Mar 27 2020
Highly respected among her male peers in the 18th century, Jane Colden received great accolades and is generally recognized as the first female American botanist. Yet she went largely unnoticed by the greater scientific community for well over a century after her death.
Born in New York City in 1724, she grew up in the Hudson Valley on the estate of her father, Cadwallader Colden, lieutenant governor of New York. The area was then called Coldenham, but today we would recognize it as a region just west of Newburgh in Orange County, New York.
Colden was taught by her father, a physician and scientist, to study plants using the system of scientific classification and nomenclature devised by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. This system is still the basis for naming and describing species today. In that era, women were not taught Latin, so her father translated Linnaeus’ Genera Plantarum into English for her. At Coldenham they hosted many prominent botanists of the time, including John and William Bartram, Peter Kalm, and Alexander Garden.
Between 1753 and 1758, Jane Colden compiled a manuscript that included original descriptions and illustrations for 341 plants in the Coldenham region, including one scientifically published in 1756 as Gardenia. Colden named it after her friend, botanist Alexander Garden. Unfortunately another plant, the fragrant flower we know as Gardenia, had already claimed this name; making Colden’s invalid. Linnaeus later described Colden’s plant as Hypericum virginicum, also known as Marsh St. John's Wort.
Still, her work on New York plants was highly praised. English scientist Peter Collinson wrote to Linnaeus in 1758: “As this accomplished lady is the only one of the fair sex that I have heard of, who is scientifically skillful in the Linnaean system, you, no doubt, will distinguish her merits, and recommend her example to the ladies of every country.”¹
Jane Colden died in childbirth in 1766 at the early age of 41. Her life as a botanical forerunner did not come to light until 1895, when James Britten published her biography “Jane Colden and the Flora of New York” in the Journal of Botany, British and Foreign.