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The First American and Colonial Woman Botanist

In honor of Women’s History Month, I decided to acquaint myself more with early American women naturalists. Luckily, for me, author Tina Gianquitto has written a book about such a subject. Good Observers of Nature: American women and the scientific study of the natural world, 1820-1885 is about four early American naturalists: Almira Phelps, Margaret Fuller, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Mary Treat.

But what caught my interest in the text is a reference to the first American female botanist, Jane Colden (1724-1766). Jane was educated at home by her parents. Her father, Cadwallader Colden, an amateur botanist himself, noticed she had an aptitude for botany and taught her the new Linnaean plant classification system as well as translating Latin technical terminology into English for her. He also corresponded and invited several distinguished botanists at the time to his home at Coldengham, his estate near Newburgh, New York. So Jane had the opportunity to meet John and William Bartram of Philadelphia, PA, Alexander Garden of Charleston, SC, and Peter Kalm of Sweden and exchange specimens as well as seeds with them.

It is believed Carl Linnaeus also knew of her work. He corresponded directly with her father and in a series of correspondence between John Ellis and him in 1758, Mr. Ellis mentions he will let Jane know “what civil things you [Linnaeus] say of her [Jane].”

Jane’s legacy to botany and colonial New York is her illustrated flora of the area called Botanic Manuscript. The original resides in the Botany Library at the Natural History Museum in the UK. In 1963, some of the descriptions and drawings of Jane Colden’s were reproduced and published as a limited edition. Both books mentioned in this post can be found in the Smithsonian Libraries natural history collection.

Robin Everly

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