March 27, 1724
New York City
March 10, 1766
"[Jane Colden] is perhaps the only lady that has so perfectly studied your system. She deserves to be celebrated."
English botanist Peter Collinson to Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus.
Botanist Jane Colden was America's first great woman scientist. Having grown up on an estate in the New York countryside, Colden was exposed to nature at an early age. She was trained by her father, Cadwallader Colden, who was active in politics and had a strong interest in science. He began teaching his daughter about science after observing her natural inclination toward botany (a branch of biology dealing with plant life). Colden quickly mastered botany techniques as well as the system of plant classification devised by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. She soon rose to the top of the scientific community and carried on correspondences with many well-known botanists. By the time Colden settled into domestic life after marrying in 1759, she had already established a reputation that far surpassed any expectations for colonial American women.
Begins studying botany
Jane Colden was born on March 27, 1724, in New York City. Both her parents, who were Scottish immigrants, came from respected and well-educated families. Her mother, Alice (Christie) Colden, was the daughter of a clergyman. Her father, Cadwallader Colden, graduated from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he studied medicine. His love of science was a major influence on his daughter. Cadwallader settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1710 and then moved to New York City in 1718. He held a variety of government positions, including surveyor general, acting governor, and member of the council of the Province of New York.
Although Cadwallader was active in politics throughout his life, his main interest was the study of science. Therefore, when Colden was four years old, Cadwallader moved his family to Coldengham estate, which was located just outside Newburgh, New York. He then devoted his attention to science, mainly the study of botany. Jane Colden, who was educated at home, showed a natural inclination toward the study of botany as well. Her father noticed that she liked to read and that she was particularly interested in the family garden. When Jane was twenty-five, Cadwallader trained her as a botanist.
One of the major contributions Cadwallader made to his daughter's training was having her read "Explication of the Principles of Botany," a translation of the work of Linnaeus. As a result, she learned the English translations of many Latin botanical terms and quickly mastered the Linnaean system of plant classification. While her skills as a botanist progressed, she learned to sketch plants and to make ink impressions of leaves. Colden also mastered English descriptions of plants, and by 1757 she had compiled a catalogue of almost four hundred local plants.
Corresponds with important botanists
Colden became a botanist at a time when there was considerable scientific activity throughout the world. Cadwallader was so impressed with his daughter's abilities that he introduced her to the great botanists of America and Europe. A common practice among botanists at the time was to trade plant samples overseas. During the 1750s, Jane Colden corresponded with major botanists, including John Ellis and Peter Collinson in London and Charles Alston and Robert Whytt in Edinburgh. She even corresponded with J. F. Gronovius and the great botanist Linnaeus, who had been her primary inspiration. She actually met American naturalist Alexander Garden when he visited Coldengham. She also met American botanists John and William Bartram (see John Bartram entry) when they stopped by the estate during their expedition of the Catskill Mountains.
Women as scientists
Jane Colden was considered America's first great woman scientist. She was also one of the few female scientists of her day. If the attitude of her father, Cadwallader Colden, is any indication, it would have been difficult for a woman to pursue an interest in science at the time. Cadwallader was a government official for the Province of New York and an active botanist. Although he regarded women as incapable of rigorous scientific study, he did, however, believe that women could become botanists. He held the almost stereotypical view that women had natural-born ability to recognize beauty, and that they were sympathetic and nurturing. Therefore, he reasoned, women could at least make a limited contribution to serious fields such as medicine, which at the time was heavily influenced by botany.
After Cadwallader taught his daughter botany, he was surprised at her considerable abilities. As part of Jane's training, Cadwallader translated the work of Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Jane mastered the rigid Linnaean system of plant classification so perfectly that she impressed the entire elite community of botanists. She even collaborated with her father on one of his botanical studies. Cadwallader's attitude toward women is evident in his advice to his daughter Elizabeth: "You have been a Dutyfull Child to your Parents. . . . Let your Dress, your Conversation, and the whole Business of your life be to please your husband and to make him happy." As a rule, this was all that most women could strive for during the colonial period.
Colden was highly respected by these important botanists. In their own correspondences, they constantly praised her work. For instance, Garden, who considered her work "extreamly accurate," wrote to Ellis on March 25, 1755: "not only the doctor himself [Cadwallader] is a great botanist, but his lovely daughter is greatly master of the Linnaen method, and cultivates it with assiduity [diligence]." On April 25, 1758, Ellis even suggested to Linnaeus that he label a new plant "Coldenella" as a tribute to her. Even though Linnaeus had already named the plant, he still offered praise for Colden's work. Colden herself was the first scientist to describe the gardenia, which she named after Garden.
Pursues domestic life
On March 12, 1759, Colden married William Farquhar, a Scotsman who practiced medicine in New York City. A friend of Garden, Farquhar knew some of the Scottish botanists who had corresponded with his wife. While there are few records of Colden's personal life, she is known to have established her reputation as a botanist during the 1750s. One of her most important contributions to botany, her description of the gardenia, was included in an Edinburgh publication titled Essays and Observations. Her work on plant classification was published in a Scottish scientific journal in 1770, four years after her death. After marrying Farquhar in 1759, Colden is thought to have spent her remaining years housekeeping and raising her only child, who died in 1766. Colden died the same year, on March 10, 1766.
For further research
James, Edward T., and others, eds. Notable American Women, 1607–1950, Volume I. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 357–58.
Johnson, Allen, and others, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1946–58.