American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson

American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson
Narrator: Susan Ericksen
Published by HighBridge on June 5, 2018
Source: Purchased
Genres: History, Science, Biography
Length: 14 hrs 54 mins
Format: Audiobook
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four-stars

On a clear morning in July 1804, Alexander Hamilton stepped onto a boat at the edge of the Hudson River. He was bound for a New Jersey dueling ground to settle his bitter dispute with Aaron Burr. Hamilton took just two men with him: his “second” for the duel, and Dr. David Hosack.

As historian Victoria Johnson reveals in her groundbreaking biography, Hosack was one of the few points the duelists did agree on. Summoned that morning because of his role as the beloved Hamilton family doctor, he was also a close friend of Burr. A brilliant surgeon and a world-class botanist, Hosack—who until now has been lost in the fog of history—was a pioneering thinker who shaped a young nation.

Born in New York City, he was educated in Europe and returned to America inspired by his newfound knowledge. He assembled a plant collection so spectacular and diverse that it amazes botanists today, conducted some of the first pharmaceutical research in the United States, and introduced new surgeries to American. His tireless work championing public health and science earned him national fame and praise from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander von Humboldt, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

One goal drove Hosack above all others: to build the Republic’s first botanical garden. Despite innumerable obstacles and near-constant resistance, Hosack triumphed when, by 1810, his Elgin Botanic Garden at last crowned twenty acres of Manhattan farmland. “Where others saw real estate and power, Hosack saw the landscape as a pharmacopoeia able to bring medicine into the modern age” (Eric W. Sanderson, author of Mannahatta). Today what remains of America’s first botanical garden lies in the heart of midtown, buried beneath Rockefeller Center.Whether collecting specimens along the banks of the Hudson River, lecturing before a class of rapt medical students, or breaking the fever of a young Philip Hamilton, David Hosack was an American visionary who has been too long forgotten. Alongside other towering figures of the post-Revolutionary generation, he took the reins of a nation. In unearthing the dramatic story of his life, Johnson offers a lush depiction of the man who gave a new voice to the powers and perils of nature.

I have to thank Katie at Doing Dewey and her Nonfiction Reading Challenge for encouraging me to read more non-fiction this year. This is the 9th non-fiction book I’ve read this year, which is the most since Amber was little and I’d read aloud to her. We used to read a lot of animal, science, and history books but, in general, I don’t tend to pick them up on my own, so it’s been nice to do a bit of learning with my reading lately.

avid_Hosack_by_Rembrandt_Peale
Portrait of Hosack by Rembrandt Peale, 1826

American Eden is the story of David Hosack (August 31, 1769 – December 22, 1835), a botanist and doctor in New York City in the late 18th – early 19th centuries. I admit, I was drawn to the book at first because he was the doctor at the duel between Hamilton and Burr. (I have not seen Hamilton the musical yet, but it’s coming to Pittsburgh in January if anyone wants to buy me tickets.) Turns out he was a truly influential man, an innovative doctor, a visionary, but he stayed out of politics which is probably why we don’t recognize his name. He knew a lot of politicians however, and we learn some interesting bits about who supported whom and why.

1920px-View_of_the_Botanic_Garden_at_Elgin
Engraving (c. 1802) of a drawing by L. Simond, titled View of the Botanic Garden at Elgin in the vicinity of the City of New York

Hosack’s loves were botany and medicine and how they intersected. Honestly he seems like a good guy. He wanted to help people, not just the rich and famous, but the regular people too. I’m sad that his gorgeous Elgin Gardens ended up abandoned and eventually plowed. Where it was now stands the Rockefeller Center. I guess there’s a plaque somewhere in Hosack’s honor, but of course when I was in New York I had never heard of him, so didn’t look for it. (Maybe an excuse to go back?)

While we learn about Hosack’s life we also learn bits about the other famous men of history, like Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr, and DeWitt Clinton – who was a champion of the Erie Canal which I read about in another book recently. It’s an interesting book, part history, part science, well-researched, and enjoyable to read. I actually to the audio, which worked well for me. The narrator blended in to the story well and it was probably a little easier to listen to some of the plant listings than read them in print.

I was listening to the book the other day when I was taking a walk. Happily no one saw me, because Hoscak’s death had me in tears. He was truly admired by his contemporaries, which shines through in the book. I like that at the end Johnson ties Hosack’s accomplishments to the modern day, both through his medical advances and his students’, but also through America’s love of gardening, including household gardens.

I would absolutely recommend this to anyone who enjoys biographies of historical figures. Johnson brings the people, places, and plants to life.

About Victoria Johnson

Victoria Johnson

Victoria Johnson loves history, gardens, and opera. She earned her undergraduate degree in philosophy at Yale and her doctorate in sociology at Columbia. She is a former Cullman Fellow and is currently an associate professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College in New York City, where she teaches on the history of philanthropy and New York City. 

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

5 Comments

  1. Oh yay! I’m excited to hear you’re reading more nonfiction for the nonfiction reading challenge and I’m excited to see your review of this particular book. It’s one that jumped out at me when I was doing a post on books I was looking forward to, but I’ve not yet picked it up. It sounds like it was really good! It’s not often nonfiction moves me to tears, although I have definitely showed up at work while finishing up an audiobook and had to sit in my car for a few minutes to recover 🙂 It’s also fun that this connected to another book you’ve read. I love when that happens, because I feel like it helps remember the information I’ve learned much better.

    • In all honesty, I probably won’t remember much of what I’ve learned from any of these non-fiction books, aside from general things and random tidbits, but I do love it when books connect with other things I’ve read or watched.

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