Miller, Philip

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(b. Bromley, Greenwich, or Deptford, London, England, 1691; d. Chelsea. London, 18 December 1771)

botany, horticulture.

Miller, the most important horticultural writer of the eighteenth century, was curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden from 1722 to 1770. During this period, and largely through his skill as a grower and propagator and his extensive correspondence, the Chelsea botanic garden belonging to the Society of Apothecaries of London became famous throughout Europe and the North American colonies for its wealth of plants, which was continuously enriched by new introductions, notably from the West Indies, Mexico, eastern North America, and Europe. These plants Miller recorded in successive editions of his Gardeners Dictionary from 1731 to 1768. As Richard Pulteney stated in 1790, “He added to the theory and practice of gardening, that of the structure and characters of plants, and was early and practically versed in the methods of Ray and Tournefort.” He derived his concept of genus and his generic names from the Institutiones rei herhariae (1700) of Tournefort. who recognized genera of first rank based on floral and fruiting characters and genera of second rank based on vegetative characters, whereas Linnaeus Tournefort’s successor and Miller’s contemporary, in his Species plantarum (1753) recognized only first-rank genera and united Tourncfort’s second-rank genera with them— thus including, for example, Abies and Larix in Pinns. Miller accepted Linnaeus’ classification and nomenclature reluctantly and never wholeheartedly. Thus in 1754, by continuing to use, in the fourth abridged edition of his Gardeners Dictionary, the Tournefortian names he had always used but which Linnaeus had suppressed in 1753, Miller brought these names back into post-Linnaean botanical literature and so became an inadvertent innovator; he is now cited as the authority for some eighty generic names, among them Abies and Larix, really derived from his predecessors. In the eighth edition (16 April 1768) of his Gardeners Dictionary, Miller at last adopted Linnaean binomial nomenclature for species; he also published some 400 specific names for plants imperfectly known or unknown to Linnaeus, or otherwise classified by him. These works of 1754 and 1768 earned Miller his lasting place in systematic botany.

Miller’s father, a gardener of Scots origin, gave him a good schooling, and Miller early set up in business in the London area as a florist, grower of ornamental shrubs, and planter and designer of gardens. Thus he came to the notice of Sir Hans Sloane, who had bought the manor of Chelsea in 1712 and had become the ground landlord of the Chelsea site which the Society of Apothecaries had leased since 1673 for their physic garden, or hortus medicus. In 1722 Sloane transferred it in perpetuity to the Society of Apothecaries for use as a botanic garden. A condition in the deed of conveyance was that every year the Apothecaries should give the Royal Society fifty good herbarium specimens of distinct plants grown that year in the garden “and no one offered twice until the compleat number of two thousand plants have been delivered."This necessitated the continual introduction of new plants. On Sloane’s recommendation, Miller was appointed head gardener in 1722. The Chelsea botanic garden then became possibly the most richly stocked of any garden of the mid-eighteenth century, and Miller recorded his firsthand experience in his publications. In 1724 he published his two-volume octavo Gardeners and Florists Dictionary, replaced in 1731 by the one-volume folio Gardeners Dictionary, of which eight editions appeared in his lifetime. They provide not only cultural but also descriptive botanical information, including the characters of each genus and diagnoses of the species. From them there arose after Miller’s death a series of encyclopedic works on cultivated plants culminating in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Dictionary of Gardening (1951).

Miller remained in charge of the Chelsea Physic Garden until 1770, when most reluctantly he retired with a pension. The mainspring of his life gone, he died the year after.


Miller’s main work is his Gardeners Dictionary (London, 1731: 2nd ed., 1733; 3rd ed., 1737–1739; 4th ed., 1743; 5th ed., 1747 [apparently no copy extant]; 6th ed., 1752; 7th ed., 1756–1759; 8th ed., 1768); the 8th is the most important ed., for it contains the binomial specific names attributed to Miller. The concise ed. “abridged” from the 1731 ed. was first published in 1733–1740; 2nd ed., 1741; 3rd ed., 1748; 4th ed., 1754; 5th ed., 1763; 6th ed., 1771—of these only the 4th ed. (1754) in 3 vols, is nomenclaturally important; it has been reprinted in facsimile (Lehre, German Federal Republic, 1969), with an introduction by W. T. Stearn (see below).

The main biographical sources are R. Pulteney, Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Progress of Botany in England, II (London, 1790), 241–242; J. Rogers, The Vegetable Cultivator (London, 1839), pp. 335–343, reprinted by W. T. Stearn in 1969 (see below); and C. Wall and H. C. Cameron, A History of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London (London, 1963). Some further information is given in W. T. Stearn, “The Abridgement of Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary,” prefixed to the Historiae Naturalis Classica facs. of the 4th ed. (1754) of Gardeners Dictionary Abridged (Lehre, 1969); Hazel Le Rougetel, “Gardener Extraordinary; Philip Miller of Chelsea, 1691–1771,” in Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 96 (1971) 556–563; and W. T. Steam, “Philip Miller and the Plants from the Chelsea Physic Garden Presented to the Royal Society of London, 1723–1796,” in Botanical Society of Edinburgh Transactions, 41 (1972), 293–307, in which is printed the deed of conveyance of the Chelsea Physic Garden.

William T. Stearn