David Hosack's Elgin Botanic Garden

By Nicole Tarnowsky

Apr 12 2019

Elgin Botanic Garden was the first public botanical garden in the United States, erected on 5th Avenue between 47th and 51st street, on the footprint of what is now Rockefeller Center in New York City.

The garden was founded by Dr. David Hosack (1769–1835), one of the leading physicians and botanists of his time. For millenia, botany and medicine have been instrinsically linked and like many early american botanists, Hosack's medical training included extensive botanical studies. After studying medicine initially in New York, Hosack enrolled at University of Edinburgh in Scotland for further studies. It was here that his interest in botany grew. He spent four years in Britain studying medicine and botany, and when he returned to New York he continued a career in both. He was the founder of the New York Horticultural Society, and in 1801 founded Elgin Botanic Garden with his own funds.

In addition to his accomplishments as a physician and botanist, David Hosack is also known for being the attending physician during the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. He was friends and also the family physician for both men, ensuring that he would be treating one or the other of them after the ill fated duel.

In his interest to tie medicine and botany together, Hosack was able to maintain Elgin Garden for a time. After several years though it became more than he could afford and he sold the property to New York State in 1810, with the understanding that it would continue as a garden to serve medical students.  The State of New York transferred the property to Columbia College who did not have an interest in continuing the maintenance of the garden. It eventually fell into disrepair.

Hosack published an extensive list of the plants cultivated in Elgin Botanic Garden called Hortus Elginensis. Several herbarium specimens collected in Elgin Garden were listed in this publication. The second edition starts with this preface: "The establishment of a Botanic Garden in the United States, as a repository for the native plants of this country, and as subservient to the purposes of medicine, agriculture, and the arts, is doubtless an object of great importance."

Read more about David Hosack and Elgin Botanic Garden in Victoria Jackson's book, American Eden.

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