Elizabeth Hall: The First Horticulture Therapist was a Woman

Elizabeth Hall: The First Horticulture Therapist was a Woman

Elizabeth Hall, a 1924 graduate of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women (PSHW), which became Temple University Ambler in 1958, went on to become a world-respected librarian for the New York Botanical Garden where she worked for more than 20 years.

Her first position after graduating, however, was as a Horticulture Therapist. While prior to this time there was an understanding of the value of gardens in healing settings, this may be the first time someone was hired with the title and specific tasks of working to improve patients health through the act of gardening.

"Another position which is quite unusual has developed recently in the field of horticulture. Miss Elizabeth Hall, Radcliff College, 1921, will graduate in July from the School of Horticulture at Ambler,” wrote Louise Carter, the new PSHW Director in a 1924 edition of the Bulletin of the Bureau of Vocational Information. “Early in the fall, she will begin her work at the Pennsylvania Hospital, Department of Nervous and Mental Diseases, under the Department of Occupational Therapy. She will have complete charge of the gardens and greenhouses and will organize and supervise the work of the patients. It is a new department for the hospital of this sort, and it seems to offer many possibilities, for there is no work in the world more wholesome or more soothing to weary nerves than garden work."

(Source: Carter, L.R. Horticulture as a Profession for Women. Bureau of Vocational Information, New York; News Bulletin 2:85-86, June 1, 1924)

A September 1925 article in the Women's National Farm and Garden Magazine (an organization also with its roots on the Ambler Campus and an early promoter of Horticulture Therapy) described the work of Miss Elizabeth Hall as "one of the newer finds... the adaptation of horticulture to modern therapeutics."

“For some reason that scientists have never been able to account for women are, as the world knows, better able to care for growing things than men. Fruits, trees and flowers as well as children and all other growing things thrive best under the delicate care of a woman,” according to the article. “Can it not therefore be taken for fact that, by her sympathy, understanding and interest, woman is best suited to arouse the interest in things of the mentally ailing or the nervously ill and thereby restore them to normalcy.” 

An experiment along this line was undertaken in the Occupational Therapy Department of the Pennsylvania Hospital for Nervous and Mental Diseases by Dr. Bond in the fall of 1924. The woman he put in charge was Elizabeth Hall.

Hall’s training admirably suited her for this piece of work. She was a graduate of Radcliffe College, and after receiving her degree was undecided whether to study medicine or turn to agriculture and the freedom of working in the open, which she loved so well. She chose Horticulture and the two-year course at the School of Horticulture for Women at Ambler, Pennsylvania. It was her knowledge of practical horticulture combined with her interest in medicine that reassured Dr. Bond she was a suitable young woman — he was convinced it was what he wanted — so thus the experiment was commenced. 

For her work at the hospital, Hall was given use of a piece of ground of ten acres or more, three good-sized greenhouses and without exception, what one might call hundreds of cold frames. She was responsible for all the work done indoors and out, the proper rotation of crops and planting all the seedlings used in the large kitchen as well as for the bedding plants for the grounds. Even more unusual was the fact that she, a woman, had entire charge of the actual stoking of the fire which kept the greenhouses at their correct temperature all through the winter months – Sundays and weekdays all alike. 

According to the article in Women's National Farm and Garden Magazine, of first importance to her task was to gain interest of the patients. Each is an individual and has to be studied most carefully to ascertain what kind of work satisfies her best. There appears to be two types of patients – those who feel humiliated with mechanical work, such as cultivating, repotting and cuttings, but want a big job with responsibility; and those that tremble at the thought of any responsibility but want the work all pre-digested. The aim of the therapist is eventually to see the second group rise to the level of the first. 

Frequently a patient displays unusual skill in arranging flowers with delightful color combinations. When a patient is seen to crave this kind of work, Miss Hall calls upon her when there is an order for flowers. At holiday seasons there is a great opportunity for the creative work. At Thanksgiving, a vivid mass of chrysanthemums; for Christmas, poinsettias and Jerusalem cherries in profusion are examples. While at all times of the year the reception rooms and halls are filled with palms and ferns which are constantly in need of renewal on account of the heat and dry atmosphere. 

According to the article, “as almost everybody knows, flowers have a universal appeal. The faithful old red geranium has drawn more than one patient to the greenhouse by its cheery color.”

“When once there, the patient’s interest is awakened and the healthful work is offered. The work is not confining as the patients can walk around and work too; it is not monotonous and always there is stirred that innate interest in the tiny seed coming from a crack in the soil, emerging into something green and eventually evolving into something which can be taken away, can be inhaled, can be shared with others less fortunate than those who have been able to assist in its growth.”

(Source: Horticulture Therapy and WNF&GA A Brief History. (n.d.). Retrieved March 27, 2020, from http://www.annarborfarmandgarden.org/uploads/6/8/1/9/6819113/history_horttherapy.pdf)

Hall excelled in what she did, even inspiring a letter of commendation sent to the PSHW leadership. In part, the author of the letter wrote,"Everybody is delighted with her. She is doing splendidly, not only with her horticulture work, but I hear she has a wonderful hold over her patients. They all love to work for her."

Also of note, Elizabeth Hall hired a later graduate of PSHW, Elizabeth Pedigo as her assistant. While Hall was only at the Hospital for about a year, later moving on to horticulture libraries, Pedigo went on to continue her institutional horticulture practice as the Garden Superintendent for the Industrial School for Women in New Jersey, which later became the Edna Mahan correctional facility. The facility had its own horticulture program until recently and had an on-site farm that produced food for the inmates.

Kathleen Salisbury
Ambler Arboretum of Temple University