Colonial America’s Woman Botanist
In the early eighteenth century only a few women in England and the American colonies were involved in any field of science. Those few were usually related to a man who worked in the field. Jane Colden (1724-1766) was introduced to botany by her father, and became the first woman botanist in America.
Jane Colden was born in New York City on March 27, 1724, the daughter of New York physician, governor and botanist, Cadwallader Colden, who learned about the use of plants for medicinal purposes as part of his education in Scotland.
Through his relationship with the governor of New York, Colden was named Surveyor General of the colony, the first of many important offices he held. During the 1720s, Colden surveyed and reported on several parcels of land in upstate New York, particularly the land surrounding what is now Newburgh.
In 1719 Colden received a grant of three thousand acres of land in Orange County and built a home he named Coldengham about ten miles west of Newburgh. Jane was four years old when the family, now with six children, moved to this wilderness estate, in the words of her father, “the habitation of wolves, bears and other wild animals.”
Even before the family moved into their new home, Colden had begun to cultivate the land and in 1727 was recording in his journal the details of crops sown and harvests gathered. There was no school available in the area so the Coldens had to educate their children at home.
Colden was a man of infinite interests and talents, but he claimed little knowledge of botany except for the rudiments acquired during his medical training. In letters to botanists Peter Collinson and Jan Frederik Gronovius, Colden referred to his “ignorance in botany as a science,” but he did not remain that way for long.
Career in Botany
Jane Colden was about ten years old (1734) when she began watching and learning from her father as he gathered, dried and pressed plant specimens, or planted them on their property. They also learned about some of the more unusual local uses of these plants through Dutch, English and Native American legends and folktales.
By 1740, Cadwallader Colden began to collect and document the plants growing wild around his home. During this time, he began communicating with other botanists who were studying plants native to the colonies. One of the most important of these friendships was with Jan Frederik Gronovius, who was working with other botanists documenting the plants native to the Mid-Atlantic states like Virginia and the Carolinas.
In 1743, Colden became a member of the American Philosophical Society. His new professional status enabled him to become the primary promoter of Linne’s new system for plant nomenclature locally, recommending its use by North American botanists. In just a few years, numerous changes occurred in Colden’s life that enabled him to focus on local botany.
Jane was greatly drawn to the study of botany early on, but her biggest drawback was that she did not know Latin; all plant names are written in Latin. Latin was not taught in the American colonies. “Learned languages,” according to Dr. Colden, were little understood in the colonies, and the need for English botanical works was crucial. He begged Collinson to publish such a book, for “We have nothing in botany tolerably well done in English.”
Though he was pleased that living in the country protected his children from “the temptations to vice which youth is exposed to in the city,” Dr. Colden was also aware that the isolation and lack of cultural opportunities in a young colony were very restricting for a young woman with a serious interest in botany. During Jane’s studies she did acquire “some knowledge of Botanical Latin.”
Dr. Cadwallader Colden’s years of work in the documentation of plants around his upstate New York home resulted in the first local flora of New York, “Plantae Coldenhamiae” (1743, 1751). Other early botanical explorers of the region included John Bartram, William Bartram (son of John Bartram) and Peter Kalm.
In 1753, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus established a new system of identifying plants which was published in his work, Species Plantarum, the first consistent use of a naming structure for plants. His binomial system reduced plant names to two Latin words. For example, Linnaeus’ name for flax was Linum usitatissimum, which was previously listed as Linum raris foliisque alternis lmearilanceolatis radice annua.
Inspired by the identification system developed by Carl Linnaeus, Jane Colden began identifying and naming plants on her own in 1753. Impressed by her amazing abilities, her father introduced her to the botany community, and she began to correspond with many contemporary botanists.
Peter Collinson reported to Carl Linnaeus, “Your system, I can tell you obtains much in America. Mr. Clayton and Dr. Colden at Albany of Hudson’s River in New York are complete Professors…. Even Dr. Colden’s daughter was an enthusiast.” Testimony to Jane’s work in botany is also found in a letter of 1755 from Dr. Colden to Jan Gronovius:
I have a daughter who has an inclination to reading and a curiosity for natural philosophy or natural History and a sufficient capacity for attaining a competent knowledge. I took the pains to explain to her Linnaeus’ system and to put it in English for her to use by freeing it from the Technical Terms which was easily done by using two or three words in place of one.
She is now grown very fond of the study and has made such progress in it as I believe would please you if you saw her performance. Tho’ perhaps she could not have been persuaded to learn the terms at first she now understands to some degree Linnaeus’ characters notwithstanding that she does not understand Latin.
Jane embarked on her own study of the flora around the Newburgh area, and took impressions of leaves on paper with printer’s ink to distinguish the various species. Between 1753 and 1758 Jane Colden collected and cataloged more than 300 plants found growing in the lower Hudson River Valley in New York. Her accomplishments were extraordinary, especially in the 1750s, when women were still considered incapable of studying subjects as complex as science.
By 1754 Jane was making contacts with some of America’s most famous botanists. Only a few of her letters survive, none of them dealing with her botanical work, but she was mentioned numerous times in the correspondence of other European and American botanists. Peter Collinson wrote enthusiastically about her to John Bartram:
“Our friend Colden’s daughter has a scientifical manner. Sent over several sheets of plants very curiously anatomised after [Linnaeus’] Method. I believe she is the first Lady that has attempted any thing of this nature.
Jane communicated several times with her most influential supporter and follower, Dr. Alexander Garden of Charleston, South Carolina, who writes in a letter to John Ellis in 1755 that Dr. Colden’s “lovely daughter is greatly master of the Linnean method.” And Ellis, in a letter to Linnaeus written in 1758, reports on Jane’s botanical activities and her knowledge of Linnaeus’ system.
Jane Colden was also the first scientist to describe the gardenia, which she named after her friend and botanist colleague, Dr. Alexander Garden. Her work and observations of the gardenia was one of her most important contributions to science.
Jane’s acceptance by this revered group of male naturalists and botanists is remarkable, considering that women had few educational opportunities in the eighteenth century. Jane had no formal education, but she was blessed with parents who recognized her intelligence and encouraged her to pursue her interests.
One local problem made it difficult at times for Jane to actually meet these colleagues, a problem which many of them would soon regret. During the mid to late 1750s, problems often persisted with the local Native Americans. On one occasion, William Bartram planned to travel to Colden’s place and actually meet his daughter, but changed his plans after receiving news of a local skirmish with the natives.
Few of Jane Colden’s writings have survived. Her main work is the manuscript of the flora of New York, Flora Nov-Eboracensis, which is held in the Natural History Museum in London. The volume consists of 284 sheets of line drawings and scientific descriptions of each plant. The descriptions, written in English with Latin names and the common name where known, are considered to be excellent.
For some plants she added their medicinal and folk use, explaining who used the plant and for what ailments, and even included the prescribed dosage and method of application. “This Seneca Snake Root is much used by some Physicians in America, principally Long Island, in the Pleurisy, especially when it inclines to a Perip neumony, they give it either in Powder or a Decoction. The usual Dose of the powder is thirty grains.”
Dr. Colden invited several distinguished botanists to his home at Coldengham. So Jane had the opportunity to meet John and William Bartram, Alexander Garden and Peter Kalm of Sweden and to exchange specimens as well as seeds with them. Carl Linnaeus also knew of her work. He corresponded directly with her father and in a 1758 letter John Ellis tells Linnaeus that he will let Jane know “what civil things you say of her.”
In 1759 Jane Colden married Dr. William Farquhar. The marriage essentially ended her career as a botanist. In 1766 she gave birth to her only known child who unfortunately died soon after.
Jane Colden died from complications from childbirth on March 10, 1766, seventeen days before her forty-second birthday.
But that was not the end of her fame as America’s first female botanist. Following her death, the binomial system became even more popular and for the next several decades, many botany books were published and as a rule always included the name of the first to discover and assign them their name. As a result, botanists like Jane and her father were often cited in these publications throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
As a result of this transition, Jane Colden’s efforts were repeatedly referred to and documented in many of the early floras (lists of plants). This provided Jane with an identity that she never had during her lifetime. Dr. Alexander Garden expressed his admiration by submitting a recommendation that a plant be named in her honor, but that never happened.
More than half a century passed before the next woman botanist, Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps published her book Familiar Lectures on Botany in 1829. In her introduction she states “The study of botany seems particularly suited to females; the objects of its investigation are beautiful and delicate.” Phelps was vice-principal of the Troy Female Seminary, which was founded by Emma Willard in 1821.
In 1963, the Garden Club of Orange and Dutchess Counties published a selection of fifty-seven of Jane’s descriptions of species native to North America in a limited edition of fifteen hundred copies. They were chosen because they were of familiar common plants or those of particular interest, such as native orchids, or because the descriptions best illustrated Jane’s “remarkable powers of observation and description.”
In the 1990s, Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Vails Gate, New York established the Jane Colden Native Plant Sanctuary to honor her contribution to botany. This site is in the town of New Windsor, New York, and Generals Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene and Horatio Gates used it as their headquarters during the Revolutionary War.