Josselyn, John (1608?-1675?)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

John Josselyn (1608?-1675?)

Physician and mountaineer


Voyages. The English physician John Josselyn voyaged to New England twice during the seventeenth century. His first voyage lasted several months during the summer of 1638. His second, much longer visit to America lasted from 1663 to 1671. Not much is known about Josselyns life. He was born and he died in England. His brother Henry lived in Maine, and John visited America partly to see him. No doubt Henry had told John of the wonders of America, and that compelled him to see them firsthand. He traveled up and down the New England coast, explored rivers, and journeyed into the mountainous interior of New Hampshire. He recorded his observations in two books: New-Englands Rarities Discovered (1672) and An Account of Two Voyages to New-England (1674). Josselyn described the landscape and native peoples, but his main interest was botany.

Wilderness. Josselyn practiced medicine at a time when cures and remedies lay within a bed of wildflowers or the bark of trees. Josselyn was not an empirical scientist; he was a collector. He acquired scientific information not in the laboratory but by exploring the countryside, recording observations, and taking samples. As an active scientist he used his newfound knowledge prescribing remedies for ailing New Englanders. Josselyn discovered that for a toothache one should place the powder of the root of the white hellebore in the tooth cavity. In An Account of Two Voyages to New-England he prescribed tobacco for colds, coughs, influenza, indigestion, gout, toothache, and licebut only if chewed or smoked in moderation. Josselyn based much of his medical knowledge on common sense, but he also relied on hearsay and folklore. He learned a great deal of questionable home remedies from Native Americans and colonial housewives. He believed, for example, that codfish had a stomach stone that if removed, ground, and drank with wine would cure kidney stones. If one had indigestion Josselyn prescribed drinking a mixture of wine and wolf dung. The heart of a rattlesnake, dried and mixed with wine, was an antidote to rattlesnake venom. Even if Josselyn was uncritical of his information, his account of New England plant life was the most complete discussion for over one hundred years.

Mount Washington. Josselyn went to great lengths (and heights) to discover the medicinal value of plants. At some point around 1663 he journeyed to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and ascended the tallest peak of New England, Mount Washington (6,288 feet). Josselyn was the first scientific mountaineer in American history. Mount Washington is not the tallest mountain in America, but it proved to be a challenge to the colonial adventurer with its strong winds and alpine environment. In New-Englands Rarities Discovered Josselyn recorded his exhausting journey, the snow he found on the peak, the topography of the mountain, and his observations of the surrounding landscape. He described as daunting terrible the wilderness north of the White Mountainsa region scarcely seen by Europeans before Josselyn.


John Josselyn, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England (London: Printed for G. Widdows, 1674);

Josselyn, New-Englands Rarities Discovered (London: Printed for G. Widdowes, 1672);

Raymond Stearns, Science in the British Colonies of North America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970).