At a duel, each man is allowed to choose a doctor to accompany him. At the most famous duel in American history — Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr, 1804 — both men chose Dr. Hosack.
David Hosack was a botanist/ doctor/friend of the famous and friend of the poor. He was born just before the American Revolution, and his love of plants and people made him one of the most trusted, beloved dynamos of his day.
Though most of us have never heard of the guy, a new book will plant him in our national consciousness: “American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic,” by Victoria Johnson, a professor of urban planning and policy at Hunter College.
The book opens with a scene of despair: “September 1797. The boy would be dead before dawn.”
We’re in the death chamber of a good-looking 15-year-old New York kid dying of fever. But instead of treating him with cold cloths as most doctors did back then, Hosack, age 28 and newly returned from a European education in the power of plants, did the opposite. He placed the boy in a steaminghot bath and mixed in a powder made from Peruvian bark. Years later, this bark would be discovered to contain quinine, the cure for malaria.
Into the bath Hosack also poured several bottles of alcohol, to “stimulate the circulation.” And seemingly for good measure, he added smelling salts. All through the night, he steeped the boy in bath after botanical bath.
The boy was Philip Hamilton, Alexander’s son. That’s when Alexander became a lifelong friend and fan of Hosack’s. It’s also when Hosack decided it was time to start trying to discover more cures from more plants.
So he proposed creating a giant garden filled with specimens from the four corners of the earth: bananas, tamarinds, ginkgoes, flowers from Tahiti, grains from near and far, and plants whose medicinal qualities were already known, including camomiles, ginsengs and poppies.
Of course, he’d need a greenhouse and gardeners and explorers to collect plants. And money!
His plans were mocked by many, but eventually Hosack made his dream come true. His garden covered the area that now boasts Rockefeller Center in the middle of New York City.
Hosack understood that if the United States didn’t begin to grow and test plants from around the world, Johnson writes, “American medicine was doomed to chronic chaos.” So his garden was less a park than the equivalent of today’s National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and cutting-edge gene-editing labs combined. Even Thomas Jefferson sent him seeds.
Here an entire generation of scientists learned how to study plants and conduct experiments, thanks to Hosack. One of the med students he mentored eventually had a grandson: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In between teaching, treating and researching, Hosack helped found the precursors to the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as a pharmacy for the poor. He also held a lot of parties and had a ton of friends. In his day, the man was a stonecold celebrity. Why is he nearly forgotten?
“I think we really like our heroes to stand alone — to discover the cure for cancer or invent the steam locomotive,” says Johnson. “Hosack was something else, an institution builder, building the civic institutions that make a city and a nation great.”
Clearly, the man deserves his day in the sun — and in our history books.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”