Monday, April 1, 2013

Jane Colden (1724 – 1766)

Excerpts from “Jane Colden: Colonial American Botanist” by Mary Harrison, a volunteer at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

“She deserves to be celebrated,” wrote Peter Collinson to Linnaeus of Jane Colden, whom he described as “perhaps the first lady that has perfectly studied Linnaeus’ system.”

In the early eighteenth century only a few women in Europe or the American colonies were involved in botany or any other science. Those few were usually related to a man working in the subject: Sophia Sarah Banks assisted her brother, explorer and naturalist Joseph Banks; Caroline Herschel became an astronomer through her association with her brother William. And Jane Colden (1724-1766), the subject of Peter Collinson’s praise to Linnaeus in his 1756 letter, was initiated into botany by her father Cadwallader Colden.

We know directly of Jane Colden’s botanical work through a single manuscript of hers that now resides in the British Museum. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that she was a respected member of an international community that was deeply involved in the exchange of plants and botanical information that followed the discoveries of new plant material in North America. Contemporary botanists in England and the colonies discussed her in their correspondence, describing her with such accolades as “assiduous,” “accomplished,” “scientifically skilful,” “ingenious.” Collinson wrote enthusiastically about her not only to Linnaeus but to John Bartram: “our Friend Coldens Daughter Has in a Scientificall Manner Sent over Several sheets of plants very Curiously Anatomised after [Linnaeus] Method I believe she is the first Lady that has Attempted any  thing of this Nature.”

In view of the limited educational opportunities available to women in the 18th century, Jane Colden’s acceptance by this august group of naturalists and botanists is all the more remarkable. Like most women of her station and period, she had no formal education, but she was blessed with parents who recognized her talents and encouraged and equipped her to pursue her interests.

Jane’s lack of knowledge of Latin was characteristic of women of her time both in England and in the American colonies. Seventeenth-century writers commenting upon the lack of Latin instruction recognized it as a miserable handicap. “Not to read Latin was to go in blinkers,” and the few females who overcame this difficulty had to put up with “those wise Jests and Scoffs that are put upon a Woman of Sense and Learning, a Philosophical Lady as she is call’d by way of Ridicule.” Jane’s mother, and Jane herself, were not far removed from such attitudes and were certainly not yet liberated from the traditions that produced them. Nevertheless, Jane’s father was able to report that her enthusiasm for botany did result in the acquisition of “some knowledge of Botanical Latin.” Women were not alone in suffering from lack of knowledge of Latin.

Marsh St. Johnswort - Hypericum virginicum
In spite of the great impression she obviously made on her contemporaries during her brief botanical career, Essays and Observations, Volume II (Edinburgh, 1770), four years after her death. Jane had received a specimen of the plant in question, Hypericum virginicum (marsh St. Johnswort) from [Alexander] Garden in 1754. She herself had already discovered it the previous summer, and as first discoverer, had named it Gardenia, intending to honor her friend. It must have been a great disappointment to discover that John Ellis, the English botanist, had given the name Gardenia jasminoides to the Cape jasmine and under the conventions of botanical nomenclature was entitled to its use.

Jane received no formal recognition during her lifetime. One of her plant descriptions was published in full in

The manuscript that comprises Jane’s “pretty large volume” is now part of the Botany Library of the British Museum [Natural History] in Kensington, London. […] Jane Colden’s manuscript consists of 341 descriptions and 340 illustrations. Records are written in a legible, consistent hand with neatly underline headings and subheadings. Latin and common names for the plants are given. […] The descriptions include observations of plants as they develop and indicate the long hours she must have spent visiting and revisiting the plants under study. […] When technical terms elude her she resorts to her own vocabulary …

Jane Colden was documenting for her countrymen, and for eager Europeans, and entirely new flora, and it is with this in mind that we can fully understand her delight in botany and appreciate her contribution.

There seems to have been agreement concerning the high quality of Jane’s descriptions, and the manuscript confirms that judgment. […] Unfortunately, Jane’s manuscript was out of reach of succeeding generations who might have been inspired by her enterprise; and more than two hundred years after her death the major part of her work remains unpublished. Nevertheless, by its compilation, though she might not have shattered the contemporary view that natural history was only “an amusement for ladies,” she has provided us with an intimate glimpse of the initiation of a woman into colonial botany.

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