Dr. David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Early Republic

Today’s guest post is written by Victoria Johnson, author of  American Eden (Liveright, 2018). On October 9, Dr. Johnson will give a talk at the Academy on David Hosack (1769–1835), the visionary doctor who served as the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel in 1804. Hosack founded or co-founded many medical institutions in New York City, among them nation’s first public botanical garden. The following is adapted from American Eden, which is on the longlist of ten works nominated for the National Book Award in Nonfiction for 2018.

David Hosack’s twin passions were medicine and nature. As a young medical student he risked his life to defend the controversial practice of corpse dissection because he knew it was the best chance doctors had to understand the diseases that killed Americans in droves every year. He studied with the great Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush and went on to become a celebrated medical professor in his own right. He drew crowds of students who hung on his every word and even wrote down his jokes in their notebooks. He performed surgeries never before documented on American soil and advocated smallpox vaccination at a time when many people were terrified of the idea. He pioneered the use of the stethoscope in the United States shortly after its invention in France in 1816. He published one innovative medical study after another—on breast cancer, anthrax, tetanus, obstetrics, the care of surgical wounds, and dozens of other subjects. In the early twentieth century, a medical journal paid tribute to Hosack’s many contributions by noting that “there is perhaps no one person in the nineteenth century to whom New York medicine is more deeply or widely indebted than to this learned, faithful, generous, liberal man.”[i]

Andrew Marshal anatomy course

David Hosack’s admission card to Andrew Marshal’s anatomy course in London, 1793/94. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Columbia University Health Sciences Library.

Yet although Hosack found surgery vital and exciting, he was certain that saving lives also depended on knowing the natural world outside the human body. As a young man, he studied medicine and botany in Great Britain, and he returned to the United States convinced that it was at their intersection that Americans would find the most promising new treatments for the diseases that regularly swept the country. Hosack talked and wrote constantly about the natural riches that blanketed the North American continent. The health of the young nation, he argued, would depend on the health of its citizens, and thus on the skill of its doctors in using plants to prevent and treat illness.

In 1801, Hosack bought twenty acres of Manhattan farmland and founded the first public botanical garden in the young nation. He collected thousands of specimens and used them to teach his Columbia students and to supervise some of the nation’s earliest pharmaceutical research.

painting of David Hosack

David Hosack with his botanical garden in the distance. Engraving by Charles Heath, 1816, after oil paintings by Thomas Sully and John Trumbull, Collections of the National Library of Medicine.

Because of his garden, Hosack became one of the most famous Americans of his time. His medical research there cemented his reputation as the most innovative doctor in New York. When Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr needed an attending physician for their 1804 duel, they both chose David Hosack. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander von Humboldt, and Sir Joseph Banks sent Hosack plants and seeds for his garden and lavished praise on him. In 1816, he was elected to the Royal Society of London, an extraordinary honor for an American.

Today, though, few people know Hosack’s name, and his botanical garden grows skyscrapers year-round. It’s now Rockefeller Center.

Learn more about this luminary individual; join us for Losing Hamilton, Saving New York: Dr. David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Early Republic at the Academy on Tuesday October 9th at 6pm.

[i] Dr. David Hosack and His Botanical Garden,” Medical News 85, no. 11 (1904): 517-19 [no author], p. 517.


No Spice More Superior: Pepper

By Emily Miranker, Events & Projects Manager

The marvelous thing about libraries (well, one on an infinite list of marvels…) are the remarkable rabbit holes of investigation and imagination you fall into. Recently,  I ran into a kitchen staple in an old medicine book:

Black Pepper is a remedy I value very highly. As a gastric stimulant it certainly has no superior…

Black pepper as a cure for anything, except perhaps bland food, was news to me. The above passage comes from the 19th century John Milton Scudder’s 1870 book Specific medication and specific medicines. In the 19th century “specific medicine” referred to a branch of American medicine, eclectic medicine, that relied on noninvasive practices such as botanical remedies or physical therapy.[i] As an eclectic practitioner, Scudder’s work was not mainstream, regular medicine, so I wondered if perhaps that was why pepper should come up as a remedy. Surely, pepper only belongs in the pantry not the medicine cabinet. But doing more research, it turns out that black pepper, Piper nigrum, originally from India, has been used by people for medicinal purposes for centuries.

Black Pepper_Bentley_1880

A member of the Piperaceae family of plants, black pepper is a tropical vine. Its berries (the dried berries are the peppercorns we’re familiar with from the kitchen), were known to the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans long before it became one of the most sought-after spices in Europe during the Age of Exploration, the 15th-18th centuries. Depending on when it’s harvested, a vine produces four kinds of peppercorn. Green peppercorns are unripe berries that are freeze-dried. White pepper is almost ripened, the berries are harvested and soaked in water which washes off the husk leaving the gray-white seed. Red peppercorns are fresh, ripe berries. Black peppercorns are harvested when the spike of berries is midway ripe; these unripe berries are actually more flavorful than a fully ripe berry. The black peppercorns are blanched or left to ferment a few days and then dried in the sun. The drying process turns the husk black.[ii]


A detail of a page of recipes calling for pepper by the Roman gourmand Apicius, the oldest cookbook in West. Author’s favorite: #31 Oenogarum in Tubera, a wine sauce for truffle mushrooms calling for pepper, lovage, coriander, rue, broth, honey and oil.

Pepper came to the tables and pharmacies of Europe via trade from the west coast of India. It was coveted enough to be part of the ransom demand Alaric the Goth made of Rome when he invaded in 408 C.E.[iii] With its strategic location on the Adriatic, Venice dominated the spice trade in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Portuguese were the first to break the Venetian hold by finding an all-ocean route to India. By the 17th century the Dutch and English were players in the spice trade. Innocuous-seeming dark grains in shakers on tabletops now, pepper was once more valuable than silver and gold. Sailors were paid in pepper. The spice was also used for paying taxes, custom duties, and dowries.[iv] In their quest for pepper, among other spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, the Europeans brutally pursued spice monopolies regardless of the upheaval and violence they wrought on the peoples of India, Sumatra and Java.


Dating back to 6,000 B.C.E. the Materia medica of Ayurveda advocates using pepper for a number of different maladies, especially those of the gastrointestinal tract.[v] To this day in India, a mixture of black pepper, long pepper, and ginger, known as trikatu, is a common Ayurvedic medicinal prescription. Trikatu is a Sanskrit word meaning “three acrids.” In the Ayurvedic tradition “the three acrids collectively act as ‘kapha-vatta-pitta-haratwam’ which means ‘correctors of the three doshas of the human.’”[vi] Doshas are energy centers in the body in the Ayurvedic tradition.

Pepper figured in Western medicine from antiquity onwards as well. Writing in the 7th century, Byzantine Greek physician Paul of Aegina quotes the 2nd-century Greek Galen on pepper’s’ medical properties, “it is strongly calefacient and desiccative.”[vii] Warming and drying, thus very good for stomach problems in his estimation. Side note: Galen’s office was in the spice quarter of Rome, underscoring the connections between health, spices, and food. Peppers’ use as a “gastric stimulant” persisted through the centuries. In our collection’s The elements of materia medica and therapeutics (1872), Jonathan Pereira states pepper “is a useful addition to difficult-to-digest foods, as fatty and mucilaginous matters, especially in persons subject to stomach complaints.” The illustrations of pepper plants in this post come from Robert Bentley’s Medicinal Plants (1880) which includes their medical properties and uses along with descriptions of habitats and composition.

Black pepper medicinal properties_Bentley_watermarked

Scientific studies on pepper coalesce around its compound piperine. The stronger—more pungent—the pepper, the more piperine it contains. The argument of studies on pepper’s properties is that adding pepper to a concoction increases its efficacy and digestibility. Research suggests “this bioavailability enhancing property of pepper to its main alkaloid, piperine…. The proposed mechanism for the increased bioavailability of drugs co-administered with piperine is attributed to the interaction of piperine with enzymes that participate in drug metabolism.”[viii]

I hadn’t looked to black pepper for any health benefits. I look to it for that delicious heat and spicy pungency it brings to my meals. But that’s the great thing about researching in our library; you always find delights beyond what you’re looking for.

[i] Eclectic Medicine. https://lloydlibrary.org/research/archives/eclectic-medicine/ Copyright 2008. Accessed August 30, 2018.
[ii] Sarah Lohman. Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.
[iii] Majorie Schaffer. Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.
[iv] Schaffer. Pepper. 2013.
[v] Muhammed Majeed and L. Prakash. “The Medicinal Uses of Pepper.” International Pepper News. 2000. Vol. 25, pp. 23-31.
[vi] Majeed & Prakash. 26.
[vii] Paulus Aegineta. La Chirurgie. Lyons: 1542.
[viii] Majeed & Prakash. 28.


Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature: Medical Botany

By Robin Naughton, Head of Digital and Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian
Cross-posted at The Biodiversity Heritage Library blog.

The New York Academy of Medicine Library has contributed nine digitized titles (11 volumes) on medical botany to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) as part of the Expanding Access to Biodiversity Literature project.   It is very exciting to share some of the Academy Library’s botanical resources with the wider public.

While the Library’s collections include a large number of printed botanical books dating back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, for this project we were interested in identifying resources that could be sent to the Internet Archive for external digitization, which meant that we concentrated on our holdings from the second half of the 19th century forward through 1922.  After generating lists from our online catalog, we checked to see if any of these resources had already been digitized by the BHL, Internet Archive, or HathiTrust.  For this process, we developed a set of simple guidelines.

  • Resources not available via BHL, Internet Archive or HathiTrust remained on the list.
  • Resources already available via the BHL were eliminated from the list.
  • Resources already available via the Internet Archive were eliminated from the list because BHL harvests content from the Internet Archive, so there would be no need for us to digitize that content.
  • Resources already available via HathiTrust could still potentially be digitized for access via the BHL based on whether our copy provides additional information for the public once digitized. For example, the Indian Medicinal Plants (Kīrtikara & Basu, 1918) has been partially digitized by HathiTrust, but the volume with the images was missing. As such, it became important for us to digitize so that it would be fully available.

We went through multiple lists and rounds of de-duplication to narrow down our potential submission.  Once we finalized the list, Scott Devine, Head of Preservation, conducted a conservation assessment to determine which resources could be sent out for digitization and which were so fragile that they could only be digitized in house.  We separated these into two lists.  The first list was sent to the Internet Archive for digitization and is our contribution to BHL.   The second list will be a project for our new digital lab and we hope to make them available at a future date.


Indian Medicinal Plants (1918), plate #256 showing Leea Sambucina.

The Indian medicinal plants (Kīrtikara & Basu, 1918) stood out as a resource to digitize and share widely.  It documents the medicinal plants found in India.  The authors describe a need to provide a text that reproduces illustrations of Indian medicinal plants from other works since there were few prior to this publication.  Dr. W. Roxburgh’s text, reprinted in 1874, was used as a reference throughout.

Although Indian medicinal plants did not focus on the use of plants in the development of drugs, this theme can be seen throughout the resources submitted to the BHL. Each author grapples with the role of plants in the creation and production of drugs.


A course in botany and pharmacognosy (1902), plate #1 showing organized cell-contents.

In A course in botany and pharmacognosy (1902), Henry Kraemer, Professor of Botany and Pharmacognosy, defines pharmacognosy as the “study of drugs of vegetable origins.” Kraemer devotes the first part of his text to plant morphology and the second part to pharmacognosy.  In addition, he provides illustrations to aid in the study of both parts so that students can connect the descriptions throughout the text to the visual representations.


Pharmaceutical Botany (1918), fig 57 showing leaf bases, species and compound leaves.

Youngken’s Pharmaceutical botany, 2nd edition (1918) was expanded to take advantage of the growing area of botany, including a section on drug-yielding plants.  The text focuses on the morphology and taxonomy of plants used in drug development.

In Pharmacal plants and their culture (1912), Schneider argues that the majority of imported plants used in medicine could already be available in the United States.  He focuses on California and outlines what can be cultivated and grown in the state.  Schneider provides a list of uses and common names.

The medicinal plants of Tennnessee (1894) is an observational inventory of Tennessee’s plants and their descriptions based on a similar project conducted by North Carolina.  Published by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the report emphasizes the importance of documenting and understanding the native plants of Tennessee and how they can help increase usage and revenue.

Overall, readers of this collection can begin to understand the role of plants in the creation, development and economic viability of drugs.  Many of the resources provide some form of inventory, index or list that documents the plants and associated drugs.

All titles submitted by the Academy Library to BHL:

The BHL Expanding Access project is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

“How Many Stamens Has Your Flower?” The Botanical Education of Emily Dickinson

By Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts

So unsuspected violets
Within the fields lie low,
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago.

Emily Dickinson (1858)1

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, from the collection of Amherst College.

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, from the collection of Amherst College.

Emily Dickinson fell early and fast for flowers. Her poetry is full of the blooms and buds that signal the awakening of spring. There’s her crocus, “Spring’s first conviction” (Letter 891) “stir[ring] its lids,” (J10) her May-Flower, “pink small and punctual,” (J 3) and her “chubby” daffodil with its “yellow bonnet” (J 10 and J4), among an army of many other blossoms that decorate her pages.

As her biographer Alfred Habegger has noted, the poet spent hours as a girl in the 1840s roaming the woods and fields near her Amherst, Massachusetts home, looking for flowers. In many cases, these were sent to friends, but the poet also kept some for herself. Her first assembled collection was not, as one might expect, a collection of writing, but a collection of plant specimens.2

Dickinson likely began her herbarium when she was 14, in 1845.3 It has been fully digitized by Harvard’s Houghton Library (all 66 pages can be viewed here). Several of the texts that influenced Dickinson’s flower collection are available in our library.

A page of Dickinson's herbarium, courtesy of Harvard University's Houghton Library.

A page of Dickinson’s herbarium, courtesy of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, including specimens of Liriodendron tulipfera and of the rare Chenopodium capitatum (strawberry blite).

In 1845, Dickinson was enrolled in both botany and Latin at Amherst Academy. Coursework in both subjects was instrumental in her identification and labeling of plants.

In use at Amherst during Dickinson’s time was Almira Lincoln Phelps’ textbook, Familiar Lectures on Botany, first published in 1829.4 Phelps, a pioneer educator and only the second woman elected a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was the sister of the American education reformer Emma Willard.5 Phelps probably taught at Amherst Academy for at least one term, using the Familiar Lectures. Her textbook was certainly known and used by Dickinson.6

Our copy of Phelps’ Lectures on Botany contains a sweet floral treasure pressed within, with the ghost of its outline visible on its pages. If you can identify the flower, please let us know.

Our copy of Phelps’ Familiar Lectures on Botany (1838) contains a sweet floral treasure pressed within, with the ghost of its outline visible on its pages. If you can identify the flower, please let us know. Click to enlarge. [N.B.: Thanks to Julie Shapiro, Curatorial Associate and Herbarium Plant Specimen Technician at Harvard University Herbaria for her canny ID of the pressed flower in our 1838 copy of Phelps’ Familiar Lectures on Botany as a geranium.]

In the prefatory note to Familiar Lectures, Phelps describes how as a teacher of botany she struggled to find suitable textbooks, and composed the lessons within to fill this gap.7 Benjamin Smith Barton’s The Elements of Botany, while beautifully illustrated, was very out of date by the late 1820s, and written in an archaic language unsuitable for young students.8

Plate VI from Phelps, Familiar Lectures on Botany, 1838. Click to enlarge.

Plate VI from Phelps, Familiar Lectures on Botany, 1838. Click to enlarge.

Familiar Lectures, sometimes called Mrs. Lincoln’s Botany, became the standard textbook for young students, and went through at least 39 editions. The volume contains a prefatory note directed at teachers that tells us about Phelps’ pedagogical style, and what Dickinson may have experienced in her classroom:

Each member is presented with a flower for analysis….The names of the different parts of the flower are then explained; each pupil being directed to dissect and examine her flower as we proceed. ..After noticing the parts…the pupils are prepared to understand the principles on which the artificial classes are founded, and to trace the plant to its proper class, order, & c. At each step, they are required to examine their floors, and to answer simultaneously the questions proposed; as, how many stamens has your flower?9

Phelps taught her students the Linnaean system of identifying specimens: the number of stamens in a flower would determine its class, and the number of pistils, its order. Successive editions of Phelps’ text acknowledged the new “natural” system of classification, a system that moved away from stamen and pistil counting, but discarded the new method as too complex for students.10

“Of leaves.” In Phelps’ Familiar Lectures on Botany, 1838. Click to enlarge.

Dickinson’s biographer Alfred Habegger emphasizes Phelps’ belief that botany was a subject well-suited to females, and that Dickinson herself characterized plants most frequently as female, and, by extension, as central to the role of playing female:

That the poet thought of flowers as female suggests her love of plants owed more to culture than science….Pressed between the pages of a letter, they became a medium of exchange between her and her friends, those of her own sex especially. Cultivated indoors, especially after a conservatory was added to the Dickinson Homestead, they became a consuming avocation.11

Emily Dickinson seems to have consulted another book for the organization of her specimens. That book was Amos Eaton’s Manual of Botany, for the Northern and Middle States of America.

Title page of Eaton, Manual of Botany, 1822.

Title page of Eaton, Manual of Botany, 1822.

Eaton, a botanist and geologist, had mentored Phelps during her time at Emma Willard’s Female Seminary in Troy. It was Eaton who had first encouraged the publication of Familiar Lectures.12 Dickinson likely used Eaton’s manual to identify the specimens she gathered on walks in the woods. She labelled her specimens in accordance with Eaton’s Linnaean numbering system, in which the class and order correspond to number of stamens and pistils, probably unaware that by this time, the method had been largely discounted.13

Dickinson also consulted Edward Hitchcock’s Catalogue of Plants growing without cultivation within thirty miles of Amherst College in the creation of her herbarium. The text Dickinson used was published in 1829, but our copy, revised by Edward Tuckerman, dates to 1875. Hitchcock was president at nearby Amherst College, and the area’s most eminent naturalist. He’s especially remembered for his geological contributions (Hitchcock led the first geological survey in Massachusetts after studying dinosaur footprints). “Hitchcock’s guide includes many rare plants native to Massachusetts also collected by Dickinson, including the very rare strawberry blite, cancer root (found near Mt. Holyoke), and verbena (found in South Hadley).14

Title page of Tuckerman and Frost's A Catalogue of Plants, 1875.

Title page of Tuckerman and Frost’s A Catalogue of Plants, 1875.

Dickinson refers to Hitchcock in an 1877 letter to T.W. Higginson:

When Flowers annually died and I was a child, I used to read Dr Hitchcock’s Book on the Flowers of North America. This comforted their Absence–assuring me they lived.” (Letter 488)15

Dickinson seems to have confused the authorship of the book she mentions above; here, too, she’s likely referring to Eaton’s Manual of Botany for North America.

Phelps, Eaton, and Hitchcock’s texts all influenced Dickinson’s impressions of the natural world in girlhood. As a mature poet, as her physical reach and exploration of the natural world became more and more limited, the plants familiar to her from girlhood stuck, fixing their roots all the more deeply in her mind.

Perhaps you’d like to buy a flower?
But I could never sell.
If you would like to borrow
Until the daffodil

Unties her yellow bonnet
Beneath the village door,
Until the bees, from clover rows
Their hock and sherry draw,

Why, I will lend until just then,
But not an hour more!16


1. Johnson, Thomas ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. 7; Johnson, Thomas and Theodora Van Wagenen Ward, eds., The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard, 1958.

2. Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid Away In Books The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

3. Habegger, 154.

4. Habegger, 155.

5. Rudolph, Emanuel. “Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884) and the Spread of Botany in Nineteenth Century America.” American Journal of Botany, Vol. 71, No. 8 (Sep. 1984), pp. 1161-1167.

6. Habegger, 155.

7. Phelps, Almira Hart Lincoln. Familiar Lectures of Botany. New York: Huntington, 1839. Pp.8-9.

8. Rudolph, 1162.

9. Phelps, 8-9.

10. Rudolph, 1163-1164.

11. Habegger, 156.

12. Rudolph, 1163.

13. Habegger, 158.

14. Habegger, 158-159.

15. Johnson, Thomas and Theodora Van Wagenen Ward, eds., The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard, 1958.

16. Johnson, Thomas ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. 4.

A Finer Sight Can Scarcely Be Imagined: Curtis’ Botanical Magazine (Item of the Month)

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist

It’s been a cold and snowy January, and with almost two months of winter still to come I’m drawn to the botanical selections in our collection. My choice for item of the month is a periodical, the Botanical Magazine (most commonly known by its later title, Curtis’ Botanical Magazine).

“Elizabeth Christina, one of the daughters of Linnaeus, is said to have perceived the flowers to emit spontaneously, at certain intervals, sparks like those of electricity, visible only in the dusk of the evening, and which ceased when total darkness came on.” (Plate 23, volume 1 reissue, 1793)

“Elizabeth Christina, one of the daughters of Linnaeus, is said to have perceived the flowers to emit spontaneously, at certain intervals, sparks like those of electricity, visible only in the dusk of the evening, and which ceased when total darkness came on.” (Nasturtium, plate 23, volume 1, 1793.) Click to enlarge.

In addition to being a very beautiful publication, the Botanical Magazine is notable for being the longest running botanical periodical featuring color illustrations of plants.1 The first issue of the magazine was published in 1787 by William Curtis (1746-1799) and today it is published by Kew Gardens.1,2 Curtis, an apothecary turned botanist, was the botanic demonstrator to the Society of Apothecaries at Chelsea in the 1770s.2,3 He also gave public lectures and maintained a botanic garden in London.2 Before the Botanical Magazine, Curtis began publishing the Flora Londenensis, a grand, folio-size work documenting local plant life. This proved too costly and Curtis gave up the venture in 1787.2,3

The Botanical Magazine; or, flower-garden displayed : in which the most ornamental foreign plants, cultivated in the open ground, the green-house, and the stove, will be accurately represented in their natural colours was smaller and more affordable than the Flora Londenensis; Curtis created it in response to demand for a publication concerning foreign plants.2,3 Most of the plants represented in the early volumes are from Europe, Eastern North America, and the Cape of Good Hope.   According to Hemsley, author of A new and complete index to the Botanical magazine, “Scarcely any very striking or noteworthy subjects appeared, and new species . . . were exceedingly rare,” but this did not hinder the magazine’s sales. The work was quickly a success, selling 3,000 copies a month. Volumes 1-6 were later reissued, presumably due to their popularity (some of our volumes are reprints).2

Each monthly issue contained three hand-colored plates accompanied by descriptive text.2 An exception, Strelitzia, had a fold-out plate and more in-depth description. As you will see below, variation in format was not something Curtis took lightly. The majority of the early illustrations were drawn by Sydenham Edwards.2,3 While the plates are the highlight of the magazine, Curtis’ enthusiasm for the plants is also engaging, and so each image is accompanied by a quote from the plant’s description.

Click on an image to view the gallery of plates. Enjoy, and stay warm!


1. Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Available at: http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/research-data/publications/curtis-botanical-magazine. Accessed January 23, 2015.

2. Hemsley, W. Botting. A new and complete index to the Botanical magazine. London: Lovell Reeve, 1906. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=OlhNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed January 23, 2015.

3. Curtis Museum Alton. William Curtis the Botanist. Available at: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/curtis-museum/alton-history/william-curtis.htm. Accessed January 23, 2015.