“American Eden” is a captivating homage to botanist and physician David Hosack (1769-1835). In this previously untold story of Alexander Hamilton’s and Aaron Burr’s physician, Johnson revives a forgotten scientist and major benefactor of New York City and the early republic.
Dr. Hosacks’s vision was to collect indigenous plants in order to study them for their medicinal purposes and to display them in America’s first botanical garden. This botanist petitioned the New York state legislature for funds to implement his objective, but to no avail.
After being refused financial help multiple times by the politicians, Hosack used his own money to establish the first botanic garden in the United States, known as Elgin Botanic Garden. Erected on 5th Avenue between 47th and 51st Street in 1801, it was planted on what is now the footprint of Rockefeller Center. The only remnant of the garden is a small plaque attached to one of the low walls of the Channel Gardens which states:
In memory of David Hosack
Botanist, physician, man of science and citizen of the world.
One this site he developed the famous Elgin Botanic Garden.
In ten years, Hosack assembled 1500 species of plants, many collected by Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition up the Missouri River valley. Plants from all over the world were also represented at Hosack’s garden. Young medical students from Columbia College, where the doctor was a professor of botany and pharmacy, were able to study in the garden and gain a firsthand understanding of the plants’ healing qualities.
Unable to financially support his wife, Mary, eight children and the garden, Hosack was forced to sell the plot in 1810 to the state of New York who eventually gave it to Columbia College. The college did not maintain the Elgin Botanic Garden and it soon fell into immediate decline in spite of Hosack’s appeals to the college for the garden to be preserved. The college held onto it solely because of its real estate value.
In midlife, Hosack’s wife Mary died and he married a very wealthy widow, Magdelena Coster. Seven children were born to Hosack and his new wife. The couple purchased land overlooking the Hudson River Valley. With an almost limitless amount of money to spend, Hosack developed a 200-acre farm and plant conservatory.
The Hosack’s frequently invited guests to view their prototype farm and magnificent demonstration garden. The doctor used these visits as opportunities to convince friends and colleagues about the value of plant preservation and the use of plants to bring medicine into the modern age.
Hosack left an extraordinary legacy of advocacy for public health and sweeping support for the sciences. He was a visionary admired by the likes of Jefferson, Madison and Humboldt. The Columbia College professor devoted his life to stirring Americans to pursue medicine and botany and an awakening to the importance of caring for the environment..
Historian Victoria Johnson has eloquently chronicled Hosacks’s inspiring career and the extent of his influence. She has painted a lush portrait of the first American botanist, an intellect who wanted to give voice to the important resource nature is for nurture and healing. This talented storyteller has woven Hosack’s biography into the story of America’s founding. Her scholarship and compelling writing make this an intensely insightful and delightful book to read.