoided!’

It was a sign of the times. There was a positive rage for
, for mechanisms that worked and could be fine tuned and repaired when they broke down. It was one reason why the
of perpetual motion was so much in vogue. The type foundry was one such mechanism that was admirably suited to its
. But the problem for the new manufacturers was so often that their human operatives broke down beyond hope of repair,
crushed, exhausted, sickly as the plants in my garden and
far more ill nourished.

BOOK: The Physic Garden
10.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

All the Way Home by Patricia Reilly Giff
The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki
Carnal by Jenika Snow
The Kind One by Tom Epperson
Alien Sex 101 by Allie Ritch