Brief Biography of Nathaniel Ward

Brief Biography of Nathaniel Ward

Born in London, Ward was the son of a successful physician who practiced in the polluted dock section of East London. Ward was interested in plants and nature early in life. He was strongly interested in a career as a sailor, so at age 13 his father sent him on a voyage to Jamaica. As his father intended, the voyage changed young Nathaniel's mind about a career as a sailor, for he soon was apprenticed to his father and eventually took over his father's medical practice. However, the tropical flora of Jamaica, especially the ferns and palms, reinforced what was to be a lifelong passion for plants. Plant biology became his lifelong avocation, and he usually would rise early to garden and study plants before visiting his patients. He often collected plants in the then open areas around London, including Wimbledon. His personal herbarium numbered 25,000 specimens. His failure to create a fern and moss garden in his backyard due to severe air pollution played a key role in his 1829 invention of the terrarium.

In addition to his medical practice and terrarium experiments, Ward was active in the Society of Apothecaries, serving as Examiner of Botany from 1836 to 1854 and becoming Master in 1855 and then Treasurer. He was also involved in the society's Chelsea Physic Garden, which grew medicinal plants. He held microscope soirees where microscopical observations were the form of entertainment. In 1840, he was a cofounder of the Microscopical Society and was an original member of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh and long its London secretary. His home on Wellclose Square often served as a gathering place for plant enthusiasts. Newlywed Edward Newman set up housekeeping there shortly after publishing his influential book, A History of British Ferns, which was dedicated to Ward.

Ward was named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1852 and after retirement, spent the last part of his life in less-polluted Clapham Rise, southwest of London, in a house appropriately named "The Ferns". Both his houses were well known for their abundant plant collections. His obituary appeared in most of the major horticultural and botanical journals, and they overflowed with high praise of Ward's accomplishments and character. The African moss genus Wardia was named in his honor.

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©1998 David R. Hershey