In January of this year, Victoria Johnson began a talk in the Library by taking us back in time to the shores of the New Jersey Palisades, where Alexander Hamilton fatally dueled with Aaron Burr in the year 1804. Johnson used the duel to set the stage for another interesting historical figure: Dr. David Hosack (1769–1835). A physician to both Burr and Hamilton, as it happened, Hosack was involved in the infamous duel, but his role in history goes beyond this one dramatic moment. Johnson shared her historical research to paint a passionate personal account of who Dr. David Hosack was, and to elaborate on his impact in the botanical and medical world of the early Republic.
Hosack was the founder of the first medical botanical garden in the American Republic, known as the Elgin Botanic Garden. Erected on 5th Avenue between 47th and 51st street in the year 1801, it roughly spanned the area where Rockefeller Center stands today. After a decade of effort, Hosack assembled a collection containing more than 1,500 species of plants, among which were materials collected from the Louisiana Purchase during the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. Plants from all over the world were represented at Hosack’s garden. Young medical students from Columbia College were able to study the garden’s resources for a hands-on understanding of the plants’ healing properties. Though short-lived, the research done at this garden would pave the way for famous 19th-century botanists such as Amos Eaton, John Torrey, and Asa Gray.
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