Portrait from American Medical and Philosophical Register, 1811, vol. 1.



Physician, scientist, philosopher and politician, Cadwallader Colden (17 Feb. 1688 – 21 Sep. 1776)  is important to American history due to the level and types of accomplishments he made in numerous fields.  This review of Dr. Colden’s is not meant to serve at all as a complex review of all of these achievements.  The focus here is just on science and medicine, with most of the attention paid on the following:

  1. Colden’s botanical discoveries.
  2. Colden’s communications with other scholars in the natural sciences and in particular plant taxonomy and botany.
  3. Colden’s work as it relates to medicine, in particular the study of plant medicines as a local anthropological feature and later as an formal addition to American medical practices.

Still, it is important to understand a little about Dr. Colden’s successes in their entirety before diving too deeply into his understanding of the minutia and ethonobotanica of the plant world.  If not for the purpose of furthering a long time claim to fame for the Hudson Valley, then this is done to at least set the stage for readers to later come to a better understanding his importance throughout much of the Hudson Valley region’s local history.  During the time Colden spent as a physician in training and later in practice, he must have had had special interests in medical botany.  Were it not for the other accomplishments that became pretty much defining of his occupation for much of his early professional life, Colden may have been a Botanist first and a public spokesperson and politician second.  But history tells us, such was not the case for Colden.  His career changes were pretty much defined by his place in the local political and social environments.

Trained in medicine in England, his successes in relation to medicine and medical schooling and his family’s placement within the local social and political structure weren’t enough to provide Cadwallader with the name and background needed for reasonable placement and success as a physician.  For various reason, following completion of his schooling, it seemed as though at least locally he couldn’t obtain the position that either he or his father had aspired to.  It is for this reason that Colden removed to new York around 1715/7, at first with the goal of serving as a physician.  Like many physicians in pre-1800 American history, it seems a major benefit to being a physician is that it enables you to become a successful spokesperson, writer and political leader.  In this way, Dr. Colden became an important part of the social structure of the City of New York.  His educational background enabled him to advance more rapidly in the New York city setting than he might have accomplished in his Mother Country.  This enabled him to obtain important positions within the political framework of the City’s governing system, and soonafter, enabled him to earn still more responsibilities serving other governmental needs for local leaders. 

As plans were initiated to further subdivide the patents already established for much of the lower parts of the New York Colony or Province, one might say that Colden engaged himself much like the former Dutch religious leader and political servant, Augustus Hermann did soon after his removal from New Amsterdam to the Philadelphia are around 1650.  Colden engaged in some of the surveying of these lands up for redistribution, and produced an effective description of the lands in and around what would later be called the town of Newburgh in Orange County.  He made special attempts to define the topographic layout of this land and its inhabitability, in particular around those parts of this county and town that he himself would later remove to and call Coldenhamia. 

In due time, Colden’s successes with his projects and activities led to him to obtain the Governor position following the loss of his predecessor.  Over the next few years, his social responsibilities and activities as a Lieutenant-Governor pretty much defined Cadwallader’s intellectual activities.  This more than likely provided with little to no time to serve as a physician any longer.  His interests in botany therefore became his intellectual exercise or hobby.  During the first two decades of Colden’s work, we find him engaging in the typical processes that require more the use of writing skills that the use of any hands-on skills.  The majority of his written work during this time, published or unpublished, focused on political and natural philosophy, and a little on several topics he had the chances to reflect back upon during his years trying to become a successful physician.  Most importantly, the two topics he could manage most easily in association with his political responsibilities pertained to his work and his love for natural philosophy.

Due to his combined intellectual and theological family upbringing, Colden was most attracted to the work published by past and present philosophers.  In short time, this made his efforts to engage in much the same intellectual circuit allowed him to more freely and open-mindedly interpret his readings, observations and findings.  Residing in New York, there were much fewer critiques out there to publically criticise how he conceptualized the world and life in terms of the newly popular Newtonian theories.  These theories by now were impacting the entire science and medical professions to such an extent, that many chruch leaders were, to state in lightly, displeased with newton’s findings, made available to those also engaged in readings and conversations about related writings by Rene Descartes. 

To Colden, the fields of astronomy and medicine merged when Newton’s theories regarding matter and energy were equated by many with the natural means for motion within the body, its physical versus non-physical or metaphysical make-up in a sense.  For centuries this had always been a matter of discussion and dilemmas by philosophers.  Later alchemists and now iatrochemists and iatrophysicists were abiding by many of the same teachings.  But this time, Newton’s claims were redefining several important parts of the physics of medicine.  This enabled doctors like Cadwallader to conceptualize and hypothesize about as many different possible interactions between the body and its parts, the related motions, the ability of these parts to move and change, and the abilities of its blood, and even emotions to seem to undergo movement, change, or reemergence, in such a way that Newton’s laws played an important role in defining just how and why these events were taking place, in the body or in the brain (mind and spirit).  This valuable application of Newtonianism to medicine had pretty much put scientists, philosophers, physicians and metaphysicians, at odds with each other at times, and during other times of professional distress, enabled them to stand beside each another with regard to the some of the underlying religious and metaphysical meanings to these thoughts, and their relation to medical discoveries they were often thought to be the causes for.  

When Colden took this part of his metaphysical thinking and knowledge with him to the New World, a Scotsman from a family with several important religious leaders, he knew that he was possibly no longer behaving much like the traditional religiously minded gentlemen for his times back in Great Britain.  Instead, he had become more materialist in nature, focused on the representations of God as they could be seen and witnessed as a part of Nature’s forces, through the study of science, especially as it was being taught by Isaac Newton.   This meant that ultimately, as a medically-trained scholar, Colden was able to develop his own philosophies pertaining to natural events as simple as the movement of the muscle, the formation of a tear, the lighting of a lightning bug, or the discharge of a bolt of lightning or static electric spark from a locally-produced leyden jar.  There was no doubt more to Colden’s innermost philosophical making than his papers and writings lead us to believe existed in his mind.

Still, we are not only interested in Colden’s philosophy about religion and natural philosophy for this review of his life.  We are also interested in how he applied these pieces of his personal natural philosophy to his view of medicine and disease, to the value of inoculations or the reasons why particular plants work whereas others do not.  Even though he did not really remain much of a practitioner of medicine soon after he removed from Scotland to New York City, he made use of this knowledge he had enabling to have an important impact on science in the colonies as well as abroad.  These are the reason its help to have insights into the diversity of Colden’s education and personal and professional experiences, before looking at him just as a physician-turned-government official, studying and practicing medical botany on the side within the New York setting.

The following details define some of Colden’s accomplishments just in the field of medical botany:

  1. The identification and categorization of approximately 325-340 local plants, in both the traditional and at times newly developing Linnean binomial classification (Genus species) form.
  2. The documentation of medical practices by a number of these herbs (probably less than twenty) in both letter form as a part of his communications with others in the field, and as a part of his work on plant taxonomy communicated to Carl von Linne (Linnaeus).
  3.  The publication of this work on Hudson Valley flora in the Archives of the Royal Society in Sweden:  Plantae Coldenhamgiae in Prov. Nova. Eboracensi…, anno 1742.  Published in two parts, 1743, 1745.
  4. The initiation and perpetuation of ongoing dialogues, visitations, and related communiques with some of the most important scholars in the field of botany for the time.
  5. The encouragement and professional support of his daughter Jane or Jenny, in turn leading to the production of yet another series of documents and plant specimens documenting the local botany and ethnobotany (European and American) pertaining to local plant use. 


Colden also wrote, and sometimes had published, his essays on the following topics important to medicine and natural science.  A number of these were published in the popular press for the time or by a local natural science and medicine journal.  Others were later published in the O’Callaghan series.

  1. Account of the Climate of New York.  (Included a review of the influence of climate on the local disease patterns.)
  2. A Treatise on the Cure of Cancer.  The use of dock as a remedy for “cancer.”
  3. An Essay on the Virtues of the Plant called Great Water Dock.
  4. Observations on the Throat Distemper or Epidemical Sore Throat which first appeared in Massachusetts in 1735.  A review and investigation of a deadly local epidemic that took place in early New York history, ca. 1735.  Originally communicated to Dr. Fothergill in a letter in 1753.  Published in 1755 in Medical Observations and Inquiry, v. 1, p. 211.  Reprinted in The American Museum, vol. 3.
  5. Observations on the Fever which prevailed in New York in 1741 and 1742....  A study of fever-related diseases that struck the Valley in 1740 and 1741.
  6. An Introduction into the Study of Physic. (ca. 1769)

Aside from his work in the natural sciences and medicine, Colden studies and wrote essays or treatises about several important intellectual topics.  These essay titles or their topics included:

  1. An introduction to the study of philosophy.
  2. An inquiry into the principles of vital motion.
  3. Principles of Action in Matter and the Motion of the Planets, explained upon those Principles.  1745. 1752. 
  4. An Inquiry into the Operation of Intellect Among Animals.
  5.  An Inquiry into the causes producing the phenomenon of Metal medley swimming in water.

As a politically-minded scholar and writer, and later governor, he wrote and/or published:

  1. State of the Lands in the Province of New York. 1722.
  2. Observations on the Trade of New York. 1723. 
  3. History of the Five-Nations depending on the Province of New York, 1727.  (Published 1730).  A book detailing the political makings and history of the Iroquois Nation,  in a way reminiscent of previous Greek and Roman classics devoted to the power of people, government and the exceptionally large ruling body (the ‘Empire’ or ‘Nation’).
  4. Report on the Boundaries, Soil, Climate, Etc., of New York. 1738.
  5. Report on the State of Indian Affairs, 1751.
  6. A review of the politically-minded writings of Greek writer–A translation of the letters of Cicero. ca. 1763.

Colden’s inventions or discoveries worth mentioning are as follows:

  1. The creation of a canal like water body for use in transporting things from one portion of his property to the next.
  2. The invention of a new type of printing press.

 A number of Colden’s important writings were produced in letters sent to various colleagues in the history, government, the natural sciences, and medicines.  The following are examples of these understated accomplishments:  

  1. Letter to Newton.  A personal interpretation on the Newtonian theory of energy in the University (Action:Reaction hypothesis).
  2. Letter to Franklin.  An interpretation of electricity in both its environmental natural form and in a form that can be related to animal physiology and muscular activity in general.


Local Ethnobotany and Plant Heritage

One of the most important contributions Colden made to Hudson Valley history relates to his work as a botanist.   The influences Colden had with his botanical writings occurred in several stages.  The first stage involved the immediate documentation of local plant use at an indigenous and non-indigenous level.  The second stage relates to his work as a letter-writer, with the regional botanists in the colonies, conversing with them and the European botanists.  The third stage of influence entails his documentation of these discoveries about plants in a published writing form, ranging from the publication of an essay on a simple plant such as Limonium, to the discussion of plant uses in general as a regional economic botany concern (i.e. production of food plants, lumber, dye plants, etc., for local use and export to Europe for industrial application), to the publication of his two part treatise on the local flora.  The fourth stage of Colden’s influence pretty much represents his influences upon the first generation of followers in this field of botany, focusing of course on his daughter Jenny, but also including his direct influences upon such local botanists and naturalists and Kalm and the Bartrams, and international leaders in this field like Linnaeus, Gronovius, and Collinson. 

The most important stage in the influence of a botanist like Colden is told by the amount of acceptance and reiteration of his findings and conclusions that we find in the actual scientific writings and activities engaged in after his professional life has ended.  This appears not only in the form of the republication of the important letters he wrote to scientists in this field, but also the reaction of subsequent scientists to his writing.  Examples of this are the continuation or recitation of his written words in later botanical writings, and in other professional journals and texts like the medical botany books.  It ends up that Colden’s greatest influence did take place at the latter level, more so than at the simpler Linnaean taxonomic level.

Colden’s work assisted in the development of the American Medical Botany field by providing all of the following:

  • notes of uses that are of ethnobotanical and ethnomedical importance,
  • notes of plant names and descriptions of value in assisting other botanists in defining the final identification and namesake for each of the plants,
  • notes that confer with other writer’s findings with regard to the plant value as a medicine, including more details about its specific uses and the underlying philosophy and scientific reasoning for these uses.


 The following plants were defined by Colden as having a medicinal value.  This documentation appears either in his Plantae Coldenghamiae… or in one or more of the letters sent to one or more of his colleagues in the field (the Latin names in use are contemporary).  These plants are listed in descending order in terms of their overall cultural significance and value as a local Heritage symbol.  These plants and their methods of documentation and revision of ethnobotanical and taxonomic history appear in the later reviews of Linnaeus’s work and the works of one most important writer in medical botany during the immediate post-war years–Dr. Johannes Schoepf.

  1. Seneca Snakeroot (Polygala senega) [although locally documented, original documentation for these uses are several to many and were published between 1725, the year of initial documentation and publication of this discovery in a flora of Virginia, and 1743, the year of Colden’s completion of this project.
  2. Butterfly Weed or Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa)
  3. Great Water Dock (Limonium sp.)
  4.  Chelone glabra
  5. Prickly Ash (Xanthoxylum americanum, which Colden called Aralia sp.)
  6.  Indian Physic (Veronica sp.)
  7. Horseweed (Collinsonia sp.)
  8. Sarsaparilla (today called False Sarsaparilla) (Aralia nudicaulis)
  9. Spikenard (Aralia racemosa)
  10. Deerplant (Uvularia sp.)
  11. Unicorn’s Horn (Veratrum viride or V. album)
  12. English Dock (Rumex sp. [#117])
  13. American Ipecac/Ipecacuanha (Filipulenda sp. according to Colden)
  14. Richweed (Actaea rubra and Actaea alba)
  15. Lemon Balm (Melissa sp.)
  16. Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
  17. Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
  18. Stinkweed/Stinking Chamomile (Anthemis cotula)
  19. Bayberry?  (Colden identified this as Myrica or Suffrutex)
  20. Bloody Murreain (Colden identified as Waltheria sp.)

Research Notes 

Attempts are made in this review of Colden’s work to provide original documents in their original form as best as possible.  Many of these documents (especially original works, papers and many of the books) were obtained prior to 1993; others may be found as scanned representations of the original book or journal pages.

Some of the materials in Latin, and most of them in French, have been translated and/or summarized in normal text whenever necessary.  The Old Germanic materials will be carefully  reviewed and translated in due time.  One or two items in Swedish (if included and in need of translation) may also be roughly translated.

The above list of plants, along with most of the others, are described briefly as part of the presentation I produced for Part II. of  Plantae Coldenhamiae.   This review of Colden’s most important published writing on botany also includes attempts to identify the plants by way of review of North American botany writings published pre-1815 by Linnaeus, Gronovius, Schoepf, and others.  Photos or drawings have also been provided in this section, and most of the medical text was roughly translated or recomposed. 

At times contemporary Latin binomial names are used instead of the older Latin names.  It is very important to note that the genera are often ‘not exactly correct’ for Colden’s plants.  I state it this way because the most correct names wouldn’t be established for quite some time.  The genera assigned by Colden are in a modern sense related to other plants, many of which are not even close in identity or taxonomically related to the plant so named with this Genus by Colden and his associates in taxonomy.   For the most part, I use the contemporary Genus or Genus species name when an actual identification is being provided.

Colden’s contributions to Linneaus’s medical and taxonomy writings are noted on separate pages as part of the discussion of his communications with Linnaeus. 

Colden’s contributions to medical botany as noted in Schoepf’s work are also provided on a separate page. 

Numerous pages on Jane or Jenny Colden’s work appears in the next section.  A few tidbits pertaining to Cadwallader Colden may be found in these documents as well.

I have also put a considerable amount of time and effort documenting the history of Colden’s influences upon the various fields of science, the scientists, and published literature.    After about 25 years of engaging in this work on Hudson Valley history, I have concluded that very little of Colden’s influences, internationally, upon the academic press has ever been published.  For this reason, I reviewed all available items related to his work, during and for about 50 years after his life.  To date, this chronology has been completed from about 1700 to 1795 and focuses on anything Colden published and anything published about his work, including citations of Colden found in the reference lists, bibliographies, library holdings publications, and popular and science books and magazines that were later published about Colden’s work and his influences upon the fields in general.  (Of course, some portions of his personal correspondence are missing but will be added at a later date, once I find the time to review these letters and such).  The next section of this chronology, from 1796 to 1825 is in the works.

By reviewing the chronology, we can see how with time, Colden’s influences have branched out in numerous directions, with some influences going well beyond any Colden biographer’s expectations.  Once these details are chronologically interpreted, and the influences mapped out spatially, we will have a better interpretations of Colden’s overall influences upon American Science history.  For  now, I will only state that very little was known about Cadwallader Colden and his daughter Jane due to a certain form of prejudice that existed politically as well as in science in general during Colden’s early post-mortum decades.  Were it not for the efforts of numerous countries other than England, Colden’s work, observations and philosophy may have been forgotten and not at all influential upon global history.  Pretty much all non-English European countries with publications demonstrate some aspect of ‘the Coldenham influence’ upon their local histories.  By reviewing foreign documents produced due to Colden’s work (published in approximately 14 languages other than English), we develop a better understanding of his impacts.  Therefore, I recommend, if you have the time, that you review this published chronology of Colden’s work and my notations on these influences for many of the documents cited in this work.