Jane Colden (1724-1766)
The following sections are provided as a part of this review of Jane or Jenny Colden.
This Web Page
Part 1. Biography
- The Colden Family: New Names in Science
- From Father to Daughter
- From Polynomials to Binomialism
- Posthumous Admirations
Part 2. Jenny Colden’s Flora
- Phytolacca decandra
- Polygala senega
Part 3. Jane Colden Botanist (epilogue/prologue to book)
Added Web Pages
- Traditionally published biographies (collection of previously published biographies)
- Jenny’s (Garden’s) Article on Hypericum, with Introduction
- Other Posthumous writings (mostly in Foreign Languages)
- Medical Botany/Ethnobotany summaries
The Colden Family: New Names in Science
Jane Colden, America’s first female botanist, was born in New York City on March 27, 1724, She was the daughter of New York Doctor, Surveyor, Councilman, Governor and Botanist, Cadwallader Colden. Early in her life, Jenny was inspired by her father and grew up to become educated in the natural sciences. Her more important studies of this were encouraged by her father, who during the first years of his career was a physician trained in the plant use in medicine as a part of his schooling in England.
By the time Cadwallader Colden began inspiring Jenny’s interests in botany, he was already well engaged in his own studies of this field. During the 1720s and early 1730s, following his brief career as a physician in New York City, he removed to the Orange County area after he successfully surveyed and reported on several parcels of land in this upstate region, in response to a government request that these properties by divided in order to encourage further development and use. The area which Colden produced a fairly substantial report on was the land surrounding what is now Newburgh. The land he tended to focus on and subsequently laid claim to for personal habitation was a parcel of property west of what is now the urban part of Newburgh and as little north of a roadway that led from the river edge westward (approximately route 17k).
As a surveyor of the local topography, weather and potential natural resource industries of this region, he was able to write several essays that summarized and/or reported his findings on these properties to the Provincial Governor for the time and his overseers from Royalty back in England. As a result, by 1740, Colden was very familiar with the natural history of these local settings in the Province of New York, leading him to begin to collect and document the plants growing wild to his home setting. The first and most important treatise Colden would produce on this aspect of his land was finally concluded some time between 1739 or 1741. During this time, Cadwallader had become very involved in communications with a number of other botanists engaged in studying plants native to the colonies. One of the most important of these friendships he would develop with a colleague was with Gronovius, a botanist working alongside other botanists documenting the plants native to the Mid-Atlantic states like Virginia and the Carolinas.
In 1740, Linne publish the second edition of his Systema naturae (Stockholm, Sweden). Just a few years later, in 1743, Cadwallader Colden became a member of the American Philosophical Society. His new professional status due to this professional move enabled him to become the primary promoter of Linne’s new system for plant nomenclature locally , recommending its use by North American botanists. In just a few years, numerous changes would occur in Colden’s life as a scientist, thus enabling him to focus on local botany and now, for the first time, local ethnobotany.
It was probably Colden’s numerous interactions with fellow botanist Gronovius that led him to develop an interest in the work of Carl von Linne, a botanist in Sweden who was beginning to standardize the way in which plants were identified and then classified using a single identifying scientific name. The main feature of Linne’s system was that it made use of a language considered stagnated and unchanging for the time–Latin. This was a language that throughout the previously centuries most scholars were required to learn. This language had little to no differences as to how it was formed into phrases and sentences no matter where in Europe or Asia it was to be spoken or used to document anything in writing.
Just how much Colden knew about speaking, reading and writing in latin we are pretty uncertain of. Since Latin is a required language for pharmacy or apothecary, and since Colden was trained in medicine, it is possible he was at least exposed to latin to some extent and most certainly able to write a prescription in Latin, even though this task may have required that he make use of a pocket-book at times on how to do this. But apothecary and medical Latin skills were very different from Botanical latin skills. With Botanical Latin, one had to essentially be able to summarize whatever he/she was trying to put down in writing and/or tell a future reader about whatever it was that was being described. For plants, the identifying and biological features of the plant is typically what is being presented by the writer, including such things and shape, form, color, texture, size, size, growth behaviors (vine versus straight and tall), overall appearance, etcetera. In essence, one skilled in botanical Latin had to have a fairly extensive vocabulary in Latin, before even trying to use this skills to identify and describe the most illustrative features of a plant, that to some people looked the same from one species to the next.
As if the Latin descriptions for plants were not enough for one to learn to be a botanist, individuals interested in this field of study also had to be able to write letters and converse with each other in Latin to some extent. In particular if one was going to engage in this activity for the sake of having one’s work documented, known and later published and referred to by some of the best botanical scholars in the world–those affiliated with the Swedish society of Royal physicians and scientists, the bearers of Carl von Linne’s practice and fame. Members of the Royal Society of Science in Sweden were internationally renowned at the time, and included scholars known in and out of the various science fields. The by then infamous Emanuel Swedenborg was one such member, along with others learned in physics, chemistry, engineering and math. Being honored by this society was no small accomplishment for Cadwallader Colden. Such an achievement would more than make up for some of the problems he and his father had in England when Cadwallader was unable to advance in ranks sufficiently enough within the English professional setting to become the physician his family always aspired him to be. Colden’s recognition by Linne was an adequate substitution for this lack of recognition back home.
We do not really know for certain just how much of the manuscript Colden produced about the plants of Coldenham that he actually produced in Latin. In the worst of outcomes, it was possible that he wrote such a treatise in English over a several year period, and by sharing that with Gronovius and fixing up the phraseology every now and then, was finally able to produce such a writing on his own in Latin using his own translations of his personal work in this area. It is also possible however that Gronovius, being more adept in producing such plant descriptions, engaged in a large portion of this writing himself, sharing it with Colden and verifying his meanings for his translations into Latin of Colden’s statements, before producing a final manuscript totally in formal Latin, in such a way that most of the errors that could be made by unskilled translators were avoided.
A third option remains regarding this translation of Colden’s work into Latin, which seems unlikely. Could Linne himself perform the translation of Colden’s text from English into Latin for his journal? The answer to this question we do not know. But as stated previously, this seems unlikely.
Whatever the reason for Colden’s ability to provide Linne with a publishable manuscript, the work Colden submitted to Gronovius, who in turn delivered it to Linne during one of his trips to the Royal Society (1743), led to its acceptance by Linne and publication as part of the Archives of the Royal Society of Sweden, This manuscript was published in two parts, in 1747 and 1747. Colden’s success as a botanist with global recognition was finally documented for the world to see and read, in Latin. This made him one of the more unique scholars of the Province of New York for the time, and gave him the reputation, professional contacts and willingness and desire needed to promote his ongoing interactions with other such scholars, including his most important contact, Isaac Newton.
From Father to Daughter
Jenny Colden (as Cadwallader called her), was about the age of ten when she began witnessing first hand her father’s activities and achievements in the natural sciences. The fact that he gathered, and then dried or pressed some of these plants, or planted them as fresh specimens in his gardens or on their property, probably interested her greatly. And like any father, it would even not be that much a surprise to learn somehow that her special attention paid to these local parts of nature came as a result of one or more excursions with her father about the family’s property and nearby fields and woodlands. One particular feature of Colden’s attentiveness to this ‘hobby” was his attentiveness to local tales about some of the more unusual local uses of these plants, their local Dutch, English and Native American legends and folktales, all of these attached to colorful examples of nature, at least in Jenny’s eyes. This is probably one of the reasons for her initial attraction to this hobby during her later years, and still later, the reason she became more fully engaged in this work as more than just and educational process or endeavor.
Whatever the reason for her interest, by the age of thirty Jenny was making contacts with some of America’s most famous botanists residing in the Colonies due to her father’s assistance in this matter. One example of such an early contact is contained in a letter he wrote to fellow botanist and friend, William Bartram.
The other communications Colden had with botanists included several very well-known American botanists, like Samuel Bard, Collinson, and Alexander Garden of Virginia. One local feature made it difficult at times for Jenny to actually meet with these colleagues, a problem which many of them would come to regret several years later. During the mid to late 1750s, local problems often persisted with some of the local Natives residing nearby. On one occasion, William Bartram was hopeful to be able to travel to Colden’s place and actually meet his daughter, an event with plans halted due to news about a local skirmish. On another occasion, a student of Linnaeus, Petr Kalm made his way through the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania region from 1748 to 1749 and several times documented the different cultural lifestyles, different plants uses, and new plant species found within these rugged woodlands settings, passing the Colden Estate on at least one occasion, but never referring to Cadwallader’s daughter.
In spite of these set-backs at times, Jenny made several very important communications about plants with her most influential supporter and follower, Alexander Garden.
From Polynomials to Binomialism
Prior to the development of the binomial system of nomenclature currently in use, plants often were provided with a fairly lengthy Latin name used to define just that one particular plant species. The informal rule of nomenclature for the time included the assumption that a single plant should bear a single name that relates just to that plant, and none other plant. At times, this rule led writers to produce names that were fairly lengthy, and it was not unusual at times for these Latin plant names to take up two or more lines in an herbal or botany book. With Linne’s recommendation of a change to the binomial naming system, each plant would have just two names to define it explicitly, Genus and species, used by all botanists around the world. A formal rule to producing such a name was to use only the name provided by its initial founder and publisher of its discovery. This method of scientific botanic nomenclature is continued to this day.
As an example of these differences in nomenclature, a review of Kalm’s and Jane Colden’s system for two of the local St. Johnswort (Hypericum) species can be helpful. On October the 16th, 1749, according to his Travels . . . , (v. 2, p. 571) Kalm came upon two species near a stream in Canada: Hypericum parvidum in humidis proveniens and Hypericum major in humidus proveniens. The first was a “wort [that] grows in very wet places and is about four inches high, perhaps slightly taller,” the second “grew in the same places as the former. It was not only very rare, but also eleven times larger, and among the largest Hyperica.” According to Paxton’s Botanical Dictionary (source of Latin Plant names), 1868, the first species is uncertain but may be Hypericum procumbens, the second is most likely Hypericum Kalmianum, a name given in honor of Kalm’s discovery of this species in 1759.
In 1759, five years into her herbarium work and work as a botanist, Jenny married Dr. William Farquhar. In 1766 she gave birth to her only known child who unfortunately died soon after. Later that same year, Jenny too also died, at just the age of forty-two.
Jane Colden’s career as a botanist was for the most part essentially over due to her marriage. But this was not at all the end of her fame as America’s first female botanist trained in the Linnaean classification system. Following her death, the binomial system began to take center stage, and for the next several decades, many botany books were published and as a rule always included several botanical Latin names for a plant, based on the first to discover and assign them with such a name. More importantly, rarely was it the case that the actual initial discovered of each plant was identified as such during these initial years. As a result, botanists like Jenny and her father were often cited in any such publications throughout the remaining eighteenth century and even several years into the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until about 1805/1810 that the use of a single Latin name, in binomial fashion, became the standard for botany texts. And even though these binomial names were by now become recognized as the standard, they were rarely agreed upon, and so were typically not provided in just the Genus species form. Each binomial plant name had to be followed by the name of its inventor. Even with this method, now understood to be the standard, a single plant often has to have the name presented in ‘Genus species Botanist’ form, to identify the name of the founder of this name and unique identity, and the most likely source in which this identification can be reviewed.
As a result of this transition into the binomial naming system, we find Jenny Colden’s efforts repeatedly referred to and documented in many fo the early floras. [see Notes 1 and 2] This perpetuation of her name and identity provided Jenny with an identity that she never had during her lifetime. The best evidence for this admiration is easily found in how she comes to be referred to in the scientific journals–as Jenny rather than as Jane. To look her up in the early nineteenth century professional writings, Jenny Colden is the individual that has to be pursued in the documents. Still, this alone did not make her name Jenny the most unique feature to her recognition. This name perpetuates in numerous documents, all appearing as offshoots of the initial, traditional works of the Swedish Royal Society. References to Jenny are found in numerous non-Anglican, and even non-Latin science journals and magazines targeting this field of study as a trade. A number of examples of these documents have been uncovered and are available for review on another web page at this site. [Warning! not all are translated].
The second piece of evidence demonstrating Jenny’s continuing admiration decades following her death is Alexander’s Garden’s attempt to express his admiration and professional appreciation for her accomplishments. He did this in the form of presenting posthumously a recommendation that a plant be named in her honor for her initial discovery and documentation of this plant. [This also is presented on a separate page.] [see note 3 below.]
Finally, several letters were written between fellow botanists about her unfortunate passing. These were composed beginning in the 1770s. [separate page]
1. These writings were subsequently published posthumously in 1770 by London-friend and colleague, John Ellis. He quoted a description of the shrub which she once described to him which has since taken on her recommended name–Gardenia–in honor of her comrade Alexander Garden of Charleston, Carolina. A species of Goldenthread (Coptis spp., perhaps C. trifoliata) was also named in her honor by Ellis, who gave it the Genus name Coldenella–but soon after, this plant had to be re-named according to its prior discovery and documentation. The name Coptis was so defined by botanist R. Brown, an English botanist and plant classifier who first documented and fully documented this plant during his travels through an area he called “New Holland” in 1782. The only plant bearing the Colden’s surname is Coldenia, so named by Linne, in reference to a relative of the Borage and Comfrey plants Coldenia procumbens.
2. By the age of thirty (1754), Jane was well into producing a personal herbarium. Like the herbarium kept by Dr. John Bard in Philadelphia and his successors John and William Bartram, Jane’s personal collection included her drawings of the plants, hand-written notes detailing their appearances, and on occasion, their medical uses. By now, John Clayton was also one of Jane Colden’s contemporaries in the field. The plant most linked to John Clayton’s name is the North American version of the European “chickweed”, Claytonia. In 1740 Linne gave this name to the species, Claytonia virginiana, which was published in the earliest book of Virginia plants written by Gronovius, and aptly called Flora Virginica.
3. Jane produced several unique descriptions for a number of local plants. One of them she used the binomial name for–Hypericum virginicum. Her most important is perhaps the article she wrote about this fairly local species of St. Johnswort. Hypericum virginicum officially received it Latin name in 1800. Yet, Jane corresponded with Dr. Alexander Garden of South Carolina about this plant years earlier. At the time, Jane Colden wanted to name this plant for him, but John Ellis, also acquainted with Dr. Garden, had already decided to name another plant for Dr. Garden, the cape jasmine, Gardenia jasminoides, and so this Genus name was born, and Jane Colden’s plans put to a halt for a brief while. (In spite of such time-sensitive discoveries and plant nomenclature rules, it often isn’t until much later that a plant finally receives its official Latin name.)
Jenny Colden’s Flora
During the 1960s, local historians travelled to England to view Jane Colden’s collections stored at a Natural History Museum in London (Address: Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD England; catalogued as “Farquhar, Jane (1724-1766) nee Colden, Botanist”). From this visit, a book was published by the local historical society and Orange and Dutchess County Garden Group. It reviews just a portion of her entire collection of botanical specimens held by this Museum, representing several parts of her collection which contained line drawings and Jane’s penned notes about each plant she reviewed. The bulk of this book has examples of the actual herbarium specimens and mounted plant specimens, representing a very small portion of her entire collection.
The following are two excerpts from a book subsequently published about Jane Colden’s work and collection.
No. 93. Phytolacca decandra
No. 58. Polygala S’eneca or Snakeroot
These were chosen because they provide the reader with some insight into two plant medicines, at least one of which is of Native American origin and use. The other was closely related to another reviewed by her father, Cadwallader Colden, the publication of which is found in the O’Callaghan series on the New York Colonial Documents.
No. 93. Phytolacca decandra
Flower roundish hollow Leaves, continuing
Chives 10 fine threads, the length of the flower Leaves, set upon them. The C’aps are roundish.
Pestle Seed Bud roundish a little flattend, with no furrows, the Styles are 10 short hairs, continuing. Tips plain.
Seed Box, a globular Berry, a little flatten’d, with a Navel on its top composed of the Styles, containing in Cells, & each Cell, one roundish Seed, flattened & one edge much thinner than the other. The Stalk is thick & smooth, of a red colour, branchd out alter nately, from the corners of the Leaf Stalk, the Leaves stand single with long Foot Stalks, set alternately on the Stalk, & Branches they are large & smooth, ovally shaped, broadest near the bottom & a little sharpen’d, at the top more sharpen’d, the edges are intire, and they have a thick Rib along the midle, with fibers on each side of it, branching out towards the edges of the Leaf. The flowers grow in Spickes upon the top, of small naked branches, set opposite to the Leaves, each flower upon a Foot Stalk set alternately of with two or three small colour’d Leaves, set upon the foot Stalks. They are white at first opening, and likewise their foot Stalks & the Stalk of the Spike, but as the fruit ripens, they all turn a dark red.
Flower in July.
NB. The Phytolacca Root is very useful in the use of cancirs (sic) some curious persons in England have endeavoured to propogate this plant by the Seed braigth from America, but could not produce any plant from the Seed.
The propagation from this plant is maket in America in the Dung of birds. For this reason it may be necessary, to give m Europe the berries to birds, & to plant the Seeds with the Dung of the fowls, through which they pass intire.
No. 58. Polygala
S’eneca, or Snakeroot
Cup is formed of five oval shaped unequal colour’d Leaves, th uppermost one is twice the bigness of the two lowest, & the two opposite side ones, are four times their bigness, they all con
Flower consists of two oval shaped hollow Leaves, about the large ness of the uper Leaf of the Cup, & are placed close togeth on the upper side of the flower, their edges overlaping each other Besides these, there is an appendage placed opposite to the flower Leaves, some larger than they, it is of a singular form, difficult de discribe, the midle part of it forms a globular figure, slit open on the upper side, inclosing the Chives, it is fixt to the seat of the flower, by a small Neck, and the two Flower Leaves are fix’d one on each edge of this Neck. On the top of the globular part is plac’cl a roundish Leaf, with the edges turned upwa’rds, and joining upon one edge of this Leaf rise four erect segments like threads
Chives are united into one Body half their length, the unde part is in the form of one half of a split hollow cylinder, their uper part is devided into eight thread. inclosed within the globular part of the appendage. Their Caps are roundish.
Pestell The Seed Bud is globular, The Style is a small cylin The Tip bends downwards in the form of a Hook
C’over of the Seed is a roundish depressd box, a little hollow in at the top, of a greenish colour, form’d of two Valves with a partition in the midle placed, cross ways to the Valves, which forms two Cells, the Valves open at each edge of the Box
Seed is single one in each Cell, of a Kidney shape, but smaller on one end than the other, & has two Chaff like Leaves hangi down from the small end along each side of the Seed
It adheres to the upper end of the partition of the Seed Box
Observat. Linnaeus describes this as being a Papilionatious Flower, and calls the two largest Leaves of the Cup Alae, but as they continue, till the Seed is ripe and the two flower Leaves, and its appendage fol together. I must beg Leave to differ from him Added to this, the Seed Vessel, differs from all that I have observed of the Papilionatious Kind.
Root is composed of many thick Fibers, send out from a large Knot
Stalks many grow from one Root, are about a foot high, round smooth & of a dark red colour most commonly have no Branches, but are sometimes branched out, towards the top alternately
Leaves are numerous & placed alternately without Leaf Stalks, they are of an ovally sharp pointed figure about 2 inches long & one third part as broad broadest about the midle, sharp pointed at both ends, are soft and smooth, with one thick fiber along the midle & a few very small ones, on each side extended from it towards the edges, the edges are intire
This Plant grow in dry land, is near a foot high, the flowers are white & grow in a close Spike, on the top of the Stalks, they Flower in May et June The Leaves towards the top of the Stalk are much larger than those towards the bottom
NB. This S’eneca Snake Root is much used by some Physicians in America, principally Long Island, in the Pleurisy, especially when it inclines to a Peripneumony, they give it either in Powder or a Decoction. The usual Dose of the powder is thirty grams.
Jane Colden as Botanist