In Other Words Amer­i­can Eden: David Ho­sack, Botany, and Medicine in the Gar­den of the Early Repub­lic by Vic­to­ria John­son

Pasatiempo - - PASAMTIEMPO - — Pa­tri­cia Leni­han

If you head to New York City and see the ev­er­pop­u­lar Broad­way show Hamil­ton, con­sider tip­ping your hat to David Ho­sack, a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure who has a mere walk-on part in the mu­si­cal but who, not long af­ter the coun­try’s found­ing, played an im­por­tant role in the ad­vance­ment of botan­i­cal re­search re­lated to medicine. A key rea­son for Ho­sack’s rel­a­tively un­sung but firm place in his­tory, ac­cord­ing to au­thor Vic­to­ria John­son, is that he es­tab­lished the first pub­lic sci­ence botan­i­cal gar­den in the Amer­i­can Repub­lic, at the site of what is now Rock­e­feller Cen­ter.

“Ho­sack’s life spanned the pre­cise mo­ment when New York hov­ered be­tween a bu­colic past that un­furled over rolling fields and a cos­mopoli­tan fu­ture spiked with tightly packed sky­scrapers,” John­son writes. This piv­otal mo­ment — con­vey­ing the dis­tance and close­ness be­tween then and now, be­tween the daily con­cerns of them and us — is skill­fully pre­sented by John­son’s de­tail and writ­ing style through­out a heav­ily an­no­tated but highly read­able work.

The con­ti­nent was, af­ter all, abun­dant with undis­cov­ered medic­i­nal plants, and Ho­sack be­lieved it would be pos­si­ble for med­i­cal stu­dents to ben­e­fit from field­work ex­pe­ri­ence with this New World botany. He named the 20-acre space on Fifth Av­enue be­tween 47th and 51st streets af­ter El­gin, Scot­land, the birth­place of his fa­ther, and as­sem­bled more than 2,000 plant species, in­clud­ing some that had been col­lected dur­ing the Lewis and Clark ex­pe­di­tion in the early 19th cen­tury.

He also in­cluded in the gar­den plants from Ja­pan, Mada­gas­car, and the Cape of Good Hope; cof­fee, tamarind, and ba­nana trees, flame lilies, bird-of-par­adise flow­ers, and sweet-scented daphne. (For a look at an orig­i­nal copy of Ho­sack’s com­plete cat­a­logue of plants cul­ti­vated in his gar­den, visit amer­i­cane­ plant-cat­a­logs.)

The au­thor de­scribes Ho­sack’s at­tempts to con­vince Columbia Col­lege (as it was known then) and the state of New York to fund the gar­den, along with the re­peated de­nials and the rea­sons for those de­nials. His solution ul­ti­mately was to fund the site him­self, which he man­aged to do for about 10 years; how­ever, even with his lu­cra­tive prac­tice as a physi­cian, main­te­nance ex­penses forced him to close the gar­den down. The State of New York bought the site and later gave the land to Columbia, but the col­lege did not main­tain the sci­en­tific gar­den. Even­tu­ally, the school leased the land to John D. Rock­e­feller Jr.

John­son pro­vides a de­tailed ac­count of Ho­sack’s pro­found ef­fect on both spheres of in­ter­est — medicine and botany — in the early Repub­lic. She notes that Ho­sack stud­ied botany in Lon­don and Scot­land, where he also learned about medicine, and she ex­plores through­out the nar­ra­tive how the two sub­jects re­mained con­nected in his mind and prac­tice. While in Lon­don, Ho­sack vis­ited the Lin­naean Herbar­ium, which con­tained the trans­planted botan­i­cal col­lec­tion of the famed Swedish botanist and tax­onomist, Caro­lus Karl Lin­naeus.

When Ho­sack re­turned to and set­tled in his home­town of New York City, he be­came pro­fes­sor of botany and phar­macy at Columbia. His sense that medicine and botany were in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked help change the way Amer­i­cans of the time re­lated to na­ture’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Con­sid­er­ing that a high per­cent­age of U.S. phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals even now are de­rived from plants, Ho­sack’s tena­cious in­ter­est in med­i­cal botany was well placed. And his in­ter­est in medicine and botany con­verged at sig­nif­i­cant mo­ments in his­tory.

For ex­am­ple, John­son notes, he served as per­sonal physi­cian to Alexan­der Hamil­ton and tended to Hamil­ton’s mor­tal in­juries af­ter the in­fa­mous duel with Aaron Burr on the shores of the Pal­isades in 1804. The rea­son that Ho­sack had be­come the Hamil­ton fam­ily doc­tor in the first place is be­cause when Philip Hamil­ton came down with yel­low fever, Ho­sack saved Philip’s life by treat­ing him not with the stan­dard reg­i­men of leeches and purga­tives, but by us­ing Peru­vian bark and rum. The bark of the quina-quina, or fever tree, was an ever­green found in the An­des. This cho­sen cure had worked well with Hamil­ton and his wife El­iza dur­ing their own bouts with yel­low fever, and in this prac­tice, Ho­sack di­verged from one of his teach­ers, Ben­jamin Rush, him­self a founder and well-re­garded physi­cian of the time.

Med­i­cal stu­dents from Columbia stud­ied the gar­den’s re­sources to un­der­stand plants’ heal­ing prop­er­ties, and although the re­search was rel­a­tively short-lived — it lasted only a decade — it helped pave the way for in­no­va­tive work by 19th-cen­tury botanists such as John Tor­rey and Asa Gray.

Nev­er­the­less, the fact re­mains that as a physi­cian, Ho­sack was not gen­er­ally ahead of his time. Although he em­ployed an ad­vanced yel­low fever treat­ment, he of­ten fol­lowed ac­cepted prac­tices such as blood­let­ting and pre­scrib­ing tox­ins like mer­cury. So even if you sus­pect John­son may give David Ho­sack more med­i­cal re­search credit than he might de­serve, she of­fers an en­gag­ing tale about a sig­nif­i­cant life in early Amer­ica, and about the botan­i­cal world that Ho­sack rightly be­lieved held undis­cov­ered heal­ing power.

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