Colden, Jane (1724-1766)
Jane Colden (1724-1766)
Father’s Footsteps. Jane Colden’s interest in botany derived from her father, Cadwallader Colden. The Scotsman Colden immigrated to New York in 1710. A trained physician, his universal interests led him to study, experiment, and write on ethnography, physics, medicine, and government. Colden generally had a haughty, limited view toward women and science. He felt that most women were incapable of true scientific study. Ironically, however, he trained his daughter Jane in the systematic study of botany. He believed women could become adept students of plant life because of their innate ability to recognize beautiful things. Women were also naturally sympathetic and nurturing; hence they were able to contribute to the study and practice of medicine, which at this time continued to be heavily influenced by botanical research. Colden apparently saw scientific study as a worthwhile “amusement” to keep his daughter’s mind occupied and productive.
Accomplishments. Jane Colden’s abilities to observe, research, catalogue, and understand botany surprised her father and surpassed his narrow expectations. She was the first scientist to describe the gardenia. Although she had to read the works of Carolus Linnaeus in translation, she mastered the Linnaean system of plant classification perfectly. She catalogued, described, and sketched at least four hundred plants. She was active—as were so many other American and European botanists—in exchanging seeds and specimens of New World flora. Jane Colden was America’s first great woman scientist.
International Reputation. Jane Colden married Dr. William Farquhar in 1759, and until her death in 1766 she was involved in housekeeping and child-rearing. But her reputation as a great botanist had been established years before in the mid 1750s. Peter Collinson wrote Linnaeus that Jane Colden “is perhaps the first lady that has so perfectly studied your system. She deserves to be celebrated.” The South Carolina scientist Dr. Alexander Garden wrote that Jane Colden “is greatly master of the Linnaean method, and cultivates it with assiduity.” Her work on plant classification was eventually published in a Scottish scientific journal in 1770.
Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986);
Joan Hoff Wilson, “Dancing Dogs of the Colonial Period: Women Scientists,” Early American Literature, 7 (1973): 225–235.