Thomas Millington's (1628-1703) plate

Thomas Millington's (1628-1703) plate

All the plants on this plate have dry, capsular fruits with three chambers. Half of the plants are lilies, for example, the tiger lily illustrated on the right of the top row.

This plate is sponsored by the physician Thomas Millington (1628-1703). Millington was elected fellow of All Souls in 1649 and then Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford in 1675 – a position he held for the rest of his life.

Today, the idea plants sexually reproduce is taken for granted but in the seventeenth century it was outrageous. The English anatomist Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) was interested in understanding how plants worked, rather than how they were named and classified. In his The anatomy of plants (1682: 171), a pioneering work on the microscopic structure of plants, he presented the structure of the flower in terms of the ‘empalement’ (sepals), the ‘foliation’ (petals) and the ‘attire’ (everything inside the petals). Within Grew’s confusing explanation of the function of the ‘attire’, drawing as it does analogies from animal reproduction, there is the statement ‘In discourse hereof with our Learned Savilian [sic] Professor Sir Thomas Millington, he told me, he conceived, That the Attire doth serve, as the Male, for the Generation of the Seed. I immediately reply’d, That I was of the same Opinion’. Millington’s, and hence Oxford’s, claim of fundamental involvement in the discovery of plant sexuality has been a cause of academic debate ever since.

In retrospect, Millington’s association with the lilies of this plate is appropriate. Tiger lilies have been favourite plants for botanists to demonstrate the function of pollen in plant reproduction since the middle of the nineteenth century.