Seven years in the making, Chapman Wellness Garden blooms for College of Medicine

Interim Dean Alma Littles, M.D., speaks at garden dedication

The Chapman Wellness Garden, between the College of Medicine’s Thrasher and research buildings, is more than just another pretty place. It’s a reminder that people have to take care of themselves before they can take care of others.

“Wellness is more than just a societal buzzword; it’s part of what we teach and practice as health-care providers,” Interim Dean Alma Littles, M.D., told the crowd that gathered for the garden dedication. “By persuading our students, colleagues, families, and patients to practice wellness, we can reduce and potentially prevent illness and disease, instead of merely treating them.

“This beautiful oasis provides a serene space for everyone who happens by it to pause, relax, and focus on how to achieve wellness for themselves, as well as to ponder ways to incorporate a more humanistic, kind, and inclusive approach into their daily lives,” she said.

The garden was dedicated as part of the M.D. Class of 2024 Presentation of Awards, a series of three celebrations on the day before graduation. It originally had been scheduled for May 10, a week earlier, but tornadoes tore through Tallahassee about 7 a.m. that day, causing significant damage throughout the city and a power outage that closed the university.

That was just the final obstacle in the seven years it took to make the garden blossom. As Littles said, “The COVID-19 pandemic, bureaucratic delays and artistic differences might have slowed the journey from concept to creation, they did not de-rail it.”

It was funded by the Jules B. Chapman, M.D., and Annie Lou Chapman Private Foundation, which contributed $100,000 toward its creation; designed by landscape architect Anton Sonkin, associate director of FSU grounds; and installed by an FSU grounds crew. The garden is one of the foundation's many gifts to the Florida State College of Medicine over the years.

It was created by Mrs. Chapman because she felt her late husband, a Miami ophthalmologist for most of his career, was treated with clinical expertise but not with compassion and humanity in his last days of life. As Dr. Chapman's nurse as well as his life partner, Mrs. Chapman recognized that medicine is a blend of art and science, and she believed the curriculum for physicians should include both. The foundation also supports programs at the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida medical schools.

Read more about the Chapman Private Foundation and its contributions to the FSU College of Medicine

Dr. Robert Watson, M.D., a behavioral neurologist and professor of clinical sciences who mentors first- and second-year medical students, also serves as trustee of the Chapman Foundation. A small step on his part led to the creation of the Chapman Wellness Garden.

A graduate of the University of Florida College of Medicine, Watson taught there many years prior to joining the FSU medical faculty and is friends with Dr. Craig Tisher, its former dean and professor emeritus.

Watson approached Tisher about placing a small tribute to the Chapmans in the UF College of Medicine's Wilmot Gardens, where Tisher now serves as director.

“I was thinking maybe a plaque, but he had bigger plans,” Watson said.

When he first saw the Chapman Healing Garden at Wilmot Gardens, he said simply, “I want one of those.”

On May 17, 2024, he finally got it.

Tisher was also responsible for the second notable event at the dedication, the planting of a sycamore tree sapling rooted from the offspring of the original tree that Hippocrates, the father of medicine, lectured under in Greece.

Dean Alma Littles and Dr. Bob Watson plant the sycamore sapling.

Over the centuries, cuttings of that original tree have been rooted and shared with medical schools around the world. FSU’s tree was rooted from an offspring given to UF and planted more than 50 years ago. Tisher personally delivered FSU’s sapling last year, which was lovingly tended by Phoenix Fermin, greenhouse manager for the grounds department, until the garden was built.

“She really is the tree-whisperer,” said Anthony Allbaugh, assistant director of facilities and operations at the College of Medicine, whom Watson credits with seeing the project through to completion. “We had a lot of challenges getting this garden built, but worrying about the tree after it was delivered wasn’t one of them.”

Tisher was supposed to speak at the garden dedication, but the postponement caused by the storms created a scheduling conflict. Littles shared some of the script he had prepared.

“Hippocrates was recognized not only as a physician, but also as a leading philosopher, scientist and author,” she read. “The great contribution of Hippocrates was his outright rejection of the magic and sorcery of the priest leaders of his time.

“In advance of his contemporaries, he emphasized the importance of careful observation of the phenomena of various diseases leading to a rational approach to diagnosis … in short, he introduced the scientific approach to clinical medicine, for which since Roman times he has been recognized as the Father of Modern Medicine.”

Just as important were his teachings on the moral and ethical requirements of the ideal physician, which are summarized in the Hippocratic Oath.

“The presence of this beautiful tree in the Chapman Wellness Garden will serve as a constant reminder of the importance of the contributions of Hippocrates to the practice of modern medicine,” his remarks concluded.

Watson, who could be called the father of the Chapman Wellness Garden, was all smiles after he helped Littles shovel dirt over the tree’s roots. Asked what he thought about the day’s festivities, he paused, then said, “Mrs. Chapman would be pleased.”

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Photo captions:

At top right: Dean Alma Littles, M.D., speaks from the podium placed next to the fountain during the dedication of the Chapman Wellness Garden at the FSU College of Medicine on May 17, 2024. The ceremonial ribbon that was cut later in the ceremony is in the right rear of the photo.

At bottom left: Dean Alma Littles, M.D., and Professor Robert Watson, M.D., plant the sycamore tree sapling.

Spotlight photo on Home page: The new Chapman Wellness Garden features a fountain, benches and a variety of colorful flowers, shrubs and trees.

(Photos by Mark Bauer and Sofia Estavillo of FSU College of Medicine Creative Services)