If you enjoy picking up a good book, I’ve got two excellent summer reading recommendations for you. These books combine two of my biggest passions — health and history.
I read the first book — American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson — during the rainy days at sea on my Alaskan cruise earlier this summer.
The book focuses on the life of David Hosack — an extraordinary American physician, medical botanist, and educator. And it explains how Hosack helped transform New York City into a hub of scientific discovery and medical innovation. It also reminded me about how close Americans — even in New York City — were to Nature in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Of course, Hosack is best known today as the physician at the duel between his two famous patients, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The popular musical Hamilton depicts this moment in time, and Hosack’s role in it, but lacks the historical accuracy.
An American botanist is born
David Hosack was born in New York City in 1769, the son of a merchant, and came of age during the long British occupation of New York from 1776 to 1783.
At this time, New York stood somewhat in the background of colonial affairs. And it certainly took a back seat to cities like Boston and Philadelphia in terms of infrastructure, cultural sophistication, and intellectual thought. New York even “courteously abstained” from casting any votes during the deliberations on “independency” of the Continental Congress in 1776.
Some of the Continental Army’s worst defeats during the Revolutionary War, under George Washington, occurred in New York. The city was also burned to the ground several times — at the hands of the British, the Americans, and/or both.
Even in the early 1800s, Hosack’s New York was still a very provincial setting. Alexis deTocqueville, author of Democracy in America, described New York at the time as “a lovely sweep of notched shoreline, with blossoming trees on greensward sloping down to the water.”
So, what changed and made New York a hub of science, commerce, and culture?
I used to think the big shift away from Boston and Philadelphia began after the Civil War ended in 1865, when people from the victorious North and the defeated South brought high finance and industrialism to the more “open city” of New York.
But it really began before that.
I’d say the shift began on November 25, 1783 — the day the British finally left (or evacuated) New York, which became known as Evacuation Day. It cleared the way for the blossoming of the young nation…the city of New York…and the promising young Hosack.
Hosack sees opportunity for young, nascent city
Hosack began his medical studies with an apprenticeship at New York Hospital while at Columbia College. From there, he went to Philadelphia to earn his medical degree from my alma mater — and the nation’s first medical school — the University of Pennsylvania.
After seeing that the most-accomplished doctors in the U.S. trained in Europe, Hosack traveled to Scotland to study at The University of Edinburgh, whose doctors had founded Penn, and to London for further training in the latest surgical techniques.
Early in his studies, Hosack considered medicinal plants merely sources of “materia medica” to be purchased from apothecaries. But his views changed after he visited the great university gardens of Great Britain, where he learned more about medical botany.
When Hosack returned to New York in 1796, he brought back a great passion for the rapidly growing science of botany and medical botany. At the time, there were no botanical gardens, medical societies, or scientific associations devoted to botany in New York. And Hosack personally changed all that.
In 1801, Hosack founded the first public botanical garden in the United States — the Elgin Botanical Garden — at the site of today’s Rockefeller Center. He modeled it after the English gardens he’d seen during his medical training. And some of the best, systematic research on the medicinal properties of plants in the United States took place here.
Hosack also personally helped improve the way hospitals in the United States dealt with infectious diseases. For example, after the deadly 1798 yellow fewer epidemic, Hosack organized the first lying-in hospital for women. Today it’s known as the distinguished New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Hosack also believed deeply in the importance of establishing quality medical training in the United States…
He established the first medical college at Rutgers University and arranged the merger of the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons with Columbia University. He also founded the New York Horticultural Society. And he trained Dr. John Franklin Gray, the first practitioner of homeopathic medicine in New York.
After running into medical and political opposition in New York (as they say, “no good deed goes unpunished,” and he had several), Hosack went upstate to found Geneva College. But in 1835, another great New York City fire destroyed all his holdings, amounting to a personal loss of $8 million in today’s value.
Hosack died of a stroke one week later — another tragic example of the toll stress can take on a human life.
If you prefer historical fiction, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is another great summer pick. The book provides a vivid account of Alma Whittaker, a 19th-century botanist who specializes in the study of mosses.
Alma’s research takes her to the South Pacific, where she meets Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed the theory of natural selection long before Charles Darwin, based on his fieldwork in the Malay Archipelago. The book captures the excitement of scientific discoveries of the natural world as an enduring legacy of the 19th century.
If you happen to read either book, send me a note to tell me what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to hearing from you!
“‘American Eden’ Review: The Ambitious Dr. Hosack,” Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com) 6/1/2018