A botanical paradise unearthed

For years, he has been a proverbial footnote in American history, best known as the doctor who witnessed the duel between his friends Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr — attending the mortally wounded Hamilton and earning a shout-out in “Hamilton.”

Yet in the decades following the American Revolution, Dr. David Hosack was the new nation’s answer to the mother country’s Sir Joseph Banks — its premier botanist and one of its leading citizens. In creating the United States’ first botanic garden, in Manhattan, Hosack not only had a front row seat to American and New York history, but played a crucial role in shaping both.

He springs brilliantly to life in Victoria Johnson’s sympathetic, absorbing “American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic” (Liveright Publishing Corp./W.W. Norton & Co., $29.95, 461 pages), a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Nonfiction and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. (Recently, Johnson brought her book to the Jay Heritage Center in Rye — the home of America’s first chief justice, John Jay, a Hosack peer — amid an 80-city international tour.)

“American Eden” will have lovers of plants, the Big Apple and history from its velvety cover, with its reproduction of Hosack’s Elgin Botanic Garden, now buried in time beneath the limestone and steel of Rockefeller Center. (Its soil would be used to create Central Park’s Great Lawn.) 

An associate professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College in Manhattan, where she teaches the history of New York City, Johnson came across a reference to the garden while preparing an academic article on botanical gardens.

“I couldn’t believe one of the most iconic buildings in the world was the site of America’s first botanic garden,” she says. “I sensed it was a great New York story.”

In telling that story, Johnson resurrects the garden and its creator to paint a complex portrait of a man who was a set of fascinating contradictions — humble and haughty, immediate and remote. Above all else, he was a gentleman of his time and a scholar who presaged our own, particularly in his quest to find botanical remedies for the diseases he encountered.

“Today we’ve circled back to the value of plants in medicine,” she says.

The native peoples used medicinal plants. The European settlers added that knowledge to their own folk remedies. For instance, Peruvian bark — a bitter powder made from the cinchona tree,
native to the Andes — was used in treating a variety of fever-characterized diseases, especially malaria, on both sides of the Atlantic after Jesuit missionaries introduced it to Europe in the 1630s, Johnson writes. (Only later was it discovered to contain quinine, the standard treatment for malaria.) The bark plays a dramatic role in the opening of the book as Johnson describes Hosack preparing bath after bath of it in a desperate but successful effort to save the life of Hamilton’s 15-year-old son, Philip. 

Yet medicine was still a profession of what she calls “targeting illnesses broadly,” with doctors prescribing mercury and performing bloodletting for a host of ailments. 

“What (Hosack) was trying to do was identify specific plants for specific illnesses,” Johnson says, “to systemize the study of native plant species.”

The problem was there was no research facility, no public botanic garden, in which to do this. Despite impeccable training in this country — Columbia College, Princeton, a University of Pennsylvania medical degree and a practice that would take him from Alexandria, Virginia, back to his native Manhattan — Hosack believed that he needed the deeper knowledge that plant-crazed Great Britain could provide. His time there (1792-94), which included study at the University of Edinburgh, fired his desire to learn all he could about botany, heretofore a hole in his education. Returning to the U.S.  and establishing his practice in Manhattan, where he would become a professor at Columbia College, Hosack threw himself into creating a botanic garden that would rival those he saw in Europe.

He used his own money to acquire 20 acres of land 3½ miles north of the city limits on Middle Road (Fifth Avenue) for $100,000 — or $1 million in today’s money, Johnson says. The Elgin Botanic Garden — named for his merchant-father’s hometown in Scotland — would become at the 19th- century’s dawn a mecca for plant lovers, scientists and medical students, with a 200-foot-long glasshouse containing jungle and desert species, while poppies, chamomile, feverfew, ginseng and other medicinal plants lined walkways; and carnations and daffodils bloomed amid apple, pear and apricot trees. 

This was not, however, Johnson says, a garden as we think of the New York Botanical Garden, as much aesthetic as it is scientific. Rather, it was more akin to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health today. It would not be Hosack’s only medical accomplishment as he helped pioneer the use of the stethoscope as well as the procedure for relieving hydrocele, an inflammation of the scrotum, and advanced a holistic, compassionate approach to health care, particularly with regard to women and children. (This was born in part from the tragic loss of his wife, Catherine, and their two children in his first marriage. His second, to Mary Eddy, would produce nine children, seven of whom survived. After Mary’s death in 1824, he married the widow Magdalena Coster, blending his family with her brood of seven.)

Yet this is, astonishingly enough, only half of “American Eden’s” story. Hosack not only engaged with many of the political luminaries of his day; he managed to bridge the often conflicting interests of, say, a Hamilton and a Thomas Jefferson.

“This is something I love,” Johnson says. “Hosack said, ‘Science knows not party politics.’ His attitude was this is all for the benefit of all of us.”

It was an attitude that was both pragmatic and idealistic. He didn’t want to alienate anyone from contributing to scientific understanding. So it is not surprising then that Hosack could attend Hamilton after he was fatally shot by hated rival Burr in an 1804 duel but later loan Burr money for his self-
imposed exile after he was acquitted in a conspiracy trial to form a new country in the Louisiana Territory and Spanish Texas.

Approached to stand for office himself, Hosack declined. Instead he would nurture the city that nurtured him, co-founding such cultural institutions as the New-York Historical Society. His garden, alas, would not survive — passing into the hands of New York state and then Columbia College in 1814, which leased the property to John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1928. (Though the Rockefeller Group would build Rockefeller Center in the 1930s, it would not actually buy the land until 1985.) Nonetheless, Johnson says, it was Hosack’s preservation of that prime parcel that would give rise to one of the world’s great financial and cultural complexes.

She thinks it’s because Hosack’s accomplishments were many and varied — as opposed to his name being attached to curing one disease — that he isn’t better known today. But she’s doing what she can to change that. The Ithaca-born daughter of a retired professor of urban planning who specialized in New York, Johnson was in love with the city before she ever called Manhattan home. “I feel giddy to live here,” she says.

Now she’s working on events at NYBG and Rockefeller Center celebrating the 250th anniversary of Hosack’s Aug. 31 birth and a virtual tour of the Elgin garden. She’s also helped with the décor of The Elgin, a Rockefeller Center restaurant scheduled to open in early summer that will feature framed specimens of the kinds that were in the Elgin Botanic Garden as well as portraits of the movers and shakers of Hosack’s day.

It’s only fitting, Johnson says, that he be remembered in what is sure to be a city hotspot as “he helped make New York New York.”

For more, visit americaneden.org.

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