Published: April 24, 2016
To scientists, Thomas Johnson is known as “the father of British field botany”. But on a more mundane level he is celebrated as the first man to sell bananas in England.
Born in 1600, Johnson established his scientific credentials with his “Herball” tome, which ran to 2,000 pages and 2,900 illustrations listing plants, where they grew and their medicinal properties. It remained the accepted and trusted text in its field for over 200 years.
Records show that in 1626 Johnson had established an apothecary business in central London and it was here, on 10th April 1633, that he put on sale a strange, new exotic fruit that came to be known as a banana. It is believed that his first consignment came from Bermuda.
According to David Lewis of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, Johnson was not only an enterprising merchant, but a man possessed with lyrical prose, the quality of which is excellently demonstrated in his description of the fruit in the ‘Herball’:
“Each of the fruits was not ripe, being green, each of them the bignesse of a large beane, some five inches long and an inch and a half in breadth. The stalk is short and like one’s little finger.
"They hang with their heads down, but if you turn them up, they look like a boat. The husk is easily removed. The pulp is white, soft and tender and ate somewhat like a musk melon.”
Johnson could not have imagined it, but to the delight of millions of children the day would eventually come when the fruit would be cut length ways and served with scoops of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream nestling between the two halves – the classic banana split.