Jane Colden and the Local Doctors
There is a relationship in the Hudson Valley that rarely have any historians written about. There are a few doctors in the Valley, on both sides of the river, who toured this region frequently and ultimately settled in permanent homesteads during the 1730s and 1740s. Jane’s father, Cadwallader, was trained in medicine and was himself a physician in this part of the colonies, yet we never really learn about any interactions he had with other local physicians except in the miscellaneous statements he made about his practice in several of his letters. Colden, it ended up, only devoted his time to medicine and doctoring during his earliest years of employment in the colonies. Much of this he spent in places other than New York, such as the colonies of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Nevertheless, Colden was true to his heart when it came to medicine, and although he did not practice that much medicine once he began his career in the local government setting, his mind was always busy when it came to medicine, contemplating much of the philosophy he had learned prior to and during his years of medical training and the first year or two of his practice.
It ends up, Cadwallader became more a physician of the kind that we envision teaching students within some medical school setting, promoted and at times preaching his philosophy about the causes for illness, poor health and chronic disease. The later years of his life pretty much prove this, as he became well known for his theory on the cause for severely infectious diseases like small pox and measles, the reasons for very local sore throat epidemics, and the difference between these local epidemiological events from those that took place elsewhere in the world. Colden seemed to emphaize the roles of location and ethnicity in some of his discussion on the measles and fever epidemics. His observations and philosophies about the science of medicine and pharmacy deviated little from this philosopically-based route except when he redirected his writings to a discussion of specific pharmaceutical products, in particular the local herbs.
Colden’s philosophical interpretation of disease is no doubt his most important contribution to the study of medicine as a whole. Colden used this skill he had in philosophical reasoning to answer several of the most important questions physicians would ultimately have to contend with and better understand their own answers to regarding health and disease. The most important of these philosophical notions had to deal with the causes for disease, their abilities to spread from one place to the next, from one person to the next, and how and why some people seemed to be more susceptible to certain diseases and/or certain manifestations of the same disorder when compared with others bearing a similar epidemiological history. Colden, as well as other physicians for his time, had the theory that local climate had very much to do with disease onset, especially those types of diseases either endemic to a given area or epidemic to a specific population. Colden also had his reason for how and why the people in Africa caught a disease which manifested by displaying one set of symptoms, versus a similar ethnic group expressing the same disease when they caught it in Boston, Massachusetts. The relationship of this observation of Colden’s to other diseases erupting in North America by the mid-1700s even led him to publish this philosophy. Due to his strong metaphysically-based lines of reasoning, many including Colden felt this philosophy was on the right track.
Little do we hear about another important, subtle, and at times barely noticeable impact that Colden’s work had on one other metaphysical medical practice developing during the later years of his lifestime–homeopathy. Colden’s work on specific medicines, in particular some of the minerals and metals, influenced Samuel Hahnemann of Germany considerably at some early stage in Hahnemann’s career in medicine some time just before 1810. Hahnemann would later publish his first detailed essays on this new practice he was then philosophizing about, portions of which led him to make direct referrals to some of Colden’s medical and chemical observations regarding the non-plant chemicals. By 1790, as Hahnemann began his own Colden-like philosophizing about the metaphysics of medicine, he allowed some parts of Colden’s focus on metaphysics to find its way into Hahnemann’s own personal, basic philosophy of western medicine. This would happen just before the eruption of numerous new fields of medical thinking, which by 1820 had become known as a “reformed” practice of medicine. Whereas typically, doctors like Colden might have referred to these practitioners as instigators of the “irregular” forms of medicine, Colden may have hestitated before making such a judgement, once he saw the parallels between his own practices of the same with regard to early 1700s regular medicine. In the end, whereas Colden’s philosophy was very much bred by regular medical teachings, ultimately his philosophy had to take another avenue, much like his philosophy did with regard to the mechanically-based faith of the universe first defined by Isaac Newton during the mid-17th century.
Bringing all of this back to the people of the Hudson Valley, we find there are a number of physicians who interacted with the governors of New York during the colonial years. They ranged from theologian doctors to theologian doctors who were also trained in a little bit of actual medicine at first, but later became fully trained doctors of medicine, not theology. By the time Cadwallader Colden was in New York, there were at least two such doctors about to begin their career in that part of the valley where the Coldens ultimately settled. On the other side of the Hudson River resided Jewish physician Dr. Isaac Marks and Dutch-English physician Cornelius Osborn (these physicians are covered in details in other sections of this blog site as well.) For the first time, this offers us the opportunity to compare doctors within the same region as individuals defined by their heritage and personal traditions and philosophy, not just by the expected standards of teaching medicine that most historians tend to revert to whenever they try to discuss physicians in general. Cadwallader Colden was very much a different doctor than Isaac Marks or Cornelius Osborn. All three practiced medicine with some sort of strong metaphysical basis for parts of their practice. Yet each of these practitioners differed in their philosophy, more than in their selection of therapeutic methods at times.
The first physician, Isaac Marks, we can pretty much assume had little more than a formal relationship with other physicians, such as during his period of serving as a physician for the British Foot Soldiers who marched through the valley during its pre-Tea party years. The first interaction Isaac had with anyone that tells us he is a physician is when he was asked to treat foot soldier John Lane around 1743. He did this for the governor of the time, and then was heard about or from no more until about a year later. In 1744, Dr. Marks and a new partner, Dr. Cornelius Osborn, tended to John Lane once again. Again, the reason for this service was not fully revealed by the documents noting this interaction, but this sets the stage for understanding the Colden influence more in terms of how these physicians were interacting with members of the community at large. Each of these physicians had a very different viewpoint of their professions and the contents of its underlying philosophy.
During this same period of time, from about 1745 to 1755, Jane’s interest in botany grew, as did her work in taxonomy and a little of local ethnobotany. Her father’s interest in medicine as a career was by now gone, replaced by his work with the New York governorship. During Jane’s years of study and work in botany, her father’s work was under review by his colleagues and members of the Linnaean Society, and was just about to be published around 1747/9. Jane by now was now very much interested in what this type of work entailed, and ultimately produced her own monograph on this topic with a number of plants not at all reviewed by her father. Also by this time, there were two paths the local knowledge of medicine was taking, in particular the knowledge of local ethnobotany and culturally defined plant uses. Some knowledge about the use of local plants as medicines was already prevalent amongst the locals regarding the medical values of native plants. This appears to be more true for New York born and raised Dr. Osborn, than for Cadwallader Colden. Whereas unlike Osborn, and perhaps Marks, the Colden’s were Anglican raised Scots removed to North America. Osborn was more a locally raised Dutch-English boy turned physician, married to a Huguenot lady from the Parmentier family living up near what is now New Paltz, who was raised and trained in medicine in a fashion completely different from that of Dr. Cadwallader Colden. At times we are inclined to want to speculate about the possibility of interaction between Cadwallader and Cornelius regarding their professional knowledge, but cultural beliefs and ties, and social morees and taboos, probably kept these two physicians from interacting much beyond their roles in the local government defined services. Cadwallader after all was a British Parliament representative, Cornelius a mere local, well-endowed perhaps, but a mere local doctor and possible mountebank.
It is little surprise therefore that when we compare Dr. Osborn’s lengthy recipe book and its medical botany to the writings of Jane and Cadwallader about botany and medical botany, we find very minimal overlap. It ends up, that Osborn’s writings used to teach him the Art of Medicine were in fact fairly old, and not the types of books that Cadwallader probably had to read when he was learning medicine around 1733. Osborn’s writings, and references to authors suggests that the majority of writings he read dated to around 1720-1725, with more of these references leaning towards earlier years and earlier editions of the other writings more popular in the years preceding. Cadwallader probably felt that he was a little more savvy when it came to the contemporary beliefs in medicine and how and why certain diseases ensue and how the newer treatments are initiated.
This single generation of difference in training and the first practice years, in combination with the different backgrounds that Cadwallader and Cornelius were raised and trained in, made these two physician distinctly different in their ideologies. Had Cadwallader heard about any of the techniques that Osborn employed to treat his patients, and the recipes and patent medicines he was occasionally recommending, as a doctor trained in Great Britain, he may have disagreed greatly with what he had heard. But no evidence for this exists, and aside from the few interations we can note between Osborn and political leaders, aside from Colden, we cannot find a lot of evidence suggesting that Cornelius Osborn and Cadwallader Colden had much interpersonal or professional interactions. Thus, it seems safe to say that perhaps Dr. Osborn and Jane had minimal discussions back and forth about much to do with plants in medicine either.
Yet, it is safe to say that some of what Jane knew about plants came from similar sources as the knowledge Dr. Osborn had about some of these plants locally as medicines. Likewise, there is a trace of evidence in Cadwallader Colden’s writings that suggest he had documented many of the same details about the local ethnobotany and plant uses for disease that Osborn was documenting in detail by the time he began writing his recipe, a few years about both Cadwallader and Jane completed most of their taxonomic work.
Botany and Peperidge
For Jane, Betony and Peperidge are two plants that help to tie these two individuals together to some common thread of local knowledge that made its way through the Valley just as the Dutch heritage of this region was beginning to come face to face with rapidly increasing numbers of British settlers and immigrants. For Cadwallader, the local ethnobotany of bloodroot, sarsaparilla, and prickly ash helps link him to Osborn’s knowledge of the same. For both Jane and Cadwallader, still other plants link their knowledge of the existence of certain local plants, although not their medicinal uses so much, once again tie them to Osborn’s work across the river. For this reason, we find evidence suggesting that plant knowledge was well spread about this time, for example regarding the various snakeroots and the uses of fairly aromatic plants like sassafras and spicebush. We also find confirming evidence for the supposition that what the Coldens were documenting may have already been fairly common knowledge shared amongst the locally born and raised families and their offspring doctors-to-be. For this reason, the Colden’s work and the work of Dr. Osborn pretty much need a short review in assocaition with each other, to see how and why some commonalities exist and then determine what this tells us about the local ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology history of the valley.
The following plants demonstrate links between the Coldens and Dr. Osborn.
- Betony and Peperidge
- Sassafras and Sarsaparilla
- Seneca and Black Snakeroot
- Spicebush and Leatherwood
- Dogwood and Rose Willow
- Sarracenia and Drosera
- Lizard’s Tail and Dragon’s Blood
- Bloodroot and Goldthread
- Prickly Ash and White Oak
- Daisies and Bellis
- Skunk Weed and Arum
- Pond Lilies and Pontedaria
- Barberry and Hawthorn
Betony and Peperidge
I am beginning this series of reviews with the two local plants, betony and peperidge, because they are very representative of the types of problems one has when reviewing historical medicine for this time frame. Earlier writings by Adrian Van Der Donck, and the Frays on Long Island whose letters were published in on the the large History of Colonial New York series, used names for plants that could set any careless reader astray. The reason for this was that there were no names yet defined for many of these plants, and for the earliest of these explorers and travellers, the taxonomy of plants was a free-for-all for botanists and others. No rules existed for what one might call a plant. The main strategy was to produce a name that made sense, such that the reader could have an image of what was being discussed.
This reasoning made it easy for writers to succumb to their weakness of not knowing the plants of the New World, relying upon their experience with European plants back home to document their impressions and their plant discoveries. For theologians this was not that much of a problem. One of the main goals of their describing these new areas was to impress upon the reader God’s messages within the wilderness left just for the wisest of explorers to uncover. For this reason, many of the first impressions of the New York Hudson valley experience seem to have just this view of the local plant ecology. Any plant that resembled a sacred plant already well known had to be revealed to the readers back home. Any plant that had symbols of their religious importance had to be described. Any plant that was an obvious sign of the abundance of God’s clues put there to guide them had to have its story told. For these reasons, some of the first names of plants are very European but not at all true, since many such plants were native species, never before given a name like their counterparts and similar back in the Old World.
Betony and Peperidge are two plants with very local names. Even though betony is a classic plant found in European gardens at the time, the betony discovered in New York was not at all the betony of Europe. This betony was in fact the local lousewort of Pedicularis tuberosa L. As Jane Colden wrote:
“This pedicularis is call’d by the Country People Betony the make Thee of the Leaves, et use it for the Fever & Ague et for sikness of the stomak.”
Now there was a Pedicularis species in Europe that botanists already knew about–Pedicularis palustris L. Therefore, there was a basis for which this practice of relating and transferring European thought to American plant was taking place. Pedicularis palustris L. could also be found in North America, along with Pedicularis canadensis L. and much later th Pedicularis densiflora Benth. of California and the Pedicularis parviflora J.E. Smith of Oregon and western Canada.
The origins of the name lousewort for this plant are interesting. One might immediately think that this names refers to its use in treating lice. But in fact the name, according to Lyons in his book Plant Names (1907), this name related to the fact that European though this plant was responsible for the louse problem that many sheep herders experienced in the Old Country. Going back to the common name betony, the reason this whole discussion began, the name betony is actually in reference to the plant Betonica officinalis L. (later Stachys betonica Benth.), the common names for which were lousewort, bishop’s wort, herb christopher and of course betony. This betony was only native to Europe and Asia, not North America.
Another native herb in North America with some association with the name betony was Stachys palustris L., closely related to Stachys germanica L. or the Downy Woundwort or Mouse-ear of Europe. So now we have a complication with trying to define the identity of Jane’s Pedicularis. Stachys or hedge-nettle had several common names, one of which surfaces in Dr. Osborn’s work and therefore is a very unique name offering a very important insight into the region’s local history. Osborn referred to one of his herbal medicines as Clown’s Woundwort. Other similar names for this Stachys include Clowns-heal, Clown’s All-heal, and Marsh Woundwort. This begs the question ‘Was Stachys in fact the plant Jane (and Cornelius) referred to with the name Betony.
Still, this line of reasoning does not bring us any closer to knowing the true identification of Jane’s pedicularis. Its true identity comes from its unusual leaf form, which Jane included in her collection of line drawings. From the leaf drawing we can deduce that Jane’s pedicularis or betony is Pedicularis canadensis L., which we today often refer to as wood betony. [See National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers Eastern for more.]
With that question answered, we can now direct ourselves back to the part about Jane’s neighbor across the river, Dr. Osborn. This does not separate Dr. Osborn’s identity of Stachy palustris from the name Clown’s Woundwort. It does however tell us that there were some locals who used the name betony to refer to other betony-like plants in the region. Caution is advised when deciding which betony is actually being referred to by local writers, should any actually pursue such a study.
Peperidge relates to this essay in a similar way. Once again, it is easy to draw a conclusion as to the identity of peperidge, if one is not that careful assessing the local history of plants with these names. Peperidge has since the 1800s been a name sometimes attributed to barberry shrubs (Berberis sp.). However, the peperidge of the Hudson Valley is more than likely Nyssa aquatica L., the Black Tupelo tree of marshland areas. Once again, Osborn’s and Jane’s impressions about this plant seem slightly different. Jane referred to this plant as “Peperidge Tree”, Osborn just as peperidge. With Jane’s use of this common name for the local Tupelo, we now can deduce that Osborn may have in fact been using the local nomenclature instead of the later, more popular names of this plant in the wild. During Osborn and Jane’s years there, it is possible that some berberis may have escaped from their gardens and hedges and grown wild, but it is more likely that the peperidge of local terrain is simply the native Nyssa common to swamps and marshlands. In either case, this once again demonstrates the common problem of trying to identify the local herbal medicines, before jumping to too many conclusions about which plants to useand which to avoid as medicines.
Sassafras and Sarsaparilla
By the time the Coldens had settled in New York, which was some time around the late 1720s to 1730, sassafras (Sassafras albidum (Nuttall) Nees) and sarsaparilla (any of numerous specific Smilax spp.) were well known commodities for marketplaces and merchantile locations. Sassafras has a unique root that in the market setting would have been unmistakeable in appearance and smell. Sarsaparilla would have also had a unique appearance, although one that could easily be counterfeited or adulterated with other plants from other parts of the world since the aroma of a sarsaparilla root was not as striking and unique as that of sassafras.
Other things sassafras and sarsaparilla have in in common are their origins and uses. Both came out of New Spain, both served as tonics in medicine, and both had a history of being highly popular at one point in colonial history. Sassafras was unique in that it was a one-of-a-kind in terms of shape and form. There was just one plant that could ever closely resemble the sassafras tree, one which was highly popular, and to mercantile businesses and entrepreneurs, equivalent to the value of gold in some lines of business. For sarsaparilla, numerous species were out there in the wild, with the most popular being several living in and around Mexico and Central America such as Smilax medica, Smilax ornata, and Smilax officinalis (none of these yet fully identified as unique). During Colden’s lifetime, the sarsaparilla relatives that were identified included Smilax aspera L. of the Mediterranean and India, and the Smilax china L. of the orient. Unlike sassafras, which had a unique market that could be filled either by the American species or one of the two Chinese varieties of this plant (Sassafras tzumu and S. randiense), there were plenty of options for how the needs of the sarsaparilla industry might be met.
With the exploration of the Mid-atlantic region (the occupation of Virginia) during the 1580s and 1590s by Sir Walter Raleigh and associates, and the attempted settlement of this region quite frequently during this period of time, evidence for the potential marketing of local sarsaparilla substitutes, adulterants, or counterfeits also came to light. the same could not be said for sassafras, the distribution of which allowed it to continue making its appearance and explorers and settlers continued their explorations northward along the Atlantic shoreline. There were several North American relatives of sarsaparilla that marketing agents made note of, such as Smilax pseudo-china L, the one with the most marketing potential for China, Smilax herbacea L. of Canada and North America, Smilax bona-nox L. and Smilax lanceolata L. of the Virginia to Florida region.
For a short while, the markets for both of these New Spain plants were highly successful. But when the queen of England put her stamp of Royalty on the marketing of this root as the cure-all for a disease common to sailors (syphilis), the searches for new sources for this panacea became more aggressive and at times even criminal in nature, incorporating “spies” into the plans like the cours-de-bois of Louisiana and the tramperos or exploradors of Florida/New Spain, in order to learn how the Spanish had been so successful in maintaining this unique natural products industry. By the 1600s, British explorers and marketeers (esp. Bartholomew Gosnold) were finally able to crack open this industry and begin to harvest and market their own sassafras products successfully, thanks to the support of Great Britain’s Queen Anne. Their success with the sarsaparilla industry, however, was still in question.
By the time Cadwallader began collecting together his own notes on the local plant harvests and markets, he was already very familiar with the products of New Spain. In one of his letters as governor to British Royalty, as part of a regular report on his Colony, he noted numerous products coming in and out of the New York harbor from New Spain, such as the very precious woods of ebony and lignum vitae. Even though this document does not detail the contents of its numerous plant medicines, we can safely assume that smaller stores of these products were also on board whenever a ship carrying the local American resources was heading back to England in order to “share” these new treasures with the Mother Country. By the time Cadwallader began his New York botany work, sassafras was pretty much ‘old hat’ to him, and most likely its history and uses well known by the “commoners” of New York and Great Britain. to Cadwallader, sassafras was a panacea of the past, but his newly discovered local sarsaparillas could be the panaces of the future.
Smilax, prior to New York history, had already suffered from the failure of its marketing to the orient as a substitute for their highly valued Smilax. Sir Walter Raleigh tried repeatedly to make Smilax pseudo-china L. of his Virginia the future replacement for this product, which never really succeeded, and in comparison with similar attempts made with the American ginseng (Panax quinquefolia L.), never really resulted in any ecologically stressful periods of overharvesting. This meant that for a while, the local Smilax in the New York setting was safe by the late 1600s, and the increasingly popular sarsaparilla-substitutes now at risk of being overgathered.
Cadwallader and Jane’s botany work informed the locals, the European scientists, and any businessman whose eyes of commerce were on the New York market, about the possible addition of new products to the marketplace–several new forms of tonics and panaceas, but in particular new additions or substitutes for the sarsaparilla industry. This time, these would be marketed not as much as total replacements for this valuable international product, but more so as a unique substitute for this medicine, whenever such a need might arise. To local people, acclimated and adapted to that part of the colonies where this plant could be found, it might serve as a better, more effective remedy than the more expensive form of sarsaparilla produced in a climatic setting they were not at all adapted to.
It was about the time that Colden produced his work on local plants and their assorted values and uses, that the notion that acclimation and adaptation had finally become an important part of the equation produced to define the best medicine for a person and region. This meant that the sarsaparilla in New York was best used to serve the needs of New Yorkers, that of the south to treat southerners, and those of Central and South America to treat the needs of those residing either down south or those recently removed to more temperate living settings. (This philosophy would ultimately become better established once it was linked to the ever-popular snake remedies of the New World, a topic for another writing.) Such was the first stage in transitioning medical philosophy in North America to that which it became by the 1800s–a practice of medicine based on the philosophy that local medicines better served the local people than foreign or imported medicines. The Coldens’ work on sarsaparilla helped set the stage for this transition in early American medical philosophy locally, as the result of local reasoning instead of a practice whit a philosophy and “tradition” borne from abroad.
Relating all of this back to the other local physician fo rthe Hudson valley region, Dr. Cornelius Osborn–Dr. Osborn was already familiar with the Spanish and local sassafras and sarsaparillas. he incorporates their use into one of his tonics. “Sasafras” is included in his listing of ingredients needed to produce a medicine for the “Decay state” of the body, when one is so ill that he/she is going through some sort of possible ‘dying and deterioration’ process, or as Osborn puts it, “for old lingering disorders of the hectic kind”. Cornelius also makes use of the local sarsaparilla as a part of this recipe. Osborn also includes both of these plants in his formula for “Dr. Firdenand for the Consumtion.” (Which in fact might be a post-Cornelius Osborn recipe entered into his vade mecum, p. 78, by one of his sons, but that’s another story yet to be told.)
This tells us that the knowledge of local plants pretty much precedes, by a significant number of years, the same knowledge once it is put down in writing. As a result of this delay, we miss some of the early history of local plant uses, and we are also shown that officially documented findings often succeed actual knowledge by several generations. This of course is common sense. But it is important to note here if we are going to try to be exact about how and when a ‘discovery’ is made in local ethnobotany, medicinal plant or plant heritage history. The origins of an idea regardling local plant uses can often be quite hard to trace.
Seneca Snakeroot and Black Snakeroot
There is an interesting transition in medical philosophy that the comparison between Dr. Osborn’s and the Coldens’s writings provide us with clues about, clues that would otherwise remain undetected. The Coldens’s “Black Snakeroot” is very different from the other snakeroots due to it primarily metaphysical undertones, at least the way Cadwallader Colden tells this story. Dr. Osborn is already using Black Snakeroot as a remedy in the 1750s/1760s manuscript, which I tentatively identified as a Cimicifuga species back in 1993 when I completed my review on Osborn’s life as a physician. There were two other major ‘Snakeroot” medicines for the region at this time: Virginia Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria L.) and Seneca Snakeroot (Polygala senega L.). There were also a number of minor variations on the local snakeroot philosophy and theme, in which other plants were termed “snakeroots” as well as a common name, such as Asarum canadense L., Sanicula marilandica L. (the local versions of S. europea L.), and Eupatorium rugosum L. (White Snakeroot).
When Cornelius Osborn was making use of these plants, he used “black Snake Roots” to treat Dysentery (severe bloody diarrhea, usually due to a microorganism in the food or gut). Dr. Osborn may have been thinking that the black nature of the root was in fact altering the humours imbalance in the body, by providing more “black bile” where it was needed. Colden’s philosophy regarding the treatment of dysentery and the use of this plant would have not doubt been more “modern”, focused on things other than the four humours, after all this is what he learned when he was taught his medicine in London.
But Cadwallader Colden’s philosophy about Black Snakeroot was already going in a completely different direction than Cornelius Osborn’s philosophy. Cornelius’s take on metaphysics is made clear by his use of the ens veneris (essence of venus, but essentially another version of the philosopher’s stone or ‘vital force’ so common to medicine at this time) to treat feminine complaints. So he is not absent of any metaphysical philosophy. But Cadwallader’s philosophy was taking into account Newton’s claims of gravity and force in the universe, a much more broadly applicable interpretation of energy and its influences upon the body, and a percursor to what was about to come in medicine as a result of the growing popularity of ‘mesmerism.’ Osborn’s other local option for a ‘snakeroot’, Polygala senega, is not mentioned by him in his recipe book, perhaps due to its local rarity. So in this way, the Colden’s were ahead of Osborn in terms of variety and numbers of species.
This difference in the metaphysical philosophy of Osborn and the Coldens, however, provides us with some very important insights into local history. As noted numerous times, sometimes in exquisite detail in my writings (see Chronology notes on this topic as well), Colden had a major impact on the philosophy of medicine and the effects this philosophy had on science and medicine in general. Perhaps one of his most important plant history and philosophy accomplishments is his emphasis on the use of black snakeroot as a medicine and the reason this potential exists. Unlike other snakeroots, the reasoning for Black Snakeroot’s use and success had to deal with its metaphysical powers, in modern thinking this means we are therefore excluding any chemical abilities this plant may have been noted to have. Whereas the snakeroots of India for example cured someone of venomous snakebite attacks due to their toxicity and alkaloidal type and clinical effect, such was not the case for black snakeroot (in contemporary terms, the Caullophylum sp., such as C. thalictroides, or C. racemosa–the official OTC herbal medicine version).
Colden’s metaphysical take on things impacted people worldwide. Few writers make note of this, due perhaps to a lack of much evidence supporting such a claim in the professional literature. However, there is this essay penned by a female student in France who noted how much his writers were influencing her work as a student interested in learning about microorganisms. Her take on this? Energy in plants, and the universe, is also found in all other living beings, large or small, a concept very theological to her and very much in tune with the changes in natural philosophy taking place at this time, all due to Colden’s change of Newton’s statements to something more supportive of both science and religion. Unknowingly in fact, this rendering of a focus on this both large and small was very much indetical to one other philosophy already present in the Hudson valley at least once in its pre-New York, therefore New Netherlandian history. German-Dutch Christian Evangelist and Philosopher Jakob Boehme taught the Dutch about this very same aspects of life and the universe, their associated microcosms and macrocosms. Were some parts of Colden’s philosophy simple offshoots of parts of the local Dutch Boehmite tradition that he may have heard about? (Catherine Filipse of Philips Patent was an avid Boehmite follower and Christian mystic.)
Osborn’s interpretions of metaphysicals is indicative of early 18th Century Dutch-English colonial American settlements, with Christian alchemist Charles Starkey to thank for much of this locally popular philosophy. Colden’s Scottish-British take on metaphysics was a new breed of this philosophy that in the end had the greatest impact on American and global science history. This was very much a result of not only his gubernatorial or political status in the Colonies, but also a result of the publication of his writings by parts of Europe not at all British in nature or ‘Coldenian’ (versus ‘Osbornian’) in philosophical upbringing.
Spicebush and Leatherwood
In terms of tradition and local cultural unbringing, the differences between the Coldens and Osborn couldn’t be any greater than they were regarding the uses of two local plants–Spicebush (Laurus benzoin L., now Lindera benzoin), and Leatherwood (Dirca palustris L.). Spicebush was used to make tasty teas and drinks. Leatherwood is very caustic to the mouth and a tea or drink made from it considered to be an emetic.
Ironically, the local history of these two plants is very much in tune with the clash between cultures and the disagreements beginning to develop between locally born and bred colonial settlers and local British families. These kinds of philosophical and lifestyle differences were no doubt present between local Dutch, French, German, Scottish and British cultures. Palatinates, Huguenots, Calvinists, Lutherans, Protestants and Catholics were up against the Church of England. To some it appeared as though this cultural battle was between hedonists and the confessed, or puritans versus witches. Ultimately, it became one of Whigs and Patriots versus Tories and Loyalists. As most traditionalists will write, it is the Dutch influence that gave the Hudson Valley its multiethnic, polytheistic tradition, and it was intervention of British influences that ultimately led to the uprising that made way for the American Revolution.
In terms of the Revolution, the Coldens and Osborns were on completely different paths in their life once the number of events necessary for a revolution began to multiply. By the time the Revolution had begun, Colden was a Loyalist and Osborn a Patriot. Colden, a recently trained scientist and experienced political leader, suffered the consequences of many of his actions as local political leader. Osborn, being one of the most learned and economically, “scholarly” successful local ‘leaders’ in a sociocultural sense, was fortunate enough to take his place in the local committees and political interactions taking place between George Washington, his militia, and any locals involved with his administration and important committees.
To some locals, spicebush represented a substitute for the British Tea that some new taxes were being charged for. The local leatherwood was to many an adequate substitute for the ipecac that people had to pay heavily for. Both of these plants facilitated the notion that colonists could ultimately rebel against paying for British products. The uses for both of these plants enabled colonists to endure their next encounters with British Parliamentary, once the final decisions were made about import-export policies and the establishment of a tax on Oolong Tea. According to his writings, Colden knew little about leatherwood and plenty about spicebush. Such was not the as much the case for Cornelius Osborn.
Now Osborn doesn’t mention anything directly about spicebush, but he is very familiar with the local leatherwood, recommending it for use as a “Constant drink”, of all things. Cadwallader was very familiar with another imported plant medicine much like leatherwood in use–Daphne or its relative Chamaedaphne. Both of these are strong emetics used to pruge the chest and body of excessive fluids. Osborn recommended his leatherwood for a ‘pleurisy’ of the lungs, something that could be perceived as a tightness of the chest wall, but also with evidence of painful breathing felt just under the ribs along with a shortness of breath. Osborn’s philosophy at this time was that the cause for one disease could change and migrate to another part of the body and manifest itself in another way, shape or form by producing yet a new disease seemingly unrelated to the first. Colden could have thought a philosophy like the one held by Osborn was ludicrous and out of touch with the modern teachings, even though neither were probably right in their philosophy about this type of disease.
Nevertheless, Osborn became a physician at the Revolutionary War hospital in Fishkill, and Cadwallader Colden did not. Osborn learned to use the more contemporary forms of medicine for the war, such as the Opium and Cinchona he had to order for treating an epidemic which the troops were undergoing. Colden remained at home during these remaining months of his life. Osborn’s leatherwood was perhaps untested by members of the military during this time, no doubt because they retained their respect and desires to rely upon the most standard emetic for the time–ipecac (Cephaelis ipecacuanha). Nor did the British make much use of any other local plants at first, according to some details on the contents of the military chests possessed by Regimental physicians, but they did accept the Virginian and perhaps Seneca snakeroot as a possible medicine, but not the Coldens’s heavily promoted Black Snakeroot. None of these moves made in the selection process for their medicines were at all personal in nature. Yet their symbolism of these preferences stands out.
One could imagine spicebush to be one of the two teas for the time during the war (the other being raspberry leaves), aside from non-British sources for this highly valued beverage. The leatherwood remained nothing more than a symbol of what the local medicines could bestow upon British soldiers being treated at the local hospital–a pat on the back with a plaster capable of causing severe blistering. Maybe there was some use for the local leatherwood bark after all.
Dogwood and Rose Willow
Dogwood (Cornus florida L.) and Rose Willow (Cornus sericea L., or C. amonum Mill.), these two species have as their close relatives in New York Blue or Purple Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia L.), Green Osier or Round-leaved Cornel (Cornus circinata L’Her.) and Red Osier Cornel (C. stolonifera Michx.). There is a tremendous overlapping of common names in these species according to Lyons (Plant Names and Synonyms, 1907). The two most distinguishable species are C. florida L., famous for its showy four-leaved flower (those famous red-tipped ‘petals’ are actually modified leaves), and Cornus canadensis L. (low or dwarfberry cornel, or bunchberry), found growing more as a vine or groundcover than as a tree or shrub. If we assume Dr. Osborn’s called it Rose Willow due to its red flowers, the choice for the Rose Willow is either C. sericea or C. stolonifera. If this common name is due to the leaf-color, any of the Cornus except C. florida might be this plant. Ethnobotanically, including Native American use features, C. sericea L. best fits this plant’s identity.
Before continuing with this discussion of Cornus, I should make mention of a “Rose Willow” that is perhaps a more recent version of this plant–rose willow herb or Epilobium roseum (Schreb.) Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber (1739-1810) was responsible for this name of this particular Epilobium, a species with the common name willowherb as well. Like Pedr Kalm, Schreber was another of Linne’s associates. But at the time of Cadwallader Colden’s writing, he would have been just two years of age, and his most important work was on insects published in 1774 (see http://linnaeus.nrm.se/botany/fbo/hand/schreber.html.en). Even though Schreber’s common name for this Epilobium is ‘Rose Willow’, and the fact that numerous other species bear the same part of their common name ‘willow’ or ‘willowherb’, no other means for connecting this rose willow to Osborn’s ‘rose wilo’ can be found. Thus the return to the identification of this plant as a Cornus species.
The genus name Cornus refers to the hardness of this wood. Its cornus or “horn-like” nature made it very useful for the production of many hand tools and implements. But the hardness and texture of the horn or antler may not be the cause for this traditional name. The name Cornus may have to more do with the corniculate nature of its bark, which is to say it looks cornified or scaley-like in appearance, much like the cells of the skin when they develop a cornification state (more commonly called keratinization). A great deal of phytognomics conjecturing could be accomplished, relating to this observation of the tree and its bark. But the most important use of this plant, as time soon demonstrated to Dr. Osborn, and perhaps Cadwallader and Jane Colden, it was the bitter nature of the bark of this tree that would make it one of the more important local plant medicine in local epidemics history.
At one point in local history, Osborn is in need of a decoction to treat jaundice, and so he includes the bark of the local ‘Dog wood’ into his recipe. To many early North American botanists, this same plant was considered the “Peruvian bark” of North America, its taste as bitter as that of the quinine-rich tonics made using this South American bark. Unlike Peruvian bark of course, Cornus had limited success in treating the fevers which Peruvian bark was considered most effective for–malaria or the periodic fevers. Peruvian bark did have an effective chemical agent in it this time–cinchonine and its chemical allies such as quinine. Likewise, Cadwallader and Jane are expected to know nothing about this uniqueness of Cornus, and so their exclusion of this particular part of its important local history is acceptible. There was another part of the natural history of Cornus that makes it what it is today–a decorative shrub or tree often planted for its unique flowers.
The local ethnobotany history of Cornus florida L. use is very much taken over by the folklore of this plant related to its European Christian heritage. Without going to far into this folktale, suffice it to say that the four “petals” represent the cross, the reddish stains at the ends of these petals the “blood” of Christ and the spiny center of the flower, formed by the fruit and seeds of this plant, represent the “crown of thorns.” According to Charles M Skinner in his Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees and Plants. 3ed (JB Lippincott and Company, 1911), p. 93:
“The Rome of centuries-to-be having visioned itself in
splendor before the imagination of Romulus, that founder
of empire began to set bounds and sites for its defenses,
and, wishing to advance the walls to the Palatine, he hurled
his spear from a distance and saw it plunge into the earth
upon that hill. The handle of the weapon was cornel wood,
and where it struck the earth it put forth roots and branches
and so became a great and thrifty thing, foreshadowing
in its growth the spread and strength of the Roman state.
It came to be so vehemently regarded by the populace that
if any one observed it in a drooping condition, as would
happen now and then in a hot and drouthy season, he set
up a shout of alarm that brought the citizens hurrying to
its rescue with pails of water.
“The Greeks have it that the first cornel (cornus mas-
cula), or Cornelian cherry, sprang from the grave of Poly-
dorus, who was slain by Polymnestor, and that it dripped
blood when [Aeneas?] tried to tear its limbs from the trunk.”
The history of ‘rose wilo’ is very much a piece of local American heritage. It is also possible that Cornus stolonifera Michx. was included in this naming system at the time. Known as “red osier’, with “osier” also a fairly common name for willows, we have the possibility that this use of the ‘rose wilo’ represents yet another early “discovery” of a local medicine and something I might call a “heritage plant”, but not one with the taxonomic of confirming ethnobotanic publication from the same time frame to back up this recommendation.
Finally, aside from the Coldens’ and Osborn’s writings on Cornus, there is a piece of Americana that has to be included in this discussion of the local Cornus species. Was this plant Iroquois and/or Mohecan in tradition and use? Either species of Cornus was capable of serving both of these traditional populations. However, the history of Cornus in Dutchess County has a piece of trivia that is purely of Mohecan descent that deserves mentioning. In an old family bible, noted by the Dutchess County Historical Society, is a recipe that was added to the Yearbook as a space-filler in one of its early 1900s editions. This recipe noted for Cornus that is for a medicine mentions that the bark on the north side of the tree is to be used, along with several other ingredients included in this recipe. (This recipe will be hunted down in my notes and included later.)
For decades I asked myself, ‘why just the north side?’
I came up with several theories for this (and I know there are others out there that other readers will come up with), based on my years of fieldwork experience, the contents of the recipe, and my understanding of medical philosophy and numerology. The north side of the Cornus is shady; at its trunk, its grey bark is mossy and dark, almost dark grey or blackish in color. This color black, completes the four color, four direction pattern of some traditional philosophy-based recipes. It may be Mohegan in nature, but perhaps fantasized a little when it comes to the four-color theme romanticized about the time this recipe was probably written (1830s), the Transcendental Period in Hudson Valley-New York history.
Sarracenia and Drosera
To Cadwallader Colden, the most unsophisticated legends for the time pertaining to plants were the stories told by such writers as Thomas Brown about the Mandrake root (Mandragora officinalis) capable of killing its canine uprooters, or the furry lamb-bearing trees (tree ferns), or the famous tale about the Upas trees that upon contact with a falling fruit one becomes inebriated and loses consciousness. Then of course there was the strange-looking baobob tree, the 50 foot long woody leaved wyethia, or the mysterious arbor vitae or tree-of-life, all from countries afar. Right in the Coldens’ back yard there were two plants that did have a unique natural history, one that was perhaps too well secluded for either Cadwallader or Jane to see or understand really. The first of these plants that we know the Coldens were in fact familiar with is Sarracenia purpurea L. or pitcher plant. The other we are not sure that the Coldens ever saw, even though it was noted to exist locally just across the river by Dr. Osborn–Drosera rotundifolia L. or sundew.
One of the first descriptions of Drosera as a medicine in published writings appears in Matthaeus Platarius’s text written during the 12th century, a result of his years of practice as a doctor at the School of Salerno (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drosera). This species has a natural history that spans all of the major continents . Its name and uses, are therefore very tradition in their phytognomic nature. The name sundew, in fact tells it all. Since the leaves are covered with a clear fluid, resembling phlegm, it is no surprise that this plant seems to be most popular for its use in treating coughs and colds. This mucilage has also been associated with the treatment of ulcers of the skin or stomach, lung infections, and even as an aphrodisiac. In Dr. Osborn’s work, we find the “Sun due” being used in tincture form, along with rum, rosemary and some pine pitch, for the treatment of consumption (tuberculosis). This treatment very much follows the Salernian, Renaissance and early Colonial herbal medicine traditions.
Osborn does not mention Sarracenia, but the Coldens do. The first illustration documenting the discovery of this plant is found in Clusius’s Rariorum plantarum historia, (cf. 18, 1601) (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarracenia_purpurea). Clusius’s work was published just a few years after Sir Walter Raleigh’s famous journey, and a few years prior to the travels through some of its prime territory, New France, by several other early botanists such as Jacques-Phillipe Cornuti. A review of the origins of the name Sarracenia (alt spelling Sarracena) reveals more about the history of this name. During the late 1600s, Dr. Michel Sarrazin (1659-1734) settled in Canada., where during the very end of the 17th century documented Iroquois ethnobotany and medicine. In support of Sarrazin’s success, the famous botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort assigned this name to the purpurea species in his book Institutiones rei herbariae. (see http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=1091. According to Lyons, this is from Dr. J. A. Sarrazin of Quebec.) This name subsequently appears in Linne’s 1737 and 1753 writings on plant taxonomy.
As a remnant of phytogonomics, the uses of Sarracenia species, due to the speckled marks on their pitchers, resulted in their common name small pox plant (Lyons).
Lizard’s Tail and Dragon’s Blood
During his early years at school in Edinburgh, Cadwallader would have heard about the myths and legends regarding dragons, the stories of numerous fossils then being uncovered detailing their possible past existence, and the many stories that were told about past dragons felt to exist and the evidence used to prove these claims. One such source of proof was the dragon’s blood found on certain plants. This shiny resin, red in color, sometimes turning black, had the appearance of being left drying on the local trees, the consequences of a dragon passing through, or some injury induced upon its prey. The fact that these remains of blood could be found in numerous places, many far apart from each other, gave weight to this late Renaissance legend in plant taxonomy history. By simply observing and handling these exudates, someone like Cadwallader could probably tell legends from truths, due to its resemblance to other popular resins and gum-resins such as the bright yellow acacia gum or the clear drippings of pectin from an injured cherry tree.
In spite of an acknowledgement of this defunct belief in Colden’s mind, he was willing to accept the names of some very strange plants found in the new world, not necessarily due to their attachment to similar legends (although these attachments did exist at times), but more so due to the curiosity of their appearances and their uses locally. The one such plant that fits this description is Lizard’s Tail (Saururus cernuus L., ‘saururus’, literally, from the Greek, means lizard’s tail’, sauros=lizard, oura=tail). Native only to China and North America, lizard’s tail was a plant of rare fortune for those that discovered it. Jane noted no particular uses for this herb, just her admiration of its form, probably due to its heart-shaped leaves.
As for those believers in “Dragon’s blood”, although not necessarily that which was Dracos in origins, there are five strong possibilities for this plant.
- Pterocarpus draco L. [Family: Leguminosae/Papillionaceae-Papilionioideaeae]–West Indies, known as sang de drago in New Spain. George Eberhard Rumphius (1627-1702), 1743, and Adanson (1727-1806), 1763, called this Lingoum. Otto Kuntze (1843-1907) recognized Linne’s Pterocarpus for “wing fruit” in 1747.
- Dracaena draco L. [Fam.: Liliaceae]–Canary Islands. Noted by Linne, 1767, followed by Domenico Vandelli (1735-1816) in 1768, who also termed it Draco. The earliest name was Draco by Lorenz Heister (1683-1758) in 1748 (O. Kuntze).
- Caesalpinia draco Willd. [Fam.: Leguminosae/Caesalpiniaceae-Caesalpinioideae]–Borneo, Sumatra and neighboring islands. Draco/Dracaena draco Blume. Separate names were proposed by Carl L. Willdenow (1765-1812) and Karl Ludwig Blume (1796-1862).
- Croton sanguifluum Kunth. [Fam. Euphorbiaceae]–Mexico. Arbol de sangre or ezquahuitl (Aztec), yielding sangre de drago. Common name Dragon’s blood palm, this was also associated with the identification of Draco/Dracaena draco Blume. Formally accepted by Carl Sigismund Kunth (1788-1850).
- Calamus draco Willd. [Fam.: Sabalaceae]–Sumatra and neighboring islands. Historically, also called Daemonorops sp. (not to be confused with Acorus calamus).
A sixth “dragon’s blood” noted by Lyons was excluded from this essay (Geranium robertianum L.), due to the lack of resin, its Western European origins, and the unlikelihood of a matching ethnobotany history.
Dragon’s blood could be found in most sections of the globe. The nature of its exact origins often uncertain, even amongst the most classic of the late 17th centuiry writers on drug history, like Msr. Pierre Pomet, who couldn’t tell the true sanguis dracaena from the false. This was probably no concern to local people in the Hudson valley however. Dr. Osborn made ample use of sanguis dracaena to treat his patients with the Whites or Fluor Albes and “Overflowing of the terms” (lengthy or heavy menstruation).
To gather this resin, one had to pay special attention to the longest, most somniferous days of the year–the Dog Days. According to Pomet, to obtain the best resin from one of the palm trees in the East Indies, Canary Islands, or parts of India, one had to watch for “[the] pouring forth a Liquor, during the Dog Days, which afterwards thickens or congeals into red colour’d Drops and Tears . . . Chuse Dragon’s Blood in little Tears, that are clear, transparent, and very brittle.” Pomet later goes on to tell us:
“It is good to stop all Sorts of Fluxes, whether of Flood or Humours, whether Defluxations from the superior Parts, or Fluxes of the Bowels or Womb, the Bloody-Flux, Whites, and Gonorrhea…mixed with Conserve of red Roses…It is good against Spitting of Blood, and stops Catarrhs, being of a drying, binding, and repelling Property.”
Osborn was apparently familiar with some of the teachings of Pomet’s work–A Compleat History of Drugges, London, 1712.
Interesting to note are the later substitutes, adulterants and counterfeits for Sanguis dracaena that came to be known over the years in colonial history. Along with the animals and precious metals discovered in the New World, also came some important woods and unique and unusual local plant products. One such product was the Aztec ezquahuitl of New Spain. Upon first discovery, a view of this resin might have taken some explorers by surprise, in particular those who believed in dragons and other mythical creatures roaming the unexplored, distant forests. Like a number of other plants, this New Spain legend managed to make its way as far north as New York perhaps, even though we find little evidence for this due to the lack of much published local knowledge for the Hudson Valley, pertaining to the period of 1650 to 1750. Due to settlements at the Mexican border in the Louisiana region, it is very likely that the sanguis dracaena of New Spain and New France, may have been very different from that of the Dutch and English island regions elsewhere around the world. Whereas true dragon’s blood is true dragon’s blood, sanguis dracaena can be any of the alternatives then thought to grow in far away regions.
Bloodroot and Goldthread
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) bear a unique medical history due to their colorful alkaloids and related deeply colored extract each is capable of producing. (Just in case anyone is uncertain, bloodroot has a red latex that produces a tincture of the same deep color, and goldthread a very thin, yellow root capable of producing golden tinctures.)
Botanists have always had a great curiosity for these plants, as well as their relatives. These relatives in fact have produced equally important medicinal substances, such as turkish poppy, celandine poppy, goldenseal, and barberry. Chemists however have an even greater curiosity about the nature of these chemicals in the plants, from which we have obtained such medicines as the various opium alkaloids and their chemical relatives, the two major components of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) hydrastinine and hydrastine (two very different alkaloids with two very different effects on the body), and the antimicrobial, anticancer agents of celandine poppy (Chelidonium majus) and bloodroot such as sanguinarine and its analogs. These are all fairly advanced and sophisticated chemicals poroduced in what otherwise appear to be fairly primitive plants on the evolutionary tree. These families it ends up are most closely related to many families also archaeotypic in their form–left overs from the natural selection process that set forth the plans for making these unique alkaloids, based on a combination of just two of the same common amino acid molecules (l-phenylalanine).
None of this of course has to do with the Coldens or Dr. Osborn, were it not for the fact that Osborn included it in his tincture or syrup recipe to treat a ‘Spitting of Blood’ (doctrine of signatures), and that Colden recommends it for the treatment of“Icterum” or abscesses.
Osborn’s use for this plant follows a traditional early colonial line of thinking and reasoning. Colden’s recommended use of the red Sanguinaria latex or a root-paste for the treatment of “cancer” became fairly common over the next few years, not necessarily due to Colden himself. Cadwallader Colden has also recognized another proven cancer remedy, this time actually for “cancer,” as he defined it to be. Such a use for Sanguinaria mimics recipes popularized by Germans during the very early 19th century such as the use of Rhubarb mash to treat “cancer” and similar swellings, in which the mash, due to its strong acidity, essentially dissolves away the ill-fated flesh that resides beneath. A similar recipe can be noted for Oxalis spp., Rumex acetosa and Rumex acetosella in the historical documents, due to its oxalic acid. But in the case of Sanguinaria, this dissolution of abcesses may not be due to the acidity of the latex or root-mash, so much as due to the chemical content of the root, which is rich in sanguinarine and other highly effective antibiotic, anti-cancer agents.
This same theme transfers over to Jane’s goldthread, or as she called it ‘Fibraurea’. However, the chemistry of goldthread is different and not necessarily chemotherapeutic as much as it is antibacterial. To Jane, all of this medical history was of little concern however. Fibraurea was simply her own unique three-leaf discovery, which unfortunately lost the name she gave it when Richard A. Salisbury (1761-1829) was granted that fame. To both Jane Colden and Karl Linne. this was not necessarily a decision made by professional choice. It ends up, Salisbury was very much anti-Linnaean in his taxonomic thinking. Like Cadwallader he had different lines of interest in science, for example in astrology (see http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Richard_Anthony_Salisbury, and http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Salisbury,_Richard_Anthony_(DNB00)), and he was also anti-establishment when it came to the scientific community one might say. By the early 1800s he tried to revise a lot of Linnaeus’s conclusions, but in due time, to no avail. Around 1810, he was accused of plagiarism and officially excluded from the plant science community, ablout the same time and year that Jane Colden’s accomplishments were rediscovered by some the scientific community and her fame reinstated in much of the non-Anglican writings on her successes.
Prickly Ash and White Oak
If you want a tonic, you could turn to any of several plants or multiple plant recipes to find your remedy. For the Hudson Valley, these cure-alls included concoctions that made use of the local sassafras and sarsaparilla, the local dogwood bitter or any of numerous beers brewed by the local brewers such as Matthew Dubois in Fishkill, or even better, Cornelius Osborn on Osborn Hill. We know of Dr. Osborn as a physician, yet he was also a brewer making the best use of the chemical skills he learned as a part of his training in both medicine and the apothecary. Evidence for Osborn’s brewing skills are made apparent by a land deed for property on which the old brewery is still standing, sometime around 1825 (see Osborn’s biographical essays for more on this). Osborn used his “pricere ash” to make his famous Diet drink or ‘Dia drink beer for all decay’, as well as a syrup to treat the ‘spitting of blood’ and as an addition to a drink made using rum or gin for the treatment of rheumatism.
Osborn’s mention of the last of these special uses for ‘pricere ash’ presents us with strong evidence for a very local discovery and acquired taste for bitters and tonics made using this plant. It ends up that Cadwallader Colden also makes mention of the Prickly Ash as well. Although this plant is not in Cadwallader’s treatise on Coldengham, Linnaeus notes Colden’s role in drawing his personal attention to this plant as follows: Genera Plantarum 6ed. (1764) [Holmiae] Page 519 has “1109. Xanthoxylum” with reference to Colden followed by “Fagara du Hamel.” This was repeated in future editions.
The uniqueness of Prickly Ash to local history is contrasted by the ubiquitous nature or another tonic producing remedy–oak. The trait of oak that makes it a valuable tonic, although in very limited amounts when added to a recipe, is its tannin-rich nature. When taken in heavy doses, such a tonic could be debilitating. When taken as one of a dozen or more herbs, the effects of the oak as a drying agent may be minimized if not completely eliminated. There is no mention really about the use of this plant as a medicine by the Coldens. but it did play an important role locally in other fairly obvious ways (wood and tanning).
What Osborn shares with Jane is the preference for mentioning “white Oak”, as if both of these writers were only familiar with this as the local species. In contemporary settings, other oaks are just as common as white oak. So why did Jane and Osborn not include a contrasting species like Red or Pin Oak in their review of the local species. It could be that these were less popular then, and have since taken advantage of the reduction in white oak forests due to significant amounts of lumber harvesting since the late 1600s.
Another unique aspect of Osborn’s mention of white oak, versus Janes simple taxonomic review of this plant, is once again Osborn has really made unique use of this plant in medicine. He noted the use of white oak bark as an astringent tonic recipe for treating dysentery, which in this case could actually be quite effective if administered properly. Osborn also mentions the use of a “Wite Oak stick sawd off” for treating the “piles” (hemorrhoids), an effective cauterizing agent and astringent. (Not something we’d expect Jane, and perhaps even Cadwallader to cover.)
Daisies and Bellis
A sign that the discovery of the New World was meant to be came in the form of recognizeable flora. Now some of these plants were actually the same species as those seen in the Mother Country, whereas others were misinterpretations of plants back in the Old World due to some remarkable similarities they had with their counterparts. These “similars” had a lot to do with the ongoing tradition of searching for theological messages in nature. As one theologian called it in a discussion of these times that he was experiencing, this was a new breed of religious study known as “revealed theology.”
Revealed theology came to be during the 1700s and early 1800s because religious leaders were having to make amends with the scientists who were also religiously trained, and in order to try and re-explain and redefine some of the standards in the belief systems now undergoing change due to the ever-evolving sciences. Whereas during the 1650s it was fairly easy for a scientist like Robert Boyle to state as much as he did about chemisty to also be a member of a religious group trying to convert the ‘neophytes’ in Christianity to this new practice of life and salvation for the afterlife, it was not so easy for these same scientists to seem less atheistic by the time the 18th century came around.
Fossil evidence for one thing was really putting a damper of the common beliefs in the Old Testament and the story of Genesis. Religious leaders were trying to convince the public that these layers of sediment being discovered by scientists were simply a result of the flood. When Cadwallader was a kid hearing about these fantastic tales and then later reading about them in the local magazines then being distributed during his years at Edinburgh, this process must have helped him to form some sort of logical interpretation of all of these natural events, without upsetting his father the minister too much. Cadwallader’s personal decision throughout all of this of course was to retain a lot of his theological ideology, in order to not upset his father too much, and to do what he could to make sense of the new revelations that were being set before him by nature, by actively engaging himself more in the natural theology way of thinking.
This detail that we know about Cadwallader remains hidden and unrevealed for Cornelius Osborn. Osborn was raised English and Dutch–his father English, his mother Dutch. If he were to be raised in some traditional manner, this means that Osborn would have gone to a Dutch Reformed Protestant Church, rather than some sort of British-bred church residing in the immediate area. No matter, this also means that Cornelius Osborn at some point in life had to make a choice in life as to how religious he would become. Outwardly he might express himself as a follower of the church, but according to some of the content of his vade mecum, we can see he had other non-theological intentions underlying some of his medical philosophy. Osborn was perhaps neutral in his thinking when it came to making decisions about the church and God. He neither believed nor disbelieved, and like a good natural philospher and pragmatist, was probably waiting in anticipation for anything resembling a true revelation.
Fortunately for both of these physicians, the revival period in New York history had pretty much come to a halt by the time the 1740s came around. The 1720s and 1730s were a time when revival was at its peak, first in Europe and a couple of years later in the colonies. Nothing outstanding really happened in the natural theological sense during this time, and so for both Osborn and Colden, no new miracles in nature were in any need for an explanation. Everything that nature is capable of providing, gets revealed in good time.
A number of plants in the Aster or Composite family were capable of misinterpretations by theologians. In particular, the remarkable similarity of the numerous white-petalled flowers resembling the large daisies from Europe were of special interest in New York. There were other plants of this form, with distinctly different petal colors, that were also there for those most interested in plant taxonomy to make sense of. This knowledge-based behavior was greatly different for Osborn and the Coldens.
Cadwallader and Jane Colden had the edge on Cornelius when it came to interpreting local flora scientifically and theologically. Cornelius’s interpretations of these plants would have been nased on the much older methods popular to Dutch tradition such as the use of Matthioli’s Herbal (ca. 1595-1605). Osborn also probably heard about more recent popular herbals for the time, such as those by John Parkinson and John Gerard. Some documents show that this was a part of a rich person’s personal library during the colonial years in New York, due to the richness of the content of these herbals when compared with many of the medical and apothecary books being promoted for the time.
Cadwallader had a different background and training than Cornelius. Due to to his training at Edinburgh, Cadwallader would have been familiar with the new writings in science as these relate to religion. He would have been more familiar with the underlying arguments for both sides of this sociological dilemma, and been able to make decisions as to which side he was to lean towards during his life. Cadwallader would probably not adhere to any late 17th or early 18th century philosophies dug out of the alchemical archives by a Christian Alchemist like George Starkey for example, whereas Cornelius Osborn did. Cadwallader would not have had the time to take in much of the new philosophies surrounding him in New York, such as the beliefs of the local herbalists or the practices of the local Mohegan, Munsee, Moravian and metis (halfbreed) healers. In some ways we could argue that Cadwallader was more book-learned, and Cornelius more experiential.
In the field, this would reflect upon how each of these people read the plants for their region. When it came to daisies, Osborn paid heed more to those he was already familar with based on the standard herbals. He made use of the local escaped Chrysanthemum daisies, which he called “large dayses” and makes no mention of the several species of much smaller daisy-like flowers like that which Cadwallader had come to know as Bellis. Cadwallader on the other hand paid close attention to the large daisies and all of the local lookalikes such as Bellis and the differently colored asters. As a naturalist, Colden was very much in tune with his surroundings, but in a way much different from that of Osborn. This is what Cadwallader passed on to his daughter Jane, a view of the world and of nature that was more ‘modern’ than those preached and practiced by “older” members of the Valley like the traditional Dutch families. In this case, book-learned made a positive difference versus being experiential.
But once again, there is that difference in skills and life experience that is seen to exist between the Coldens and the Osborns. Whereas the Osborns were more skilled in dealing with local diseases and illnesses, the Coldens could only ruminate on what they knew about the body and disease and come up with their own personal new theories for health and well being. Cadwallader Colden and others in his family did exactly that. As Cornelius went about relying upon 17th century traditions, Cadwallader was promoting some new thinking in science and religion, a philosophy carried on by Alexander Colden into the 1800s. Meanwhile, Jane Colden adhered to her own natural philosophy traditions, and Osborn’s sons and one nephew, were forced to bear the consequences of their father’s belatedness in keeping up with his field of study.
James, Peter and Thomas Osborn, and their cousin Cornelius Remsen, would ultimately have to relearn a form of medicine and medical philosophy that their father could not teach them. Fortunately for them, the senator of New York Bartow White was there to provide this service to them during the late 18th and very early 19th century. Just in time to take the place of the older brother James, trying to preach to each of them his own take on their father’s philosophy about disease and health, throughout much of the past decade. In the end, Peter, Thomas, and Cornelius Remsen had to become field surgeons in order to receive their best training in medicine, until Dr. White arrived. Theology and philosophy were no longer important parts of a doctor’s training.