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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/April 1896/Sketch of Benjamin Smith Barton

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 48‎ | April 1896

PSM V48 D802 Benjamin Smith Barton.jpg


OF the three professions formerly distinguished as "learned" that of medicine is the only one connected with natural science. Hence it is not surprising that, in the times when scientific research could seldom be pursued except as an avocation, it was frequently joined to his vocation by the physician. The history of medicine in the Old World is adorned with the names of many profound students of Nature, and in America the name of Dr. Barton stands at the head of a considerable list of eminent investigators who either followed or at least entered upon the medical profession.

Benjamin Smith Barton was one of the younger children of the Rev. Thomas Barton, an Episcopal clergyman, and was born at Lancaster, Pa., February 10, 1766. His mother was a sister of David Rittenhouse, the astronomer. He received, therefore, a double inheritance of intellectual ability, but the benefits of parental care and training were lost to him at an early age. His mother died when he was eight years old, and his father when he was fourteen. Early in the fall of 1778 Mr. Thomas Barton had left Pennsylvania, intending to go to Europe, but was taken sick before he could conveniently set sail, and died without returning to his home. May 25, 1780, at the age of fifty years.

Before leaving Lancaster Mr. Barton had placed his younger children in the care of a friend in the country near by, where they remained until after their father's death. During this period young Benjamin devoted much of his time to reading, showing considerable fondness for the subject of civil history. Being a studious boy, he naturally took less interest than boys generally do in athletic sports. His predilection for natural history, especially for botany, appeared early, and very likely had received some encouragement from his father, who is known to have been a student of Nature. In a note to his Observations on the Desiderata of Natural History Dr. Barton speaks of the "fine collection of North American minerals, which was made by my father near forty years ago, at a time when he paid more attention to this part of natural history than, so far as I know, any other person in the (then) colonies." It appears also that the Rev. Thomas Barton was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and corresponded with Linnæus on botanical subjects.

Young Benjamin early displayed a notable talent for drawing, and afterward became also remarkably skillful in etching. His artistic ability was of great service to him in sketching objects of Nature and in criticising the illustrations prepared by others for his books. He is said to have maintained that "no man could become a nice, discriminating, and eminent botanist without possessing that acumen in perception of proportion, color, harmony of design, and obscure differences in the objects of the vegetable world which alone belong to the eye of a painter." He insisted on strict accuracy in details that even most careful naturalists would disregard. To mention an extreme instance of his exactness, he had every protuberance on the back, tail, and legs of a horned lizard counted, and required the precise number found to be represented in the drawing made for him.

In the spring of 1780 Benjamin, with one of his brothers, was placed in an academy at York, Pa., where he remained nearly two years, pursuing a course of classical study. When he was sixteen years of age his elder brother, who was living in Philadelphia, took him into his family, where he remained about four years. During this period he attended for a time the College of Philadelphia, and afterward, at the beginning of his eighteenth year, took up the study of medicine under Dr. William Shippen.

In the summer of 1785 he accompanied the commission, of which his uncle, Mr. Rittenhouse, was a member, that was engaged in running the western boundary line of Pennsylvania. Young Barton was absent from Philadelphia five months, and it was on this expedition that he gained his first acquaintance with the Indians and began his researches into their medicines and pathology, their general customs and history, which received a share of his attention for the rest of his life.

In order to obtain a thorough medical training it was at that time necessary to go abroad. Accordingly, young Barton repaired to Edinburgh in the autumn of 1786, where he studied for two years, with the exception of a few months spent in London. Having become a member of the Royal Medical Society at Edinburgh, he won the Harveian prize of that association for a dissertation on the Hyoscyamus niger of Linnæus (black henbane). Barton's first book was issued while he was in London, in the early part of 1787. It was a little pamphlet, 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. Considering his youth he was only twenty-one years of age—and the fact that he was afflicted with ill health when he wrote it, this production is very creditable; but it contained some ill-founded theories and other crudities that he readily and candidly acknowledged only a few months later. For a number of reasons—among them the failure of two professors to show him courtesies that he had reason to expect—he left Edinburgh and took his degree at Göttingen, returning to America toward the close of the year 1789. He began to practice his profession in Philadelphia, where his knowledge of science soon caused him to be looked upon as one of the rising young men of the day.

The trustees of the College of Philadelphia having instituted a professorship of Natural History and Botany, appointed Dr. Barton, then only twenty-four years of age, to the chair. This appointment was confirmed in the following year, when the college united with the University of Pennsylvania, and was held by him for the rest of his life. Dr. Barton thus became the first instructor in natural history in Philadelphia, and probably was the first in any American college. Five years later the professorship of Materia Medica in the university became vacant, and this chair also was assigned to Dr. Barton and was held by him until he succeeded to that of Dr. Rush. On January 28, 1798, he received an appointment as one of the physicians of the Pennsylvania Hospital, which position he held for the rest of his life. Dr. Barton was a man of high ambition, and being deeply impressed by the well-deserved fame of Prof. Rush, spared no exertions to equal it. When the latter died, he very naturally desired to obtain his professorship, and his application was followed in a few months by his appointment.

Dr. Barton had been from early life subject to hæmorrhages and to attacks of gout—his period of illness while a student at Edinburgh was due to these causes—and he had further weakened his health by too great application to his scientific and professional labors. He had sustained a severe hæmorrhage just before undertaking the labor of preparing for his new position. He had delivered but two courses of lectures on the practice of medicine when his increasing ill health decided him to try the effect of a sea voyage. He accordingly sailed for France in the spring of 1815, and returned in November of that year, but without gaining the benefit hoped for. Hydrothorax came on soon after he landed in New York, and it was three weeks before he was able to reach home. His condition became rapidly worse, and on the morning of December 19, 1815, he was found dead in bed.

Only three days before his death he wrote a memoir on a genus of plants which had been named in honor of him, and requested his nephew, Dr. W. P. C. Barton, to make a drawing to accompany it. The latter did so, and read the memoir at the next meeting of the American Philosophical Society. Dr. Barton was elected to this society January 16, 1789, before his return from his medical studies abroad, and had been one of its vice-presidents since January 1, 1802. The printed Transactions of the society afford abundant evidence of his activity as a member and as a man of science. For three years in succession, beginning with 1797, he was chosen to deliver the annual oration.

In his youth Dr. Barton had suffered the discomforts and hindrances of poverty and the persecutions of those who bore him ill will. But it was not many years before the income from his lectures and his books had lifted him above the influence of want.

Being prevented by his professional engagements from making explorations in search of plants and other objects of natural history, he employed others to collect for him, advancing his favorite sciences by this means. Frederick Pursh, in his Flora Americæ Septentrionalis (London, 1814), describes an excursion that he was enabled to take by the aid of Prof. Barton. Starting in the beginning of 1805, he went along the mountain chain of Virginia and the Carolinas, and returned through the coast lands, reaching Philadelphia late in the autumn. Similar assistance was extended to Thomas Nuttall, "whose zeal and services," to use the words of Dr. Barton, "have contributed essentially to extend our knowledge of the northwestern and western flora of North America, and to whom the work of Frederick Pursh is under infinite obligations." Pursh himself gives due credit for Nuttall's contributions. A genus of plants (resembling cactus), first described by them, was named Bartonia, in honor of "their mutual friend Dr. B, S. Barton." In a paper written by Dr. Barton, a few days before his death, he says of Nuttall:

"I became acquainted with this young Englishman in Philadelphia several years ago; and observing in him an ardent attachment to and some knowledge of botany, I omitted no opportunity of fostering his zeal, and of endeavoring to extend his knowledge. He had constant access to my house, and the benefit of my botanical books.

"In 1810 I proposed to Mr. Nuttall the undertaking of an expedition entirely at my own expense and under my immediate direction, to explore the botany, etc., of the northern and northwestern parts of the United States and the adjoining British territories." Dr. Barton further relates that Nuttall set out on this journey in April, 1810, but he deviated from the route which had been pointed out to him, having been prevailed upon to ascend the Missouri with other travelers, whose objects were principally traffic. Returning, he reached St. Louis in the autumn of 1811. "In the latter end of the year 1811, Mr. Nuttall returned to England by the way of New Orleans. Previously to his departure he transmitted to me a number of the dried specimens and seeds which he had collected." It was on this trip that Nuttall found two species of the genus that he named Bartonia, descriptions and specimens of which he furnished to his patron.

Among the early printed works of Dr. Barton was a Memoir concerning the Fascinating Faculty which has been ascribed to the Rattlesnake and other North American Serpents, published in 1796. He issued a supplement to this memoir four years later, and a new edition in 1814. The original paper had been read before the American Philosophical Society. He also undertook a work on the materia medica of the United States, issuing an opening part in 1798, a second part in 1804, and an edition of the two combined in 1810. His most important publication was his Elements of Botany, a work of 508 pages, octavo, illustrated with thirty plates, which first appeared in two volumes in 1803. A second edition of the first volume was issued in 1812, and of the second volume in 1814, with forty plates. After the author's death. Dr. William P. C. Barton published, in 1836, a revised edition in one volume, condensed by omitting the quotations from Latin and English poets, certain tabular views that had become antiquated, and the index. To this edition is prefixed a biographical sketch, prepared by Dr. W. P. C. Barton at the request of the Philadelphia Medical Society, of which Dr. B. S. Barton had been president from February, 1809, till he died, and read before that society February 24, 1816. The Elements of Botany was republished in London, and was translated into Russian.

Another considerable work was his New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America, which appeared in 1798. Other subjects on which he published more or less fully were the natural history of Pennsylvania, the disease of goiter, the generation of the opossum, the principal desiderata in natural history (read before the Philadelphia Linnæan Society), Siren lacertina, the hellbender, the bite of the rattlesnake, the honeybee, the jerboa, and the stimulant effects of camphor upon vegetables. He issued also the first part, sixty-four pages, of a work on paleontology, entitled Archceologiæ Americanæ Telluris Collectanea et Specimina. In the preface to this fragment he says, "I at one time, indeed for some years together, flattered myself that I should have found leisure to have devoted a considerable portion of my life to the study of organic geology," but adds that his recent succession to the chair of Dr. Rush would prevent any extensive or systematic attention to this subject. An ardent thirst for literary fame, which was present in Prof. Barton throughout his life, made him an indefatigable student and writer. Several ambitious undertakings were left unfinished by him. The following three papers that he had read before the American Philosophical Society remained unpublished at his death: a eulogy on Dr. Priestley, with whom Dr. Barton had been acquainted; a geographical view of the trees and shrubs of North America; and a memoir (which gained the Magellanic premium) concerning a considerable number of pernicious insects of the United States. Prof. E. A. W. Zimmerman, of Brunswick, translated into German and published the memoir on the fascinating faculty of serpents and that on the bite of the rattlesnake.

In 1797 Dr. Barton married a daughter of Mr. Edward Pennington, of Philadelphia, who, with their only children, a son and a daughter, survived him. He named his son after Mr. Thomas Pennant, an English naturalist and author of Arctic Zoölogy, with whom he became acquainted while a medical student.

Dr. Barton was extremely cautious about accepting human testimony in matters of science, and in one of his publications he declares that "credulity is the most injurious feature in the character of the naturalist as well as that of the historian. Its influence in one individual is often felt and propagated through many ages. Unfortunately, too, it has been the vice of naturalists, or those who have touched on questions relative to natural history."

In a general description of Prof. Barton his nephew says: "As a medical teacher he was eloquent, instructive, and when occasion called for it quite pathetic. His voice was good, though attenuated, penetrating, and sometimes rather sharp—his enunciation clear and distinct—his pronunciation constrained, and his emphasis, owing to his remarkable kind of punctuation, and a desire to be perspicuously understood, was studied, forced, and often inappropriate. In his lectures his diction was cacophonous and unpleasant.

"As a writer he is ingenious, rich in facts, profound in research, and always abounding in useful information. He wanted, however, in a great degree, a talent for generalizing. Hence his various works are characterized by an egregious want of method or perspicuous arrangement. His style, it must be confessed, is always diffuse, inelegant, and frequently tautological. As he never corrected what he once wrote, or at least but rarely, these defects in his composition were the natural consequences of his vehemence in writing. His punctuation is truly remarkable, and, for a man of his discernment and extensive reading, singularly incorrect.

"As a physician, he discovered a mind quick in discriminating disease, skillful in the application of appropriate remedies, though he certainly was a very cautious if not timid practitioner. No man read more extensively on the subject of diseases—in fact, he was deeply versed in pathological knowledge derived from books. As, however, his medical practice was never very extensive, his practical observations delivered in his lectures were strikingly marked with the evidences of overweening caution. Hence he recommended to his pupils, and always employed himself, unusually small doses of medicine. He was, however, in the main, an observing and intelligent practitioner, and was remarkably assiduous in his attentions and soothing in his behavior to his patients.

"In figure he was tall and exceedingly well formed; in middle life he might be considered as having been handsome. His physiognomy was strongly expressive of intelligence, and his eye was remarkably fine and penetrating.

"In temperament he was irritable and even choleric. His spirits were irregular, his manners consequently variable, impetuous, vehement. These repeated vacillations between equanimity and depression were generally owing to the sudden and repeated attacks of his continual earthly companion—irregular gout.

"In familiar conversation he was often elegant, remarkably facetious, but never witty.

"As a parent he was kind, tender, and indulgent to a fault.

"He possessed some high virtues; among the most elevated of them was his unaffected love of country. Indeed, his patriotic feelings were not only strong, but frequently expressed with unreserved warmth."

A sketch of Barton, extracted from that by his nephew, was published in The Portfolio for April, 1816 (Philadelphia), and in an editorial note prefixed to it occurs this statement: "Our estimate, too, of the character of the deceased is somewhat different from that which has been formed by the author of this 'Sketch.' Dr. Barton was a very industrious man in the pursuit of science, and though we do not think that he has contributed much to enlarge its bounds, we are willing to believe that his collections will facilitate the labors of the student, to whom he has left a laudable example of active diligence and unwearied perseverance."

Dr. Barton was in correspondence with many prominent naturalists and physicians both at home and abroad. He established an enviable foreign reputation, as is attested by his membership in the Imperial Society of Naturalists of Moscow, the Linnæan Society of London, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Danish Royal Society of Sciences, and the Royal Danish Medical Society.


Speaking of travel as a means of learning, and of the great expansion that has been given to it of late years, Dr. B. W. Richardson calls such a mode one in which the surface of the earth becomes a living map, and the spoken languages the living grammars a mode that must extend day by day as the mind yearns for more knowledge and the power that springs from it. No end is visible to him of the line of travel now inaugurated, and he has visions of university ships manned and supplied, instead of guns and fighting men, with professors, laboratories, observatories, and libraries, and in which voyages of research shall be made by all classes round the world.