American Medical Biographies/Bartram, John

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Bartram, John (1699–1777)

In his own words John Bartram of Philadelphia shall tell how he was first led to study that science which made him in after years America's leading botanist.

"One day," he says, "I was very busy in holding my plough (for thou seest that I am but a ploughman) and being weary I ran under a tree to repose myself. I cast my eyes on a daisy; I plucked it mechanically and viewed it with more curiosity than common country farmers are wont to do and observed therein very many distinct parts, some perpendicular, some horizontal. What a shame, said my mind, that thee shouldst have employed thy mind so many years in tilling the earth and destroying so many flowers and plants without being acquainted with their structures and their uses.… I thought about it continually, at supper, in bed, and wherever I went, … on the fourth day I hired a man to plough for me and went to Philadelphia. Though I knew not what book to call for, I ingenuously told the bookseller my errand, who provided me with such as he thought best and a Latin grammar. Next I applied to a neighboring schoolmaster who in three months taught me Latin enough to understand Linnaeus, which I purchased afterwards. Then I began to botanize all over my farm. In a little time I became acquainted with every vegetable that grew in the neighborhood.… By steady application of several years I acquired a pretty general knowledge of every plant and tree to be found on our continent. In process of time I was applied to from the old countries whither I every year send many collections."

So wrote America's earliest botanist and the founder of her first botanical garden, who was born March 23, 1699, in Derby, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, son of William and Elizabeth Hunt Bartram, the descendants of Richard Bartram of Derby, England, whose son, grandfather of our botanist, came over to Pennsylvania in 1682.

Left an orphan at the age of thirteen he was self-taught. The inheritance from an uncle of a farm in Derby placed him a little above those petty cares which fret the heart of a scientist. Haller in his "Bibliotheca Anatomica" speaks of him as a physician and certainly he devoted much of his time to physic and surgery, obtaining some celebrity in the latter. He prepared the notes and appendix to the American edition of Short's "Medicina Britannica," published by Benjamin Franklin in 1751. He bought for his botanical garden a piece of land about three miles from Philadelphia on the Schuylkill river and built a house with his own hands. He employed much of his time in specimen hunting and natural history research; no dangers deterring him; summits of mountains were explored; sources of rivers found, and all this at a time when to travel among the aborigines was a tremendous risk.

The modern explorer with his air bed, camp furniture, collapsible tent, is a pigmy contrasted with this man setting out when seventy years old from Philadelphia to explore in east Florida. It was at this time he was appointed botanist to the king and received orders to discover the source of the great river St. John. Four hundred miles he travelled and in the course of this journey made an accurate survey of the river, its lakes and branches, the soil, animals and climate. The survey was published in London.

An enterprising merchant in Philadelphia, one Joseph Breintnall, had before this taken some of Bartram's collections to Peter Collinson, the London botanist, which led to a fifty years correspondence between Bartram and learned men, such as Linnaeus, Sir Hans Sloane and Fothergill and to his election as a member of the Royal Society in London and in Stockholm. Anyone desirous of some pleasant reading about this genial and learned Bartram should take an hour or two with "The Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall" by Dr. William Darlington, Philadelphia, 1849.

In January, 1723, Bartram married Mary, daughter of Richard Maris, of Chester, and had two sons, Richard and Isaac. Two years after her death in 1727 he married Ann Mendenhall and had nine children, James, Moses, Elizabeth, Mary, William and Elizabeth (twins), Ann, John, and Benjamin.

William Bartram, the son (1739–1823), removed to North Carolina and engaged in business. This he abandoned before reaching the age of thirty and, accompanying his father to Florida, settled on the banks of the St. John's River where he cultivated indigo. Subsequent to 1771 he returned to his father's botanical gardens and gave his attention to botany. He wrote on his travels in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. In 1782 he was elected professor of botany in the University of Pennsylvania but declined on account of his health. He drew the illustrations for Barton's "Elements of Botany" and published the most complete list of American birds previous to Alexander Wilson. He wrote the life of his father.

John Bartram's personal character in all records is shown to be that of a genial philanthropist with a capability for righteous wrath on occasion. He seems to have anticipated Tolstoy in the "Simple Life;" his slaves emancipated before the war, sitting at the lower end of the dining-table and the fare plentiful but plain. He loved his Bible too and read it to his boys and girls. Over the windows of his study was carved:

Tis God alone, Almighty Lord
The holy One by me adored.
John Bartram, 1770.

"I want to die" were his last words as, nearly eighty years old, a short illness bore him, still keen-witted to the grave, September 22, 1777, and this utterance in days when death held great terror shows the man!

Some Amer. Med. Botanists, H. A. Kelly, 1914.
Medicina Britannica, Phila.
Biog., by Thomas Short.
Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall. Dr. Wm. Darlington, Phila., 1849.
Appleton's Cyclop. Amer. Biog., N. Y. 1887.