American Medical Biographies/Barton, Benjamin Smith

Barton, Benjamin Smith (1766–1815)

One of America's foremost botanists, Benjamin Barton, the son of the Rev. Thomas Barton, an Episcopal minister, was born on February 10, 1766, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. According to E. F. Smith, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Smith Barton was termed the father of American materia medica—an honor which no one has hesitated to accord him. The boy was only eight when his mother died and but fourteen when left an orphan. He went to live with an elder brother and was a student at the College of Philadelphia, beginning his study of Medicine under Dr. William Shippen, Jr. While still a pupil of his he journeyed with his maternal uncle, David Rittenhouse and the other commissioners appointed to survey the western boundary of Pennsylvania, and thus had his attention directed to the study of the Indian tribes, a subject which possessed the greatest interest for him throughout life. In 1786 he went abroad to pursue his medical and scientific studies, first in Edinburgh and London, afterwards going to Gottingen, where he received the M. D. degree in 1789.

His reasons for not taking the degree of M. D. to which he was entitled by his studies at Edinburgh University were set forth in a letter to his brother, written in London in 1789, in which he states that he preferred getting his diploma from Gottingen because he was dissatisfied with the discourteous manner in which two of the professors at the University of Edinburgh had treated him. He, however, when in Edinburgh received several honors, the membership of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and also from that society an honorary premium for his dissertation on "Hyoscyamus Niger." This was the Harveian prize, consisting of a superb quarto edition of the works of William Harvey.

While living in London he published a tract entitled "Observations on Some Parts of Natural History," to which is prefixed an account of some considerable vestiges of an ancient date which have been discovered in different parts of North America. This little book he afterwards characterized as "premature work" and regretted many deficiencies in it. Both Hunter and Lettsom were good friends to him and appear to have appreciated his scientific merits.

Dr. Barton returned to Philadelphia and practised medicine in 1789, being in the same year appointed professor of natural history and botany in the College of Philadelphia, a position held after the union of the college of Philadelphia with the University of the State of Pennsylvania in 1791. On the resignation of Dr. Griffith from the chair of materia medica in Pennsylvania University, Dr. Barton was appointed. When Benjamin Rush died he became professor of the theory and practice of medicine, continuing to hold also the chair of natural history.

His published works include: "The Elements of Zoology and Botany," "Elements of Botany, or Outlines of the Natural History of Vegetables "Collections for an Essay towards the Materia Medica of the United States;" "Fragments of the Natural History of Pennsylvania;" "Essay on the Fascinating Power Ascribed to Serpents, etc.," "Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America."

In 1805 he started publishing the Medical and Physical Journal and also wrote many short articles on topics connected with medicine, history and archæology, much of his work appearing in the "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society."

During his early years he was much afflicted with pulmonary hemorrhages and gout. He had given only two courses as the successor of Rush when he had to seek relief by a sea voyage. He sailed for France in 1815, returning by way of England disheartened. At New York he was afflicted with hydrothorax. Finally reaching home, very ill, he became rapidly worse and was found dead in bed on the morning of December 19, 1815. Feverishly anxious to work, three days before his death he wrote a paper concerning a genus of plants named in his honor by Nuttall, a young English botanist whom Barton had financed for a scientific tour in the Southern States. The plants were of the class Icosandria monogynia, found in hilly districts between the Platte and the Andes and named Bartonia polypetala and Bartonia superha.

He was a member of the Imperial Society of Naturalists of Moscow; the Danish Royal Society of Sciences; the Linnaean Society of London; and of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland.

Barton married, in 1797, a daughter of Edward Pennington of Philadelphia, and named his eldest son after Pennant, the English naturalist.

Bull. of the Lloyd Library. Reproduction Series No. 1, 1900. Cincinnati.
American Medical Biography, J. Thacher, 1828.
An account of the Life of B. S. Barton, by W. P. C. Barton, the Portfolio, vol. i, No. 4, April, 1816.