A Life’s Work Gone to Seed
The lost cultivations of an often overlooked colonial scientist
By Verlyn Klinkenborg
June 4, 2018
American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson; Liveright, 480 pp., $29.95
Sometime around 1820, the U.S. Mint struck a medal designed by Moritz Fürst in honor of Dr. David Hosack, who is the subject of Victoria Johnson’s American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. On the obverse of the medal, Hosack is shown in profile. He’s a solid man, with a substantial curve of flesh joining his plump chin to his neck. He has pendulous earlobes and a curious coiffure that licks flamelike toward the top of the coin, perhaps as a sign of his energy, his industriousness, his irrepressible desire to set others afire with his plans and projects. Looking at that face, you can see why one contemporary wrote that Hosack was “manly and dignified … affable and engaging.” You can also see why the botanist John Torrey found him “overbearing.”
Perhaps it takes an overbearing man to accomplish as much as Hosack did in his lifetime (1769–1835). He was as good a doctor, scientifically speaking, as it was possible to be in that era. He was—again, according to a contemporary—“one of the greatest botanists of the age.” He was also an arch-instigator, a founder of organizations and associations, like the New-York Historical Society. He worked for years to create a 20-acre private botanical garden—Elgin Garden—but was unable, in the end, to turn it into a lasting, public institution. And yet David Hosack will always, and perhaps mainly, be remembered as the doctor who was present when Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton, the doctor who was with Hamilton when he died.
American Eden is Victoria Johnson’s effort “to bring David Hosack into living relief.” It’s a difficult task. Hosack was no Humboldt. He was a man of the classroom, the laboratory, the committee, the library, the club, the garden. He wasn’t an adventurous traveler or a botanical explorer—he was the man to whom explorers sent seeds and plants. Hosack’s life was extremely full—he married three times, had many children, taught many fine doctors and botanists, knew absolutely everyone, wrote a great deal—and yet the story of his life, apart from a few exceptional incidents, isn’t especially compelling, as stories go.
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Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author of six books, including Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. He teaches creative writing at Yale University.