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