Founding Gardener

David Hosack’s valiant attempts to make America a botanical paradise.

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Victoria Johnson‘s American Eden is a biography of a physician-botanist who was incredibly famous during the early days of our country but has been almost forgotten today. David Hosack (“Hozzick”) was an intensely dedicated and extremely hard-working doctor and public figure who, among other accomplishments, created Elgin, the first public botanical garden in the United States. Johnson’s book, like Hosack’s life, is a fascinating history that’s equal parts medicine, politics, and horticulture.

We can get in only a few highlights here. Let’s start with the same dramatic story that begins the book:

September 1797. The boy would be dead before dawn. He was fifteen, more handsome already than his famously handsome father, who had turned back toward New York City when he received the news. At best, the boy’s father would arrive in time to hold his son’s hand as the end came. At worst, he would arrive only in time to embrace his grieving wife. The young doctor in attendance had already sent her out of the death chamber.

The doctor was solidly built, neither tall nor short, with thick black hair that crowned a massive head. People often noticed his sonorous voice and his piercing eyes, which were so dark as to appear completely black. He carried himself with a trace of arrogance—at least his rivals thought so. Friends detected in his ramrod bearing only boundless energy and sound principles. He was a man built to take command of a sick room, or a funeral procession.

The doctor’s name was David Hosack, and he was just twenty-eight years old. He knew that his more experienced medical colleagues would try to bring down the fever—was it typhus? Scarlatina?—with cold cloths pressed to the skin. But that measure had already proved useless. As the boy’s father raced home, Hosack took one last, risky gamble. He chose heat instead of cool, drawing a steaming bath and mixing a botanical remedy into the water—a bitter powder called Peruvian bark, made from the cinchona tree, native to the Andes. The bark, which was later discovered to contain quinine, had been used for centuries by the Quechua people to cure malaria before the Jesuits imported it to Europe in the 1630s. It had become a staple medicine first for European doctors and then for American ones, and though it was used far more often for malaria, Hosack hoped against hope that it would bring down the fever. Next he poured several bottles of alcohol into the bathwater to stimulate the circulation. After the boy had been lowered in, he sprinkled in smelling salts. At first, the thin body lay still in the steaming water, but within minutes, the boy began to regain his senses and his pulse quickened. Hosack swaddled him in warm blankets and carried him back to the bed, where he slept deeply for several hours before awaking—delirious once again. The doctor prepared another bath, and then another. His fever slowly receded. The boy would survive.

Hosack refused to leave the house that night, but he permitted himself to doze in a nearby bedroom after the hours of anxious effort. As he later recalled the scene, he bolted awake to find the boy’s father, Alexander Hamilton, at his bedside. Taking Hosack’s hand, Hamilton said with tears in his eyes that he could not remain one moment longer in his own house without expressing his deepest gratitude. In that moment, Hosack became a trusted friend to one of the nation’s most famous and powerful men. But his medical intuition that night did more than forge a bond between a founding father and a young physician. It moved him one step closer to an idea he had quietly been nursing for three years. A few weeks after saving Hamilton’s son Philip, Hosack picked up a quill and composed a letter to the president and trustees of Columbia College, where he was a professor of medicine and botany.

Hosack would gather into his island Eden more than two thousand species of plants, collected from around the globe.

He meant with his letter to move the Earth. It would take time, years of patience etched into twenty acres as his fellow New Yorkers showered him with both accolades and scorn. Finally orchards would arise, of apple, pear, and apricot. Carnations and daffodils would dot the lawns. Medicinal plants—poppies, chamomile, feverfew, ginseng, and dozens more—would grow in tidy plots and along shaded walkways. A glass edifice nearly two hundred feet long would stretch across the land, a magnificent conservatory to shelter the plants of the world’s deserts and jungles from icy New York winters. Hosack would gather into his island Eden more than two thousand species of plants, collected from correspondents around the globe and from the farms next door.
It was an American triumph: the first botanical garden founded for the new nation.

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 physician 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 plants and seeds for his garden and lavished praise on him. When the sixty-six-year-old Hosack suffered a stroke in 1835, newspapers from South Carolina to New Hampshire ran bulletins about his illness and offered prayers for his recovery. Even before this, he had been immortalized in paintings, in marble busts, on commemorative coins, and in the names of plant species. Some Europeans called him the Sir Joseph Banks of America. It was the highest honor imaginable for an American scientist.

Hosack spent a fortune building Elgin, his botanical garden on the outskirts of New York City. Here’s a small glimpse into its 200-foot-long greenhouse complex:

Hosack had spent forty years driven by an intense feeling of stewardship—of people, nature, New York, and the nation.

As Hosack moved down the long central walkway of his greenhouse that Spring, he was surrounded by clay pots filled with dozens of species that few Americans had ever seen. From the East Indies, for example, Hosack had received a rare plant covered in fragrant white flowers, Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac), as well as a tall grass called Job’s tears (Coix lacryma) for the pearly little tear-shaped grains that grew at the end of the stalks. From the Cape of Good Hope, a colleague had sent him a plant with spotted, swollen leaves called tongue aloe (Aloe lingua) and also a spectacular evergreen native to the southern tip of Africa known as silver tree (Protea argentea) because of its shimmery metallic leaves. From the South Sea islands where his friend Banks had once roamed, Hosack had a striking plant with black flowers called Lotus jacobaeus. He was cultivating a tree heath (Erica arborea) from the island of Madeira and a beautiful silvery coronilla (Coronilla argentea) from the island of Crete.

Alas, Hosack was never able to garner sufficient public support to maintain the garden, and it eventually died. (The site is now under Rockefeller Center.) Later in life, though, he was able to build a horticultural Eden of his own along the Hudson River, an estate called Hyde Park. He was assisted by Belgium-born landscape designer André Parmentier.

Parmentier’s ideas were new to most New Yorkers, and indeed to most Americans. Just before he began his work for Hosack at Hyde Park, Parmentier laid out his revolutionary philosophy of what he called the “modern style” of landscape design. Through the painterly use of plants and trees to give color and structure to a landscape, a skillful designer “presents to you a constant change of scene,” thereby engaging the eye and the imagination. At the edges of an estate, the tree should have “thin and light foliage,” while those grouped closer to the mansion should be deep green. The viewer’s gaze is thus subtly directed toward the central subject of the designer’s “landscape-picture”—the mansion. Hosack gave Parmentier all seven hundred fifty acres of Hyde Park to use as his canvas. The results were so spectacular that the landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing pronounced the estate “one of the very finest in America.“ The writer Francis Trollope raved after a visit, “It is hardly possible to imagine anything more beautiful than this place.“

Johnson declares that Hosack did “more than any man of his generation to foster in his fellow Americans a fascination with plants.” This ever-energetic and ever-dedicated man did much more, as well:

Hosack was now in his mid-sixties. He had spent forty years driven by an intense feeling of stewardship—of people, nature, New York, and the nation. When he had fallen in love with medicine as a teen-ager in the 1780s and pushed himself so intensely in his studies, it was to become a capable steward of his fellow citizens’ health. When he had created the Elgin Botanic Garden and then labored lovingly over it year after year, it was because he saw himself as a steward of a parcel of land whose cultivation would save lives and bring new foods to farmers and city dwellers alike. When he had devoted his time and expertise to Columbia College, The New-York Hospital, The Lying-In Hospital, the quarantine hospital at Bellevue, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the almshouse, the New-York Historical Society, the Academy of Fine Arts, and the New-York Horticultural Society—in all these ways and places, he was trying to steward his young nation and especially his city toward a future securely anchored in the kind of charitable and cultural institutions that would keep its residents healthy, thriving, and as well-educated as Europeans.

Excerpted from American Eden by Victoria Johnson. Copyright (c) 2018 by Victoria Johnson. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


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