Ronald Melville (1903-1985)
In 1940, Whitechapel Hospital alerted Kew to the fact that, due
to the German blockade, supplies of all essential drugs had
been effectively cut off. Most alarming was the number of children
suffering from scurvy due to vitamin C deficiency.
Dr Ronald Melville, Kew’s expert in medicinal plants, was
appointed chief advisor to a government committee. A simple and
effective way to substitute blocked imports was devised: the people
of Britain would collect and process local plants. Melville drew
up a list and an effective system was established by Kew with assistance
from the nation’s Women’s Institutes, who in turn involved
schools, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.
An established native source of vitamin C was blackcurrant,
but this was insufficient for the nation’s needs. Rosehips,
though less tasty, had a far higher vitamin C content, but Melville’s
preliminary studies showed that it varied enormously. A reliable
source was needed.
Melville investigated species distributions, hip colour,
chromosome number, sepal flexion, fruiting time, hip shape,
soil, and time of picking. All these considered, the best
choice emerged as the Dog Rose (Rosa canina). This work
was immensely influential in maintaining the health of a population
Melville also wrote The Story of Plants and their Uses to Man with
John Hutchinson (1948), and compiled the world’s first Red
Data Book of threatened plant species in 1970.
Acacia melvillei is named in his honour.
Fellow of the Linnean Society 1938
to: Mark Chase