Botanical Medicine Influences

Perhaps one of the most important impacts Colden had on medicine was his contribution to the growing field of knowledge in American Medical  Botany.  During the initial years of American colonial and early post-colonial medical history, the value of American plants as potential medicines was recognized but rarely taken seriously enough by physicians to result in much use prior to the 1800s.  Of course there were exceptions to this in general, but as for the regular physicians with a well-respected apprenticeship and/or medical schooling experience to promote their skills, most physicians familiar with the use of local plants were trained by local physicians, who in turn were also trained by local physicians.   During these periods of training trained, from one generation to the next, was when new plant discoveries  were introduced to the physicians to be.  The majority of these new local plant medicines would take one or two generations longer to get the attention of more professionally trained physicians, with a European background in their training.   Overall, there were very few exceptions to this rule.  The best example and evidence for this claim is found in the Revolutionary War records, where the most accepted medicines were included on the pharmacy lists.  The only American medicine that seems to recur on American forces regimental surgeon’s lists is the Snakeroot, either of the Aristolochia serpentaria (Virginia Snakeroot) or Polygala Senega (Seneca Snakeroot, from New York) origin.

To many doctors during the 1500s and early 1600s, the evidence provided about American medicine suggested these remedies weren’t as effective as the traditional remedies.  For example, in the series of reviews of American medicines published by Nicolas Monardes during the mid to late 16th century, these plants are recognizable due to their later fame amongst professionals, but at the time of publication were believed to be fairly weak compared with the traditional European equivalents obtained from already explored countries.  For this reason, the ipecacuanha of South America took a half century to become popular, as was the case as well for the New World products of Sassafras and White Cinnamon, and even Peruvian Bark or quinaquina (cinchona), a panacea and valuable fever remedy during the next century. 

By the 1700s, as more information was gathered about local plants, this resulted in increased interest in their possible uses.  This increase in popularity was enough to make each of these plant an important part of the local culture, and some of the unique methods of treatments these cultures defined.  But few of these methods of treatment were heavily promoted by most of the medical training programs in Europe during this time.  It took the persistance of medical botanists like Colden and his associates to remedy this culturally based biasness found throughout Europe and the medical professions.  Even so, much of this recognition of local American plants that came about was due to American physicians and non-Anglican scientists interested in these potential new medicines, not Anglican physicians.  Colden’s initial influence in medical botany had its greatest impact on Germanic and/or Prussian trained physicians, along with some Dutch and French botanists willing to document Colden’s ethnobotanical findings.  Whereas English botanists like Peter Collinson took Colden’s finding in stride and mentioned them, but did little to effectively promote them, Germanic and Scandinavian botanists made up for this lapse in professionalism on behalf of the British.  Ultimately, Colden’s findings impacted all of European and World history, not just eastern European and Prussian scientific history.

During the late 1700s, a decade or more following the Revolutionary War, Colden’s single most important impact was his documentation of several uses of local plants in concordance with similar notes taken and published by other botanists.  This information provided by Colden at times stood by itself in terms of anthropological medical value, and at others times helped similar findings by later botanists begin to become more credible and accepted.  This is exactly what took place when Schoepf reviewed the findings of Cadwallader Colden, as well as those of his daughter Jane, and used this information to produce a materia Medica on American plants.  In this way, Colden’s work helped to define and/or solidify the possible values local plants had for practice of medicine for generations to come.  In some cases, they served not only as substitutes for the more expensive imported plant medicines popular to the marketplace, they also provided an important motive for American physicians to begin to fend for themselves both personally and professionally.   These outcomes of Colden’s work turned medicine into an American practice, not just a simple reiteration of beliefs and practices already popularized within the Old World marketplace.

Just before the Revolutionary War, there were several schools established during the Colonial years, two specialized in medical training, and a number of schools that provided a limited amount of medical training, not enough to allow the student to earn a degree.  during the post-Revolutionary War years, these schools were reopened and their medical programs re-established.  The first medical schools to open in the States were located in New York and Philadelphia.  Other college programs like in New Haven and Boston also commenced programs to develop complete medical school training programs.   This part of the first and foremost movement to re-establish schools in the country also helped to establish a better manner of documenting, researching and testing the use of North American medicinal plants as new medicines.  At the time of the publication of his work, the only major precedent to Schoepf’s writings were those of Manessah Cutler, who in 1781 had completed a series of writings on American plant medicines, which were published in 1785.  Unlike Cutler, Schoepf paid more attention to all of the information available to him at the time, and by residing at the edges of both Western And eastern Europe, he had access to information that Cutler perhaps never even knew was available to him at the time.  For this reason, Schoepf’s materia medica includes the writings produced by both Cadwallader and Jane Colden.   These sources would be documented in his writings, which for both Coldens was the first time their work made its way into the medical books.  For Jane Colden, this led to her recognition for the first time as the first American female botanist to receive the admiration and support of leaders in this scientific profession, providing important insights for members of the medical world to take also advantage of.

With both Linnaeus’s and Schoepf’s writings there are several important conclusions that can be drawn related to Cadwallader Colden’s influences.  Of first and foremost importance is the fact that Colden’s work, as well as the work of others, provided American physicians and citizens with substitutes or replacements  for the traditional remedies they had to rely upon during the previous decades.  Evidence for this in Colden’s work include the several plants he mentions with names akin to a traditional remedy already in use, an expensive medicine which they served as a substitute for.  Examples of this include to the American version of Ipecacuanha (Cephaelis ipecacuanha from South American) which at least one local herb bore the same common name for (“ipecacuanha”) provided for it by Colden.  Similarly, the value of the Indian Physic as an emetic was likewise related to traditional Ipecacuanha’s use (all were emetics).

Colden’s work also added to the growing fascination botanists already had with some of the Native American remedies, in particular those used to treat snake bites.  This most curious movement about Snakebite remedies was initiated decades if not centuries earlier, when venomous snakes, which were sometimes called “asps”, became a major problem to physicians and travellers making their way through India.  In the North American setting, a similar problem surfaced due mostly to the Rattlesnake and Copperheads, immediately preceded by other venomous snakes typical of South and Middle America.  Due to a common philosophy about the ability of a snake to bite and then kill its prey, the public belief or superstition was that the snake used some sort of unique power or ability, typically related to its animal spirit, in order to mesmerize its prey.  This philosophy was popularized due to numerous writings about this by several important physicians, including physician and botanist Carl von Linne and physician Richard Mead.  Assuming the reason for this ability was not due to some physical cause, common speculation was that it had to with the ability of a snake to “mesmerize” or attract its prey by using some form of “animal magnetism.”   This belief was in turn related as well to another commonly found snake of the New York area, the Black Snake, a snake which was not venomous. 

The idea that a snake performed some sort of animal magnetism to afflicts its prey, to some, seemed an ability transferable to non-venomous snakes as well.  This belief was held to be true for the local Black Snake, a snake common to fields and farm settings in the Hudson Valley.  Evidence for this we find in Colden’s Plantae Coldenghamiae, in the form of an ethnobotanical note about the use of Black Snake Root to treat snakebite remedies.  This contrasts with the other snake bite remedies already popular–Virginia Snakeroot and Seneca Snakeroot–plants used to treat the bites of venomous snakes.

Just how this common folktale fed into Linnaeus’s work is seen in some of Linnaeus’s medical teachings and writings as a physician.  Colden’s local community and common public belief about snakes and snakebites are inferred by at least two of the more important herbal medicines in his Plantae Coldenghamiae manuscript.    Colden had at least three remedies with a history of use related to Snakebites, his daughter Jenny had at least two.  Various botanists up and down the Atlantic coastline also had their own local equivalents for this particular use of the local plants.   In the end, it appears that every region of the colonies and later states had a local snake bite remedy, designed for use if such an emergency should ensue.  This was a Native American remedy, transferred to European and Euro-American use once it became a well-document piece of local plant folklore history. 

One additional outcome to this documentation of the snake bite remedies rarely noted by historians in medical botany is the tendency European and Euro-American cultures had towards re-writing this use so that it better fit their personal observations and underlying medical or physiological theories.  This “transformation of common belief” is evident throughout the late 1700s to mid 1800s medical botany writings.  The transformation of belief that takes place converts an older philosophy, not meeting the definitions and requirements of the newcomers now adhering to it, in such a way that it better fits their understanding of things–in this case medicine and physiology.  For this reason we find the following snake bite remedies having new uses applied to them in upcoming years, for example:

  • Scullcap (Scutellaria sp.)–converted by the late 1800s into nerve tonics or to treat convulsions mimicking those brought on by a bite
  • Black Cohosh (Caullophyllum thalictroides) as an anti-spasmodic/contraction agents of the uterus (menstrual cycle related problems); employed at first for remedies that result in severe contractions and pain due to the bite, but later for specific organs or body parts, such as the uterus. 

During Spoerke’s and Colden’s times, this is in part how and why Asclepias tuberosa, another snake bite remedy, came to be used instead as a treatment for breathing problems and chest pains (such as those induced by snakebites), by then related to the same brought on by pleurisy (thus its common name, is Pleurisy root).

In the end, this large number of snakebite herbs found in North America fascinated not only the local botanists, but also Linnaeus himself, to such an extent that he wrote an essay devoted to this unique trait of the New World/North American medical botany history.   This resulted in Linnaeus writing an essay that covered about a dozen Indian Snakebite remedies, with an equal number yet to be described and documented by other botanists in the years to come. (Linnaeus’s review of this is to be provided under another section.)   Colden noted some of these original beliefs about the herb, but also provided the new uses for these same remedies for snakebite-related symptoms.  (The same could be said for Jane Colden’s work.)  Schoepf’s writings often provide a little bit more about the modified theories for a particular plant medicine use, aside from its original use for treating particular snakebites.

The following is the first medical botany work produced by a botanist that makes extensive use of Cadwallader Colden’s nova-boracensis taxonomy and medical botany notes.  There are two other plants in Schoepf’s work worth noting as well due to this feature, each of which will be covered separately under the botanist most worthy of being associated with these two medicinal plants.  Jane or Jenny Colden documented the existence of a plant which almost bore her name in Schoepf’s text, and another of significant medical importance also reviewed by Schoepf.  The first was a Hypericum, the second Fibraurea. 

One small criticism was laid upon Schoepf’s work by past writers during the mid-nineteenth century.  Some have viewed Schoepf’s work as a direct result of Schoepf’s proximity to Jenny’s original manuscript and related botanical illustration materials, and, due to his heritage, his familiarity with the languages typical of Linnaean scholars (Latin and Swedish).  Schoepf was able to readily review and summarize the works of a variety of botanists, in search of the value of their works to the field of medicine, and so produced this first summary of American medical botany, in a fairly succinct materia medica form, with ample notes pertaining to the specific uses for these plants and citations specific for these uses.  These various uses were by no means the complete review of the values of these American plants, but they served as an important starting point, which American physicians worked hard to take advantage of during the next two decades.  Schoepf’s writing initiated the use of taxonomic data for medical botany purposes in America, the work of Bartram, Barton and Hossack completed this process of defining the field of American Medical Botany by 1810/1815.

These plant reviews by Schoepf are split into three catagories.  The first set of plants reviewed are those with a medical botany communicated specifically by Cadwallader Colden (those for Jenny are in the next section on her work).  The next section reviews the plants that are noted by Colden, who is so cited by Schoepf for such, and although their uses were not provided by Colden, they serve as examples of how Colden’s taxonomic work was put to use in further identifying these potential resources.  The third section reviews plants mentioned by Colden in his own work, and yet for some reason his work was not noted as a source for this information by Schoepf.  Any related mention of Schoepf’s plants, such as in Colden’s letters or monographs and published essays (i.e. Limonium), will be discussed in this section as well.  By the end of this review, the most historically significant plants reviewed by Colden, according to Colden’s and Schoepf’s writings, should become clear as well.

The following is a listing of the plants noted in Schoepf’s writings as bearing information derived from at least three different resources produced by the Coldens:  Plantae Coldenghamiae (referenced by Schoepf as “Cold.”), Jenny’s Flora of New York manuscript (referenced as “Cold. Flor.”), and Jenny’s pressed plant and drawings collection (“Cold. Filis”).  [Corresponding notes about Jenny are provided in a separate section.]   These represent some of the most important influences Cadwallader Colden had on local medicine and local medical history.



Schoepf’s entire book is written in Latin.  Residing relatively close to the Linnaean Society (in comparison with Western European and American botanists), he had a geographic advantage enabling his to include the works of Cadwallader and Jane Colden into this treatise.  This is one of the very few times Jane Colden is cited directly in a botany of medical book in a professional fashion.  Most of the references made to Jane are usually found in writings celebrating her accomplishments, but not making scientific mention or use of her discoveries in a professional science publication.  This is the only example of such a citation that I have uncovered as such to date.  This is also one of the very few citations to Cadwallader Colden’s botany work made in a professional botanical writing.

In the following section, five North American botanists are cited for their work.  Interestingly, Gronovius is not included even though numerous examples of his citations appear in the book.  The overall presentation of these authors throughout the book suggests that Schoepf favored the writings of Clayton, Catesby and Kalm over those of both Colden, due mostly to the richness (more species) and broad application of their taxonomic content.  However, it is also important to note that Schoepf almost went out of the way in a professional sense to be sure to include mention of Colden’s daughter Jane.  Other writers such as Gronovius, Clayton, Michaux, and later post-1790 writings could have also cited the Coldens as well, but chose not to.  Also note the mention fo a Georgia Flora article published in a German magazine print and distributed out of Hamburg.  This has not yet been uncovered, but is not expected to make mention of Colden’s work due to the portion of North America reviewed by this article.


Discussions of Place and Medicine

Schoepf’s review of the American plant medicines in relation to internationally known traditional plant sources is part of a growing movement the public had in general towards favoring local medicines over imported or “exotic” medicines.  There is an inferred recommendation made in this section as well for the possible exporting of some American herbs internationally.  As early as 1600 this was already the case.  Around 1600-1610 Bartholomew Gosnold gathered and shipped Sassafras from Massachusetts to England, due to its popular use as a remedy for Syphilis following some supporting statements made by the British Queen.  Sir Walter Raleigh recommended the gathering and importing of a local Smilax species as a starch substitute for a highly popular and expensive Oriental starch produced by a relative of this plant.  (This starch was popular because it was pure white in color and produced an exceptionally fine powder). In Pennsylvania and New York, attempts were made to begin gathering the American version of Ginseng (Panax quinquefolia, as a substitute for the Chinese Panax ginsenga).



Clayton as an Example

A number of descriptions are used as examples in this discussion about the latin nomenclature in use for his book.   He notes that descriptive terms of medical significance very useful for identification in the field are italicised.  Based on the examples given, the rest of this format is self-explanatory.


European and American Species

A comparison is made between tradition European and American species of plant medicines.  During previous years and decades, the European versions of a medicine have been considered stronger than the American varieties, a result of ethnicity on behalf of many of the mother countries.  Schoepf suggests that some of these substitutes found in America are very comparable (fortes = strong) to those from Europe.  The left column lists the American species, the right the European species.

Native American Note

Schoepf begins by contrasting Euro-American uses with Indigenous American uses.   He notes the similarities between how each of these two cultures use similar methods to define their uses.  Several very important American plant uses are noted (antisyphilitica, etc.).  He also notes the Snakebite cure for ‘Crotali’ (Crotalus or rattlesnake), which he tries to define as a piece of “magic”.  “Videant Americani . . . ” is celebrating America’s patriotism and new-found nationalism.



Baruthum or Bayreuth is a town in Old Germany (Deutschland).