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


American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation; 2018. Hardcover, 461 pages. ISBN: 9781631494192. $29.95.

Early US history as taught in many schools is often a sanitized, slanted, and semi-fictionalized account of this country’s founding. Perhaps due to the lack of accuracy and the focus on memorizing dates, history is not most people’s favorite subject. It is only rather recently, with the incredible popularity of the Broadway musical Hamilton, that this once-neglected topic is reaching a wider audience. The book that this musical is based on, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Publishing Group, 2005), has, in a time of decreasing book sales, sold more than two million copies. It also has opened people’s eyes to the rough-and-tumble world of early US politics, the strengths and flaws of often-idealized historical figures, and the deep interconnectedness of pre- and post-revolutionary American law, finance, medicine, botany, agriculture, industry, and popular culture. For those interested in Chernow’s book, as well as the history of botany and medicine in general, I have a recommendation for your to-read list: American Eden.

On the flyleaf of Victoria Johnson’s new book, she writes: “On a clear morning in July 1804, Alexander Hamilton stepped onto a boat at the edge of the Hudson River. He was bound for a New Jersey dueling ground to settle his bitter dispute with Aaron Burr. Hamilton took just two men with him: his ‘second’ for the duel, and Dr. David Hosack.” The life of this renowned but sadly forgotten surgeon, physician, educator, botanist, and friend to both Hamilton and Burr is explored in this well-written and thoroughly researched book.

Few people today know of Hosack’s (1769-1835) contributions to the United States and, in fact, the world. He created the first botanical garden (Elgin Botanic Garden in New York City) in the United States; introduced new surgical procedures (he was the first to successfully treat a femoral artery aneurysm with a ligature, and to treat a hydrocele by injection); conducted early pharmaceutical research; taught the theory and practice of medicine, materia medica, obstetrics, botany, natural history, and the diseases of women and children at Columbia College, Rutgers College, and Geneva College; and was the founder and first president of the New York Horticultural Society, as well as a founding member and the fourth president of the New York Historical Society.

Hosack not only knew Hamilton (he was the Hamilton family physician who saved his son Philip’s life when he contracted a severe and mysterious fever), but also was a friend and confidant of other highly influential men of his time such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Sir Humphry Davy, Senator and New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, and Benjamin Rush, MD (another signer of the Declaration of Independence). Hosack was also a friend and patron of artists, naturalists, and inventors, including Samuel F.B. Morse (who contributed to the invention of the telegraph), the poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant, the painter Thomas Cole (the founder of the Hudson River School), the author Washington Irving, and botanists John Torrey and Amos Eaton.

The story of this fascinating polymath touches on many aspects of early American life, but Hosack is probably best remembered as a man who did more than any other “of his generation to foster in his fellow citizens a fascination of plants.” According to his student Amos Eaton, it was Hosack’s work at the Elgin Botanic Garden and his home in Hyde Park, New York, which was a showplace of horticultural design, that created “the first spark of zeal for botany” among Americans. It is this love of plants and gardening, the quest to create our personal backyard and indoor oases, that continues to this day.

Until now, Hosack’s many contributions to this country had mostly been forgotten, but this book vividly tells the story of a unique and brilliant man, whose life was lived in a time of great change, history-making events, and the beginning of the American experiment.

—David Winston, RH (AHG)
Dean, David Winston Center for Herbal Studies
Director, Herbal Therapeutics Research Library
Washington, New Jersey