An Account of the Culture and Use of the Mangel Wurzel, or Root of Scarcity, 1787

Translated from the French by John Coakley Lettsom (1787)

John Coakley Lettsom (1744 – 1815) was a prominent eighteenth century Quaker, physician and philanthropist. He founded the Medical Society of London in 1773, the oldest medical society in England, and was one of the founder members of the Royal Humane Society in 1774. Lettsom was also a noted abolitionist; in 1767, after inheriting his father’s slaves in the British Virgin Islands, he promptly freed them. With a keen interest in ideas that could benefit others, he became involved in the introduction and cultivation of the mangel wurzel in Britain. The mangel wurzel is a root vegetable belonging to the beet family. When Lettsom received seeds of the vegetable from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, he planted them in his garden and found them to be an excellent crop, capable of providing nourishment for humans and livestock. In addition to the seeds, Lettsom received a copy of Abbé de Commerell’s planting guide “An Account of the Culture and Use of the Mangel Wurzel, or Root of Scarcity.” De Commerell (d. 1799) was a member of the Société d’Agriculture de Paris. After his success with the vegetable Lettsom commissioned a translation of the book and provided a preface.

The mangel wurzel had been developed from early fodder beets in the Rhineland. It was also known as Dick Ruben (the Great Turnip), Dick Wurzel (the Great Root) and Mangel Wurzel. A mistranslation had changed the original German “mangold wurzel” or “root of the beet”, into “mangel wurzel”, meaning “scarcity root.” According to Lettsom it proved to be a highly suitable name “because it is expressive of the properties of the plant which it denotes”, also suggesting that “It might, indeed, be called the Root of Abundance”, due to its ability to thrive in harsh conditions and produce a large crop. In his monograph, de Commerell remarks, “it deserves to obtain a decided preference over all other roots, and even over turnips.”

Lettsom had high hopes for the mangel wurzel, in his preface he compares it to Sir Walter Raleigh’s credited introduction of the potato into Britain. Lettsom later distributed seeds to other planters, in Britain, Europe, America and the West Indies. Today the mangel wurzel is widely grown in many countries though not as Lettsom had predicted, it still being used predominately as fodder for livestock. However it has found a place in British folk custom. In Somerset on the last Thursday in October, children carry around decorated lanterns made from hollowed out mangel wurzels and sing the “Punkie Song”. Likewise in Norfolk and Wales mangel wurzels are carved out for Halloween celebrations.

Palmer, Geoffrey & Lloyd, Noel (1972) A Year of Festivals: A Guide to British Calendar Customs, Frederick Warne
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Thomson, (Sir) St Clair (1918), John Coakley Lettsom and the foundation of the Medical society. Being the presidential address delivered before the Medical society of London on October 8th, 1917, Harrison and Sons

John Coakley Lettsom (1787) Layton Collection 10242


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