A biography of David Hosack (1769-1835), a nature-obsessed doctor who “was convinced that saving lives also depended on knowing the natural world outside the human body.”
Trivia buffs may know Hosack as the physician who attended the 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. He certainly deserves a fuller portrait, and in her first book, Johnson (Urban Policy and Planning/Hunter Coll.) writes an admiring account of the energetic physician, who mingled with the Founding Fathers, lectured in medical schools across the country, and created America’s first botanical garden. After training in America, Hosack traveled to Britain in 1792 to take advantage of its superior schooling. This included the study of medicinal plants, a more important element in medical practice during that time than today. He became fascinated with botany and brought this passion home in 1794. Settling in New York, he built a prosperous practice and became a university professor in both medicine and botany. Remaining neutral in national politics allowed him to treat both Hamilton and his bitter enemy, Burr. In 1801, he bought 20 acres in then-rural mid-Manhattan and built a huge botanical garden replete with greenhouses and hothouses. Universally praised, it became an educational and research center. However, the expenses were ruinous even for a wealthy physician, and Hosack, supported by influential friends, lobbied for government support. Legislators were unenthusiastic until 1810, when New York state bought it for less than Hosack wanted; then the government showed little interest in maintenance, so it fell into decay. As a physician, Hosack was not ahead of his time. He bled patients, prescribed toxins such as mercury, and administered drugs that produced vomiting, sweating, or diarrhea. This was accepted practice, and Johnson gives his healing efforts perhaps more credit than they deserve, but she provides an engaging tale of an important life in early America.
An adroit portrait of an early American physician who became a pioneering horticulturist.