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Home > The Explorers > Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward
Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868)
For an individual who influenced the modern world so greatly, surprisingly little is know about Dr. Nathaniel Ward.
Born in London, Ward developed an early interest in the natural world, despite his urban surroundings. It is believed he was sent to Jamaica when he was thirteen, where he may have developed his interest in tropical foliage. He practised as a physician in the East End of London (some records suggest that he was a surgeon) and pursued his interests in botany and entomology in his spare time, and when on vacation in Cobham, Kent.
Of his home in Wellclose Square, Tyler Whittle had this to say in his book 'The Plant Hunters' (Chilton Book Company, Philadelphia, 1970, reprinted 1997 The Lyons Press, New York, NY. ISBN 1-55821-592-1 )
'What is known is that Wellclose Square , that part of dockland where he lived, was a Sherlock Holmes sort of place; not exactly producing lepers, abominable lascars and wicked Chinamen, but giving that impression all the same. And had Holmes and Watson been acquainted with their contemporary, Dr. Nathaniel Ward, undoubtedly they would have admired his scientific method of observing and deducing'
Dr. Ward's modest garden in London was only barely successful, with few if any of his ferns surviving. This rate of failure was due in no small part to the suffocating pollution of England's industrial age, the same choking atmosphere that caused the infamous 'Pea Soup' fogs.
It was some time around 1829 when, pursuing his interest in entomology, Ward saved the pupa of a moth in a 'Natural environment' in a sealed jar. History does not clearly record the fate of the moth, but after some time he noticed that a fern and some grass had started to develop in the soil at the base of the jar. His curiosity for how long the ferns could survive in this sheltered environment led to one of the most important botanic/economic discoveries of the Victorian age, the Wardian Case.
Growing plants, and even shipping plants, under glass was not new, but Ward's observation of the tightly sealed environment, kept independent from surrounding atmospheric conditions, was the breakthrough that changed forever the art and science of plant exploration. One of his first corespondences describing the results of his study, was to William Jackson Hooker, who's son, Joseph Dalton Hooker, would be among the first plant explorers to use this new device when he shipped plants back to England from his Antarctic expedition.
Ward hired a carpenter to build a case for further experimentation. He specified that the frame was to be built as tightly as possible, with the hardest of woods to resist decay from condensation, and soon the first 'Terrarium' was born. In July 1833, he conducted his first major experiment by shipping two custom built cases filled with a number of native British ferns and grasses to Sydney, Australia. After six months on the high seas, the cases arrived in Sydney Harbour with all the plants alive and thriving.
The cases, as per his instructions, were cleaned out and filled with a number of Australian native species that had proven impossible to transport in the past. It was not until February 1835 that the cases were sent on their return journey. After an eight-month storm wracked voyage back around the Horn, during which time the cases were subjected to all sorts of abuse, they arrived in London, where Dr. Ward waited eagerly to inspect their contents. The experiment was a resounding success, and Ward published a brief pamphlet, 'The growth of Plants without open exposure to the Air' describing his methods. He followed it with the 1842 book 'On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases'.
Soon all of England adopted these terraria, or Wardian Cases as they were commonly known, and a national passion developed for exotic plants, particularly ferns, suited to growing in the sheltered environs of these increasingly ornate cases.
In 1854, Dr. Ward delivered a lecture on his discovery to the Royal Society at the Chelsea Physic Garden, at which time it was acknowledged that his Wardian case had changed the face of commerce world-wide.
Some examples of how international agriculture was changed:
While his many activities and interests may have been recorded, little is known of Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward himself. So this man who changed the world so drastically, still remains as just another shadowy character from the docklands of Victorian London, largely lost to the annuls of history.
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