Thursday, August 05, 2004

Amos Eaton as Teacher and Promoter of Botany

Amos Eaton has received prominent recognition as an inspiring educator who introduced many future leaders of natural science to the field. Most of these pupils came under his tutelage at the Rensselaer School where he was the senior professor from its origin in 1824. Among his notable students at Rensselaer were James Hall, J.C. Booth, Asa Fitch, Ebenezer Emmons, G.H. Cook, Abram Sager, E.S. Carr, Douglass Houghton, John Leonard Riddell, and Eben Horsford. Eaton also was progressive in women's education. With Eaton's oversight, two of his students, Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (younger sister of Emma Willard) and Laura Johnson wrote successful textbooks of botany aimed at a female readership. Mary Lyon, the founder (1837) of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) studied with Eaton in 1824/1825.

But these were developments of the 1820s. A much neglected fact in need of emphasis is that Eaton's pivotal role in botanical education had already begun in the years 1815-1820. This was a time of transition in American botany.

Prior to 1815, Philadelphia had been the center of botanical study. It was there that the American Philosophical Society and (by 1812) the Academy of Natural Sciences were located, and it was home to the prestigious University of Pennsylvania and its medical school. The Bartrams and Bartons, Nuttall, Pursh, Baldwin, Muhlenberg, and Darlington were all drawn to Philadelphia and its environs.

It is true that during the first decade and a half of the 19th century there was a smattering of activity in New York (David Hosack, Samuel Mitchill), Charleston (Shecut, Stephen Elliott), Lexington, Kentucky (Rafinesque), and Boston (Bigelow). However, it would not to be until the mid-1820s that New York was to unseat Philadelphia as the center for scholarly botanical activity, and fully another decade before Boston would supplant New York. During the transition years from approximately 1815 to 1825 Amos Eaton looms large as one of the key figures in American science.

Following completion of his Yale studies with Silliman and Ives in early 1817, Eaton moved to Western Massachusetts to accept a teaching position in mineralogy and botany at Williams College. Upon completion of those duties in September 1817, he published the first edition of the Manual of Botany. Armed with favorable endorsements, he began a peripatetic life, giving series of successful botanical lectures in neighboring villages. He had enthusiastic audiences at Northampton, Belchertown, Worcester, Monson, and Brimfield in the short interval between September 1817 and April 1818. He then settled in the Albany-Troy area of New York but continued the life of a nomadic lecturer in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont for several more years.

Lest one conclude that the attendees of these talks, which were aimed at the general populace, did not also make their mark, it is important to note that several Deerfield, Massachusetts citizens who had listened to Eaton in 1817 must be added (along with John Torrey) to the list of prize students who had early on been inspired by Eaton:

Rev. Edward Hitchcock (future Amherst College President and Professor of Chemistry and Natural History), Dr. Stephen West Williams and Dr. Dennis Cooley all began to collect plants, and arrange herbaria after hearing Eaton (well before his ascendancy at RPI).

Hitchcock wrote:
"...I always regarded him [Amos Eaton] as the chief agent of introducing a taste for these subjects in the Connecticut Valley. ... Dr. Stephen W. Williams, Dr. Dennis Cooley and myself, all of Deerfield, took hold of mineralogy and botany with great zeal. Dr. Cooley and myself collected nearly all the plants, phenogamous and cryptogamous, in the Valley. Dr. Cooley became an excellent botanist and even to his death in Michigan pursued the subject with zest."

Dr. S. W. Williams recalled ("Report of the Indigenous Medical Botany of Massachusetts"; Deerfield, 1819):
"...I became enamoured with the study of botany, and about the year 1816, in connection with Edward Hitchcock, now President of Amherst College, and Dennis Cooley, now of Michigan, who was then a student in the office of my father and myself. Nearly one thousand species were found within the borders of this town (Deerfield) in a single season, including those which were naturalized. Extensive herbariums were formed from these and those of Dr. Cooley and Dr. Hitchcock were among the earliest and most valuable in the country. ..."

Dr. Cooley's botanical pursuits continued lifelong, and in 1849 he published a Flora of Lake Superior (Catalogue of Plants Collected by W.A. Burt on the Primitive Region South of Lake Superior in 1846; in Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress at the Commencement of the First session of the Thirty-First Congress, Pt.iii; Washington, 1849).

His herbarium was donated in 1863 to the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). He will be the topic of a future posting here on Historica Botanica.

Yet other notable early (pre-Rennselaer School) botanical students of Eaton were:
  • Dr. Zina Pitcher (1797-1872), an army surgeon who practiced medicine in Detroit after 1836 following his military career in Michigan, Virginia, and Arkansas. He was elected President of the American Medical Association in 1856, edited the Peninsular Medical Journal (1855-1858), served as President of the Michigan State Medical Society (1855-1856) and authored 41 medical papers. Together with Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and General Lewis Cass, he founded the Michigan Historical Society in 1828. His large herbarium, acquired in 1880 by Isaac C. Martindale, was purchased in 1964 by the USDA for the National Arboretum. His botanical activities are memorialized in several species including "Pitcher's Hog Peanut" (Amphicarpaea bracteata var. comosa), "Pitcher's Thistle" (Cirsium pitcheri) and "Pitcher's Sandwort" (Arenaria patula).

  • Dr. Edwin James (1797-1861), who was naturalist and surgeon on Stephen Long's expedition to the Rocky Mountains. He attended lectures by Eaton in Albany and Troy.

For further information:

  • Botanical Beachcombers and Explorers: Pioneers of the 19th Century In the Upper Great Lakes by Edward G. Voss; Contributions from the University of Michigan Herbarium; Volume 13, 1978

  • Some American Medical Botanists Commemorated In Our Botanical Nomenclature by Howard A. Kelly, M.D.; The Southworth Company, 1914.

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