Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/October 1895/Sketch of David Hosack



IN the early part of the nineteenth century no citizen of New York was held in higher honor than was De Witt Clinton. Closely associated with Clinton in the leadership of the civic life of the day, but holding rigidly aloof from politics, was Dr. Hosack. "It was not infrequently remarked by our citizens," said his pupil and associate, John W. Francis, "that Clinton, Hosack, and Hobart were the tripod on which our city stood" Dr. Hosack was one of the founders of the New York Historical Society and its president from 1820 to 1828. He was also instrumental in founding an art society, was prominent in various scientific, literary, and humane undertakings, and, if his lead had been followed, New York would have to-day a botanic garden equal to any in a European metropolis.

David Hosack was the eldest of seven children, and was born August 31, 1769, in the house of his maternal grandfather, No. 44 Frankfort Street, New York. His father, Alexander Hosack, was a native of Morayshire (Elgin), Scotland. Having entered the British army, he was, at the age of twenty-one, serving as an officer in the artillery. He came to America in the force under General Sir Jeffrey Amherst, and was at the retaking of Louisburg. April 1, 1768, he married in New York Jane, daughter of Francis Arden. Her father's family came from England, while that of her mother belonged to that valuable contingent of Huguenot citizens which America received as a consequence of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Young David, after receiving the ordinary elements of education, was placed at fourteen or fifteen years of age in the academy of the Rev. Dr. Alexander McWhorter, of Newark, N. J., where he pursued the study of Latin and other usual branches and began to learn Greek. But as Dr. Peter Wilson, of Hackensack, was a more distinguished teacher of the latter tongue than Dr. McWhorter, David was transferred to his academy in 1785. The next year he entered Columbia College, remaining in that institution until the middle of his junior year. He had also private tutors in the classics and the French language. In the beginning of the junior year, finding his time not fully occupied, he took up the study of medicine as a private pupil under Dr. Richard Bayley. "He had scarcely begun his studies," writes his son,[1] "before the celebrated 'Doctors' Mob' occurred, which threatened serious results to those concerned; it arose in consequence of the imprudence of some of the students carelessly pursuing dissection in the building upon the site since occupied as the New York Hospital. This mob caused many of the professors to absent themselves from the city and others to seek shelter in the city jail. Mr. Hosack, with the rest of the students interested, learning that the mob had seized upon and demolished the anatomical preparations found in the lecture room above referred to, repaired immediately to Columbia College,[2] with the view of saving such specimens as were to be found in that institution. Before reaching the college, however, and when on his way in Park Place, he was knocked down by a stone striking him on the head; he would in all probability have been killed had it not been for the protection he received from the neighbor of his father, Mr. Mount, who was passing at the time and took care of him."

In the fall of 1788 young Hosack entered the senior class of the College of New Jersey at Princeton in order that he might the sooner complete his collegiate course and devote his whole attention to the study of medicine, to which he had become ardently attached. "Having finished my course at Princeton," he says in some memoranda that he left for the benefit of his children, "I returned to New York and resumed my favorite medical studies, to which I now gave my undivided attention, availing myself of every advantage which the city at that time presented. I attended the lectures on anatomy and physiology delivered by Dr. Wright Post, those on chemistry and practice of physic, by Dr. Nicholas Romayne, and the valuable course on midwifery and the diseases of women and children, by Dr. Bard. I also attended the practice of physic and surgery at the almshouse, which then offered the only means of clinical instruction in this city; they were, however, very ample, the house being daily visited by Dr. Post, Dr. William Moore, Dr. Romayne, and Dr. Benjamin Kissam."

There was then no institution in New York empowered to grant the degree in medicine, the medical faculty of Columbia, formerly King's College, having been broken up by the Revolution. So, after a year of private study, Hosack proceeded to Philadelphia and enrolled at the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania, where Drs. Shippen, Rush, Kuhn, and Wistar were then among the professors, and in the summer of the succeeding year obtained his medical degree. In the same year he married at Princeton Miss Catharine Warner, a young lady of great worth, to whom he had become attached while pursuing his collegiate studies.

By the advice of Dr. Rush and others whom he consulted, Dr. Hosack settled first at Alexandria, Va., which place he believed was to be the capital of the United States. The practice that he acquired here, although considerable, was not satisfactory to him, and after a year's residence he returned to New York. He now determined to supplement his medical studies abroad. "Observing the distinction," to quote his own words, "which our citizens at that time made between those physicians who had been educated at home and those who had had additional instruction from the universities of Europe, and knowing how little property I had reason to expect from my parents, I found that my chief dependence was upon my own industry and increasing attention to the profession I had chosen as the means of my subsistence: my ambition to excel in my profession did not suffer me to remain insensible under such distinction. Although it was painful for me to think of leaving my family, consisting then of a wife and child, I accordingly suggested to my father the propriety of my making a visit to Europe, and of attending the medical schools of Edinburgh and London. He at once, with his characteristic liberality, acquiesced in my views and wishes. In August, 1792, leaving my family to the care of my parents, I took passage for Liverpool."

After spending a few days in Liverpool he proceeded to Edinburgh, where he attended the medical lectures at the university during the following winter. In the spring, after a visit to his father's birthplace, where he met two uncles and other relatives, and to some other places in Scotland, he repaired to the metropolis and entered as a pupil of St. Bartholomew's Hospital. He also frequently visited other hospitals when any important surgical operations were performed, surgery being the favorite subject of his pursuit; he nevertheless did not neglect the collateral branches of medical science.

It was during this stay abroad that his interest in botany sprang up. "Having," as he says, "upon one occasion—while walking in the garden of Prof. Hamilton, at Blandford in the neighborhood of Edinburgh—been very much mortified by my ignorance of botany, with which his other guests were familiarly conversant, I had resolved at that time, whenever an opportunity might offer, to acquire a knowledge of that department of science. Such an opportunity was now presented, and I eagerly availed myself of it. The late Mr. William Curtis, author of the Flora Londinensis, had at that time just completed his botanic garden at Brompton, which was arranged in such a manner as to render it most instructive to those desirous of becoming acquainted with this ornamental and useful branch of a medical education. Although Mr. Curtis had for some time ceased to give lectures on botany, he very kindly undertook, at my solicitation, to instruct me in the elements of botanical science. For this purpose I visited the botanical garden daily throughout the summer, spending several hours in examining the various genera and species to be found in that establishment. I also had the benefit once a week of accompanying him in an excursion to the different parts of the country in the vicinity of London. Dr. William Babbington, Dr. Thornton, Dr. (now Sir) Smith Gibbs, Dr. Hunter, of New York, the Hon. Mr. Greville, and myself composed the class in these instructive botanical excursions, in the summer of 1793.

"By Mr. Dixon, of Covent Garden, the celebrated cryptogamist, the 'maximus in minimis,' as Mr. Curtis has very properly and facetiously denominated him, I was also initiated into the secrets of the cryptogamic class of plants. In the spring of 1794 I also attended the public lectures of botany delivered by the President of the Linnæan Society, Dr. (now Sir) James Edward Smith; and by the kindness of the same gentleman I had access to the Linnæan Herbarium. I spent several hours daily for four months examining the various genera and the most important species contained in that extensive collection." The acquaintance thus begun with Sir James Edward Smith ripened into an affectionate friendship, and a correspondence was begun that ended only with Smith's life.

In the course of the winter of 1793-'94 Dr. Hosack embodied certain Observations on Vision in a paper which he communicated to the Royal Society. It was published in the society's Transactions for 1794, and brought him, after due examination by a committee, the thanks of the society. A theory was in some vogue at the time that the power of accommodation in the eye resided in the crystalline lens. Hosack maintained the opposing theory that it depended upon the external muscles. His paper contained many original views, and its statements were supported by experiments that he had made upon himself and others.

He returned to New York in 1794 by the ship Mohawk, the passage lasting fifty-three days. On the voyage typhus fever made its appearance and became very general, particularly among the steerage passengers. Dr. Hosack being the only physician on board, was called upon to attend the stricken ones, and was wonderfully successful, not losing a single case. His services were duly appreciated by all, as was evinced by the unsolicited vote of thanks published in the daily papers when the ship reached port.

Taking up his residence in New York city, Dr. Hosack, at the age of twenty-five years, began again the practice of his profession under the most favorable auspices. Mr. Thomas Law, who had been a fellow-passenger on the Mohawk, introduced him to many of his acquaintances, among whom were General Hamilton and Colonel Burr. He soon became the family physician to these distinguished persons. In 1795 he was appointed Professor of Botany in Columbia College, for which position his diligent application to this science in London had admirably fitted him. At the end of his first course he published a syllabus of his lectures, afterward inserted in his Medical Essays. In 1795, also, the yellow fever reached New York, and the violence of the epidemic afforded ample opportunity to young medical men to distinguish themselves. Dr. Hosack at this time attracted the especial attention of Dr. Samuel Bard, one of his former preceptors, who soon after took him into partnership. This was a preparatory step to Dr. Bard's retiring from the profession, which he did three or four years later, leaving Dr. Hosack in the enjoyment of an extensive and profitable practice.

Having lost his infant son during his absence in England and his wife not long after his return, Dr. Hosack married, December 21, 1797, Mary, daughter of James and Mary Darragh Eddy, of Philadelphia. By this marriage he had nine children.

Upon the death, in 1797, of Dr. William Pitt Smith, his chair of Materia Medica in Columbia College was assigned to Dr. Hosack, in addition to the one of Botany already held by the latter. He continued to fill these two professorships until 1807, when the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the State of New York was established, in which he was chosen Professor of Surgery and Midwifery. He soon, however, relinquished this chair for that of the Theory and Practice of Physic and Clinical Medicine. The Analectic Magazine for 1814 contained a notice of an introductory lecture given in the last-named chair, which had been published. It says that, after an opening statement on another matter, "Dr. Hosack proceeds to point out what lie deems the proper method of cultivating the science of medicine. He recommends the inductive system of philosophizing as the only sure means of acquiring correct methods in science, and enforces the same by the celebrated examples of Bacon, Boyle, and Newton in physics, of Reid, Bentley, and Stewart in metaphysics, and of Hippocrates, Sydenham, and Boerhaave in medicine."

Meanwhile Dr. Hosack had become prominently known for his success in the treatment of yellow fever, which had visited New York in four successive summers, beginning with 1795, and afterward in 1803, 1805, 1819, and 1822. On many occasions, when disease suspected to be yellow fever broke out, he was called upon by the Board of Health of New York for a report as to its real nature, for if the fears of his fellow-citizens were groundless his statement would be sure to allay them.

Of Dr. Hosack in the professorial chair, Dr. Minturn Post, one of his pupils, has said: "In no respect was Dr. Hosack more remarkable than as a lecturer; gifted with a commanding person and a piercing eye, of an ardent temperament and of strong convictions, his manner of treating the various subjects connected with his professorship was at once bold, impressive, and eloquent. . . . His great object was to direct the student to the importance of the subject under examination, to lead him by his eloquence, and to rivet his attention by his earnestness, and no man ever succeeded better as a publio lecturer in attaining these results. . . . Dr. Hosack was gifted with a fine, sonorous voice, great play of expression, and a remarkable vivacity of manner—qualities which, being as it were contagious, begat in his youthful auditory a kindred sympathy." In closing his account above quoted Dr. Post remarks: "He lived in memorable times, before the great men of the Revolution had passed away; had seen and conversed with the most eminent of the age; had listened to the inspired song of Burns, tuned to sweet cadence, from his own lips; was intimate with Rush, and Gregory, and Sir Joseph Banks, and was the friend of Clinton and Hamilton." The friendship of Hamilton was probably won for the most part by his success in saving the life of a son of the general sick with scarlet fever, whose case for a time was deemed hopeless. This friendship was conspicuous on every occasion, and was terminated only on that day when Dr. Hosack accompanied Hamilton across the Hudson River to his fatal duel with Colonel Burr.

Dr. Hosack is often mentioned as one of the leading promoters of science of his time. "His love of botanical science," says his son, "induced him to found the Elgin[3] Botanic Garden, which he did at his own individual expense, as early as 1801. It was situated about three miles and a half from the city of New York. It consisted of about twenty acres of land on the middle road.[4] It was selected from its varied soil as peculiarly adapted to the cultivation of the different vegetable productions. The grounds were skillfully laid out and planted with some of the most rare and beautiful of our forest trees. An extensive and ornamental conservatory was erected for the cultivation of tropical and greenhouse plants, as well as those devoted to medical purposes, more especially those of our own country.

"At this time there were under cultivation nearly fifteen hundred species of American plants, besides a considerable number of rare and valuable exotics. To this collection additions were made from time to time from various parts of Europe as well as from the East and West Indies. It was the intention of the founder of this beautiful garden, had his means been more ample, to devote it to the sciences generally, more especially those of zoölogy and mineralogy. This, however, he was compelled from want of fortune to relinquish, hoping that the State of New York would at some future day be induced to carry out the plan as suggested by him similar in all respects to that of the Garden of Plants in Paris; but in this he was disappointed. The State purchased the garden from him, but, like many other public works unconnected with politics, it was suffered to go to ruin. While it was in his possession it afforded him many a pleasant hour of recreation, and served to abstract him from the cares and anxieties of an arduous profession." Frederick Pursh, author of the Flora Septentrionalis, was for several years curator of this garden.

A jail society, which had existed in New York to supply provisions to prisoners for debt, was developed by Hosack into the Humane Society, with broader aims and means. The City Dispensary received no less his care and attention. He vigorously advocated a separate hospital building for contagious diseases, the strict enforcement of quarantine regulations, the substitution of stone piers for wooden ones, and urged that the city's sewers should discharge at the outer ends of the piers instead of at the bulkhead line.

His friends often wondered that Dr. Hosack found time to contribute so much as he did to the literature of his profession. At an early period he began the publication of the Medical and Philosophical Register, a quarterly journal, in which Dr. John W. Francis was associated with him. He afterward published three volumes of his Medical Essays, containing occasional addresses, introductory lectures to his regular courses, many practical papers on medical subjects, etc. He also published an extensive appendix to a work on the Practice of Medicine, by Dr. Thomas, of Salisbury, England. Adopting the nosological arrangement as a system best calculated to illustrate diseases, he was induced to prepare a work on that subject, which ran through several editions.

Botany was not the only branch of science in which he became interested while abroad. To quote from a sketch of his life by a friend: "He attended in the winter of 1793-'94: the first course of lectures on mineralogy that was delivered in London by Schmeisser, a pupil of Werner. With this additional knowledge of mineralogy, which Dr. Hosack had begun to study at Edinburgh, he continued to augment the cabinet of minerals which he had commenced in Scotland. This collection was brought by him to the United States, and was, we believe, the first cabinet that crossed the Atlantic; it was afterward deposited in Princeton College, in rooms appropriated by the trustees, but fitted up at the expense of the donor, similar to those at the École des Mines at Paris. To render this donation immediately useful, it was accompanied by a collection of the most important works on mineralogy."

Having a large circle of friends and acquaintances, and being fond of company, Dr. Hosack used to set apart his Saturday evenings for entertaining them. "Surrounded by his large and costly library, his house was, the resort of the learned and enlightened from every part of the world. No traveler from abroad rested satisfied without a personal interview with him; and, at his evening soirée, the literati, the philosopher, and the statesman, the skillful in natural science and the explorer of new regions, the archæologist and the theologue met together, participators in the recreation of familiar intercourse." Many a distinguished American and many a foreign visitor, coming with a letter from some European friend of Hosack, has left on record his delightful experience in a visit to the doctor, either at his city house or his place in the country.

Of the scientific honors most prized by Americans in his day—membership in European societies—Dr. Hosack had a goodly share. He also received the honor of having a genus of plants named for him. The various species of Hosackia, of which there are some thirty, are herbs and shrubs growing in the Southern and Southwestern States and in Mexico.

His second wife having died, Dr. Hosack married Mrs. Magdalena Coster, widow of the Holland merchant, Henry A. Coster. Some time after this event he retired from his profession and spent the rest of his life, except the winter months, on the beautiful estate at Hyde Park, on the banks of the Hudson, which he had owned for a number of years. Here he devoted himself to agriculture and to growing plants of botanical interest. "He carried with him," his son remarks, "the same ardor and zeal which had been so characteristic of him in his professional career. He introduced into the country many of the finest breeds of cattle, sheep, and swine, which he imported at great expense from abroad. The grounds were cultivated in the best possible manner, and the most esteemed fruits and vegetable productions of the country were made to thrive in the greatest luxury possible."

In the autumn of 1835 Dr. Hosack removed as usual to his city residence, and a few weeks after was seized with apoplexy which terminated his existence. One morning in December he went out and did some business errands, and on his return home found he was paralyzed in his right arm. His speech was also affected. He received immediate attention from his son, Dr. A. E. Hosack, and later from several of his professional friends. But their efforts were of no avail. His symptoms became worse, and four days after the attack, on December 22d, he passed away. His body was placed in the family vault in the marble cemetery in Second Street.

One of the surest ways in which an eminent man can cause his influence to live after him is in training up younger men to lives of usefulness. This Dr. Hosack was constantly doing. "I can scarcely recollect the time," says his son, "when he was without some such protégé." At one time it was the son of a New York carpenter, who unfortunately fell a victim to his devotion to yellow-fever patients in the epidemic of 1798. At another it was a young Frenchman, who without means, had come to America to study its flora, his family having been forced to leave France on account of the Revolution there. Dr. Hosack took him into his family and educated him as a physician. He returned to France and became eminent as a botanist. This was Prof. Delile, who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt as the botanist of his scientific corps, and was afterward superintendent of the Jardin des Plantes at Montpellier. Among Dr. Hosack's regular pupils at the College of Physicians and Surgeons was John Torrey, and many other students who heard his lectures at the medical school or at Columbia College had whatever of inclination toward botany they possessed greatly quickened by the enthusiasm and eloquence of Dr. Hosack.

  1. Dr. Alexander E. Hosack, in a biography contributed to the Lives of Eminent American Physicians and Surgeons of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Samuel D. Gross, M. D. From this biography most of the facts for the present article have been drawn.
  2. Then in College Place.
  3. So named after the village in Scotland where his father was born.
  4. The location is given in Mrs. Lamb's History of New York as lying between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and stretching from Forty-seventh to Fifty-first Streets.