American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic

By Victoria Johnson
New York: Liveright, 2018

Review by Elizabeth Hyde

bookreview_american_eden_pic1.pngIn 1783, when David Hosack was a young teenager, William Livingston, governor of the state of New Jersey, received a letter from Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. Crèvecoeur, who had just published his Letters from an American Farmer, was now writing in his new role as French consul. He presented to Livingston, as he did to the governors of New York and Connecticut, a formal proposal from the French government: if New Jersey established a botanical garden, the French would share specimens from their collections in exchange for American plants. The offer from the French was indicative of the botanically forward-thinking policies of the French government, which could safely claim to have one of the most fully furnished botanical gardens in western Europe and hence in the world. The Jardin royal des plantes médicinales, launched in 1626 with the support of Louis XIII, was understood to serve the king and state in all matters botanical. Royal scientists collected and cultivated plants and studied them for medicinal and other uses. By the time Crèvecoeur contacted Governor Livingston, the French had established finely tuned administrative procedures through which they aggressively sought out plants from colonies around the globe in order to grow their own geopolitical power.

Governor Livingston passed along the French proposal to the Assembly of the State of New Jersey and reported back to Crèvecoeur that the assembly expressed thanks and wished “to assure him that whenever this state hath formed an Establishment of a Botanical Garden, His Most Christian Majesty’s offer will be gratefully accepted.” In other words, if New Jersey ever decided to build such a garden, the French would be welcome to contribute specimens. But New Jersey did not build a botanical garden. Nor did New York or Connecticut (though a New Haven medical society tried). The French quickly lost patience with the young republic and decided to bypass it in 1785 by sending their own botanist, André Michaux, to carry out the French mission. Michaux established a French nursery garden in New Jersey that excited the curiosity of Americans, but no American garden materialized.

It was in this institutionally underdeveloped context that David Hosack, the hero of Victoria Johnson’s American Eden, waged a lifelong effort to build the first U.S. botanical garden (the Dutch had built one in the seventeenth century) in New York City. He encountered intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm all along the way, but unfortunately the new country did not yet have the mature institutions needed to support his vision. As a result his efforts would prove both dramatically successful and ultimately unsustainable in the Early Republic. Yet his life, Johnson writes, “tells the story of how Americans learned to think about both the natural world and their own bodies.” It is also, as the author goes on to argue, “the story of how one of the world’s greatest cities became just that.”

American Eden is first and foremost a biography of Hosack. Johnson begins with his early quest to acquire a medical education. He began his formal training at Columbia College in 1786; he also became an apprentice to London-trained military surgeon Richard Bayley, whose work at New York Hospital and anatomical dissections provided practical preparation. When public suspicion grew around Bayley’s anatomical dissections in 1788 and his laboratory came under attack, Hosack chose to continue his education at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He returned to New York after that for advanced training, and then in 1790 moved to Philadelphia where he studied under Benjamin Rush.

But Hosack yearned for more rigorous medical instruction. In 1792, leaving his wife and child with his parents, he set across the Atlantic to study at the University of Edinburgh. There he embarked on a rigorous course of study, but quickly realized how little he knew of medical botany, which was an essential part of the study of medicine in Britain. To correct that deficit he proceeded to London, where he studied with William Curtis in the Brompton Botanic Garden. In so doing he developed a lifelong passion for botany and a strong conviction that botanical knowledge was key to improving medical practice. Back in the United States Hosack launched his professional career in medicine, a lengthy and vaunted career that through his prodigious energy would include teaching botany and later medicine at Columbia University; teaching medicine at its rival, the College of Physicians and Surgeons; maintaining a private medical practice through which he catered to an elite roster of patients, including Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr; seeing patients at charity hospitals as well; and encouraging the growth of the arts, sciences, and especially botanical sciences in New York City.

Central to all of these efforts was Hosack’s establishment of a botanical garden in New York City. Johnson narrates his crusade to build one against the backdrop of the history of science and medicine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hosack’s discovery of medical botany coincided with a golden age of the study of plants in Britain, France, and the Sweden of Carl Linnaeus. In America Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were only two of many American elite gentlemen who were enthusiastic gardeners and plant collectors. The most serious among them collaborated, conversed, and collected via the informal but cosmopolitan “republic of letters” and formal academies and societies: Hosack was elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London after his studies there and was eventually named a Fellow of the Royal Society. And, like his contemporaries, he believed that unlocking the secrets of botany could bring about a revolution in the practice of medicine. If Linnaeus had, through his classification system, found the key to identifying similarities between different plants, surely resemblances between their medicinal properties could be identified, tested, and deployed pharmaceutically. The medical field was 
experiencing great change as practitioners finally began to abandon the millennia-old theory of the 
humors in favor of practices based on knowledge gleaned from anatomical and pharmaceutical study. The assemblage of an encyclopedic botanical garden was therefore essential, and New York City, let alone the United States (as the French had lamented), did not have one.

Hosack launched his efforts to create one in 1801 when, with his own money, he purchased the first of several plots of land north of the city and began the construction of the site that he would call the Elgin Botanic Garden after the Scottish birthplace of his father. Its precincts would eventually include a handsome conservatory and thousands of plant specimens that Hosack himself had collected or had acquired from his now international and extensive network of botanical correspondents in Britain and France and on the frontiers of America. It was an astounding achievement that drew visitors and botanists from around the country. Its purpose was both practical and commercial: in 1807 he advertised in a New York newspaper that “Our citizens are now informed that they can be supplied with Medicinal Herbs and Plants, and a large assortment of Green and Hot House Plants, &c.” But it was also a labor-intensive and expensive endeavor that Hosack could not sustain financially on his own. He therefore waged a decades-long and ultimately unsuccessful bid to convince Columbia and the State of New York of the benefits of, first, taking ownership of the garden and, second, appropriating sufficient funds for its maintenance. Even the scientifically forward-thinking Thomas Jefferson initially rebuffed Hosack’s efforts. The garden eventually fell into ruins. Its site, once in the city’s rural environs, is now covered by Midtown Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center.

Yet, as Johnson writes, Hosack’s “greatest legacy is perhaps the one that is hardest to see. He showed his fellow citizens how to build institutions.” And in this sense, Johnson’s biography is also a history of New York City and its emergence over the course of Hosack’s professional life as the financial and cultural center of the new republic. Johnson’s account transports the reader back to a late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century New York City that is both crackling with intellectual excitement and political possibility, and frighteningly gritty and dangerous.

The terrible significance of Hosack’s work as a physician was forced upon him throughout his life: even as he strove to advance medical and pharmaceutical knowledge, he was unable to save his first wife, his first child, Theodosia Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip, and then Hamilton himself, let alone the many hundreds of patients lost to yellow fever, smallpox, and other communicable diseases that plagued America. So Hosack soldiered on, a leading but by no means solitary force in Enlightenment America who believed in the potential of the new nation and the progress of science. He built networks of botanical and scientific exchange with the leading botanists of Europe, cultivated rivalries with contemporaries like the Peales in Philadelphia, and tirelessly contributed to and shaped the learned societies and institutions that would mold America – including the New-York Historical Society and the New York Horticultural Society, to name just two. The publisher of American Eden has frustratingly opted to forgo footnotes, but Johnson’s erudition and exhaustive research into the archival sources surrounding her subject are consistently rewarding. The reader will be both delighted by the story of Hosack’s life and convinced that he left the world and his city a far better place than he found it.

David Hosack was decades ahead of his time. The young United States could not be persuaded to fund a national botanical garden until 1820, when the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences pushed a bill through Congress, signed by President Monroe, which granted a plot of land for such purposes. This was almost half a century after Crèvecoeur’s proposal, and it would still be years before serious plant collecting began. But Hosack had inspired generations of American botanists, and after his death in 1835 they continued his mission. One of his last students, John Torrey (as leader of what came to be called the Torrey Botanical Club) even succeeded in cultivating the necessary political and financial support among New York’s wealthiest citizens to create the New York Botanical Garden – one of the most important botanical institutions in the world today.