Trinity College Dublin

Skip to main content.

Top Level TCD Links


300 Years of Growth

Henry Nicholson (1711-1715)

Rubrics BuildingHenry Nicholson, Trinity College’s first botanist, was born in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon in about 1681, son of the Rev. Edward Nicholson. To set the historical context, his childhood world would doubtless have been shaken by news of the War of King James II and King William of Orange; he was about ten in the year of the Battle of Aughrim (in the neighboring county of Galway), the bloodiest battle ever fought on Irish soil.

Nicholson entered Trinity College in 1700, when he was about nineteen. He did not graduate at Dublin, but a few years on – in 1705/6 - he matriculated at University College, Oxford. He subsequently registered as a student in the medical faculty at Leiden in the Netherlands, a major centre of both medical and botanical learning. He remained there for about six months and  was awarded a doctorate of medicine on 13 June 1709. His thesis, submitted in Latin, was printed in London in the same year in an English translation, entitled: “A brief treatise of the anatomy of humane bodies. In a new method Plain and Easy to all Capacities. Demonstrating the circulation of the blood and all Muscular Motion, from the pressure of the atmosphere.”

Nicholson had already produced several treatises of a religious nature. The most ambitious was a work entitled “A conference between the soul and body, concerning the present and future state. Shewing how different the general practice of religion now is, from that of the first Christians”, printed in London in 1705. He also published a pamphlet in 1708: “The falsehood of the new prophets manifested with their corrupt doctrines and conversations”. This concerned a loose-knit cult with whom Nicholson had became briefly involved; however, he soon became so disenchanted that he felt it his duty to warn others against them. It is clear that he soon returned to the solid Anglicanism of his upbringing.

Nicholson took up his post at Trinity College in 1711, delivering a lecture at the opening of the new Anatomy building on16th August of that year. The principal undertaking for which he is remembered is the establishment - or renovation - of the College’s first Physic Garden (i.e. garden of medicinal plants). This project had been gestating for some time. The Register of the College records that on 25th June 1687, the Provost and Fellows resolved that the then kitchen garden of the college “should be made a Physic Garden at the charge of the College”. The Physic Garden is referred to again in the Register of 1710; its exact position cannot be determined, but it was clearly somewhere in the vicinity of the Old Library.  It seems clear that progress had been limited by the time Nicholson took up his appointment. A series of letters to Mr J. Petiver (“Fellow of the Royal Society and apothecary”) in London, written in 1711-1713 and preserved in the British Museum, record Nicholson’s endeavours to bring this project to fruition. He writes “I have undertaken to furnish the Phisick garden here, wich is about seting up by the college of Dublin, with Plants & seeds of all sorts as many as I can procure; & they have obliged me to this task by nominating me their Professor in Botanie.” (The lectureship in Botany was not in fact converted into a professorship until 1785; however, the term ‘Professor’ was used more loosely at this period).

Writing “from Anger street, where I now live” (i.e. Aungier St.), Nicholson asks Petiver to send seeds to a London address to await collection for transport to Ireland, and gives details of how payment is to be organized - by subscriptions from a number of named sponsors, including the Provost and the Archbishop of Dublin. He laments the delays that the enterprise encounters, including a shipment “having lain above a month at Chester, by a cross wind, which continued longer in one point than is usual”. At last, on May 3rd 1712 he writes “I received your seeds, I have spent some time in sorting; as also in disposing into pots fild extraordinary mould.”


horto medicoIn the same letter, Nicholson writes that he has just published “ ‘A Method of Plants’ about to be disposed in the Physick Garden of the College of Dublin”; the title page is reproduced here. This tantalizing work – largely in Latin, but with an introduction in English - lists 397 plant species, giving for each its scientific name, English name, and supposed medicinal properties. (This was, of course, a generation before Linnaeus, whose Species Plantarum of 1753 is accepted as the beginning of modern botanical nomenclature). Nicholson arranges his species into 22 classes, each distinguished by characters of fruit, flower and/or growth form. He uses a system of classification based on that of John Ray; he tells Petiver “I have taken in Ray’s method and reconciled it with Morison’s, Boerave’s and Tournefort’s”. However, he still has misgivings about the taxonomy of the day. Of the third class, “Herbæ Siliquosae Flore Tetrapetalo” he writes (in his Methodus) “It may be asked, What difference there is between – Herbæ Leguminosae and Herbæ Siliquosae? I declare I do not know; for they both signifie a Plant with a Cod or Pod; only that our Authors seem, by adapting these Two Titles to different genus’s, to design to make a Destinction or Difference”. He adds “‘Tis certain, that – Flore Papilionaceo and – Flore Tetrapetalo make a sufficient Destinction as to the Flower, tho’ there be none as to the Seed-vessels or pods.” He writes to Petiver “I have designed this method of mine for the instruction of young beginners, and giving those who have no knowledge at all of botany, and will not be at the charge of purchasing all their books, a tolerable notion of the matter, that they may be fitted to hear and understand Lectures or the parts of Botany which I design, if it please God, to go on with every summer”.

There is, in the Muniments of the College, a record for April 1711 of the purchase of seeds of ‘physickal plants’, which comes soon after the appointment of our first botanist. It seems probable, however, that the impressive list in his Methodus of 1712 is in the main a wish-list, rather than a list of what was actually in cultivation in the College (this is implicit in the phrase ‘jamjam disponendarum’, translated ‘about to be disposed’, and is confirmed by the tenor of the correspondence with Petiver). How far did Nicholson’s plans come to maturity? We do not know. As early as 1713, he was becoming frustrated at difficulties in extracting some of the promised subscriptions, and by a general lack of support: “Our gentlemen here give little encouragement towards the improvement of Botany they being generally ignorant of the use and pleasure of that study.” (Three hundred years on, with repeated cut-backs in our gardening staff and the future of the Chair of Botany uncertain, such sentiments may well strike a chord amongst his successors!)

Henry Nicholson left Dublin in 1715 and went to London, where he was admitted as a student of law at the Middle Temple. It must be concluded that he had abandoned botany, at least as a career. However, he did not give up science altogether: on 5th April 1716 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He did not return to Trinity College. He died some time before 1721 (according to Nelson (1982); the year of his death is given as 1733 by some sources, apparently owing to confusion with others of the same name). 


Brooks, E. St. John. 1954.  Henry Nicholson, first lecturer in botany and the earliest physic garden. Hermathena: a Dublin University review LXXXIV: 3-15

Nelson, E.C. 1982. The influence of Leiden on botany in Dublin in the early eighteenth century. Huntia 4: 133-146.
Nicholson, H. 1705. A conference between the soul and body, concerning the present and future state. Shewing how different the general practice of religion now is, from that of the first Christians. R. Smith, London.

Nicholson, H. 1708. The falsehood of the new prophets manifested with their corrupt doctrines and conversations by one who hath had intimate conversation with them, ... but now thinks himself obliged to discover their enormities, for the publick benefit. J. Downing, London

Nicholson, H. 1709. A brief treatise of the anatomy of humane bodies. In a new method Plain and Easy to all Capacities. Demonstrating the circulation of the blood and all Muscular Motion, from the pressure of the atmosphere. D. Browne, London.

 Nicholson, H. 1712. METHODUS PLANTARUM IN Horto Medico, COLLEGII DUBLINENSIS, JAM JAM Disponendarum; In duas partes divisa; quarum prima de Plantis, altera de Fruticibus & Arboribus agit. In Usum Studiorum Academicorum. A. Rhames, Dublin.
Wyse Jackson, P.W. 1987. The Botanic Garden of Trinity College Dublin 1687 to 1987. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 95: 301-311. 
Letters to J. Petiver from Henry Nicholson, Professor of Botany, 1711-13. London: British Museum, Sloane Ms. 4065 (Extracts).

Two letters from Henry Nicholson, Professor of Botany, to J. Petiver, Dublin, 1713. London: British Museum, Sloane Ms. 4067 (Extracts).

Photo: Archiseek


We are grateful for information and advice from Dr Bríd McGrath, Dr James White and Professor Fergus S. Kelly.


Top of Page

Last updated 24 February 2011 by