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Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first hospital, was founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond. The hospital was the first such establishment dedicated to the care of "the sick, the injured and those suffering from mental and nervous diseases." Franklin maintained an active interest in the hospital, serving as the first secretary, and as president of the Board of Managers.

On June 7, 1774, physicians at Pennsylvania Hospital attended a meeting of the Board of Managers and heard a proposal to establish a Botanical Garden on the hospital grounds. Such a proposal pleased them mightily as a garden of this kind would provide physicians with a ready source of ingredients for the medical remedies of the period, almost all of which were based on plant material.

For a variety of reasons, chiefly financial, the Botanical Garden did not become a reality until 1976, 200 years after the original proposal, when it was "generously executed" as a Bicentennial project by the Philadelphia Committee of the Garden Club of America and friends of Pennsylvania Hospital, including physicians and other staff members.

The purpose of the Physic Garden is still to serve "that noble institution," no longer as a living pharmacopoeia, but as a living demonstration to future generations in the ways nature continues to help the physician.

The Physic Garden

Plant materials in the Physic Garden were selected to be a representative collection of herbs, trees and shrubs grown for medicinal purposes in America's 18th century gardens. The ancestors of most of these plants either were brought to America by the early European settlers or were native, their use taught to the settlers by the Indians. Some plants are still used today for modern medicines, such as Digitalis purpurea (Foxglove) which is used as a heart stimulant. The pharmacopoeia is constantly expanding, reaffirming a vital aspect of man's necessary interdependence with the physical world.

In Colonial times, most diseases were believed to enter the body from without and with malignant intent. In turn, most treatments involved eliminating the evils from within, through bloodletting, induced vomiting, hot or steam baths to sweat out the poisons and purging. Purging involved the ingestion of plant concoctions made either of whole plants or plant parts that expelled the poisons. To be effective these potions had to be carefully chosen to comply with the prevailing theories.

Most medical remedies of 17th and 18th century America were based on the lore of traditional European herbals. The herbals contained detailed descriptions and drawings of plants and their habitat and prescribed their application, efficacy and method of preparation as "physics" or remedies. A wealth of precedents was added to the information in the herbals from medical authorities of the past, quoting liberally from translations of Greek writers, such as Galen, court physician to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius; Dioscorides, a surgeon in Nero's armies; and 10th and 11th century Arab physicians. The information also incorporated medieval and Renaissance astrological and alchemical principles, elements from the Old and New Testaments and common superstitions of the time.

The most popular and comprehensive of the herbals or medical treatises, was the Herball of John Gerarde, published in three volumes in London in 1597. Gerarde, a member of the Company of Barber-Surgeons, was head gardener to the mighty Cecil family of England during the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1633, 20 years after Gerarde's death, the Herball was enlarged and edited by Thomas Johnson. It was this edition that was used by the Colonial forefathers and is still referred to today.

Medical schools did not exist in pre-Revolutionary America. Aspiring physicians were apprenticed to those already experienced and then often went abroad to finish their training at the old and famous schools of Edinburgh, London, Paris, Leyden, Montpelier and Rheims. All five signers of the letter requesting a Physic Garden at Pennsylvania Hospital in 1774 received most of their medical education at such places. While abroad they may have visited some of the physic gardens attached to these institutions and subsequently suggested similar plantings for their longed-for garden at Pennsylvania Hospital. However, it is hoped on viewing the Physic Garden today that all will exclaim like Gerarde in his introduction to the Herball :

"What greater delight is there than to behold the earth apparalled with plants, as with a robe of embroidered work ... The delight is great but the use is greater, and joined often with necessities. In the first ages of the world they were the ordinaire meate of men, and have continued ever since of necessarie use both for meates and to maintain life, and for medicine to recover health."

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