American Medical Biographies/Baldwin, William

Baldwin, William (1779–1819)

William Baldwin, botanist, born in Newlin, Chester County, Pennsylvania, March 27, 1779, was the son of a Quaker preacher. When school days were over he studied medicine with William A. Todd of Downington, Pennsylvania, then took his first course of lectures at the University of Tennessee in 1802. When the second session opened he found himself without funds, so returned to his Downington preceptor. His next venture was to go as ship's surgeon on the merchant ship New Jersey to Canton, taking with him, it was said by a fellow passenger, only three shirts for the long voyage; but he won golden opinions on board as a doctor, and returned in 1806 with money enough to study for his M. D., which he took at the University of Pennsylvania in 1807.

There are known to be in existence three portraits of him, one painted by Peale for his museum, a miniature painted on ivory in China in 1805 and a steel engraving, the frontispiece of "Reliquiae Baldwinianae." These are owned by his grandson, who tells me he found at a second hand book store for 5 cents a reprint of his grandfather's graduation thesis, on the fly leaf of which is written "To Richard Brown, M. D., with the best wishes of his friend, the author." The "Dissertation" is dedicated to Dr. William A. Todd of Downington, his preceptor. It is titled "A Short Practical Narrative of the Diseases which prevailed among the American seamen at Wompoa in China in the year 1805, with some account of diseases which occurred among the crew of the ship New Jersey on the passage from thence to Philadelphia." 1807.

The thesis is a curious document. He had evidently entered the profession in the old style in vogue before medical colleges were established and had taken his degree of Doctor of Medicine not as a necessity but as an ornament after he was already a "respectable physician" of considerable reputation, as shown by his membership in the county and Linnaean societies.

He settled down to practise in Wilmington, Delaware; his leisure time was employed in studying local flora. Here he married Hannah Webster, and as both were Quakers they were turned out of meetings for having the ceremony performed by a Presbyterian minister; when Baldwin apologized he was taken back, but was turned out in 1812 for entering the navy, although he declared that he had gone to war "not to make wounds but to heal them." In 1811 he had gone to Georgia to benefit his health which was affected by tuberculosis, of which all his family had died, and his service during the War was chiefly at St. Mary's, Georgia. The winter and spring of 1816–1817 were spent exploring in East Florida, until he was recalled to be surgeon-botanist to the frigate Congress, then under way for Buenos Ayres and other South American ports. He returned in 1818 rather better in health, and with a fine store of specimens for his friends, partly catalogued. In 1819 he was appointed as surgeon and botanist to go with Major Long up the Missouri. During this year he published two papers describing his treasures, one in the American Journal of Science and one in the American Philosophical Transactions.

This year, also, was the last of his life; he died at Franklin, on the banks of the Missouri, in the home of his friend, John Lowry. Five days before his death he wrote to his wife to remind her of his promise to let William Darlington (q.v.) have his herbarium, and this she was quite willing to do, but Darlington's compassion for the young widow and her three little children induced him to try to sell it, its obvious value prohibiting his buying it himself at the price he could afford. Zachary Collins, the botanist, bought it and meant to place it in the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, but his representatives sold it to Lewis David de Schweinitz (1780–1834), botanist, who gave it to the Academy.

Medical Botanists, Howard A. Kelly, M.D., in which the following sources were given: Reliquiae Baldwinianae, W. Darlington; Memorials of Baldwin and Marshall, W. Darlington; Personal communication from his grandson, Edward Baldwin Gleason.