Cadwallader Colden

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Colden, Cadwallader

(b. Ireland, 7 February 1688; d. Flushing, New York, 20 September 1776),

botany. medicine, physics.

Although born in Ireland while his mother was on a visit, Cadwallader Colden was raised in Berwick shire, Scotland, where his father, the Reverend Alexander Colden of the Church of Scotland, had the church in Duns. Colden graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1705, studied medicine in London, and, feeling that he lacked funds to pursue a career in England, removed to Philadelphia in 1710. There he practiced medicine and engaged in business for a time; but, with the encouragement of Governor Robert Hunter, a fellow Scot, he moved to New York in 1718 and speedily rose to prominence in its politics and government. He was appointed surveyor general in 1720 and a member of the governor’s council in 1721. In 1761 he became lieutenant governor and several times thereafter served as acting governor. About 1727 he began to develop Coldengham, a country seat west of Newburgh; after 1739 he spent most of his time there until 1762, when he acquired the Spring Hill estate in Flushing. He remained a major force in government, aroused patriot wrath at the time of the Stamp Act, and died loyal to the crown.

Colden returned once to Scotland and there married Alice Christty in 1715; they had eight children who lived to maturity. Of these, Jane followed her father’s tutoring and made botanical contributions of her own, while David sought to extend some of his father’s scientific ideas, publishing most usefully in electricity.

Colden consistently aspired to scientific achievement. In Philadelphia he enjoyed the acquaintance of James Logan; and before removing to New York, he began a correspondence with British members of an international circle engaged in the study of natural history. He soon became a correspondent of Peter Collinson in England, J. F. Gronovius in Holland, and Carl Linnaeus in Sweden. With a group of American naturalists he participated in making known to the European members of the circle new species and genera of plants.

Having studied some botany under Charles Preston at Edinburgh, Colden pursued the improvement of his knowledge in America. He profited from the study of Gronovious’s Flora Virginica and even more from the writings of Linnaeus, whose system of classification he mastered. He did not, however, accept the Linnaean system easily, nor was he ever satisfied with it, feeling continuing need for a natural system of classification. Despite these feelings he sent Linnaeus a carefully cataloged and described collection of plants, which Linnaeus published under the title “Plantae Coldenghamiae” in the Acta Upsaliensis. Moreover, in Flora Zevlaniuca (1747), he conferred the accolade of naming a plant the Coldenia. Colden’s work was carefully done and was admired by taxonomists of his own day and later.

Colden interested himself in a great variety of sciences. A significant portion of his correspondence related to medicine; and he wrote several medical essays, some of which were published after his death. Probably his most influential publication was An Abstract From Dr. Berkley’s [sic] Treatise on Tar-water (1745), to which he added important reflections of his own. Among other contemporary publications were articles on the medical virtues of pokeweed and the New York diphtheria epidemic, which were published in London journals. Other of his ideas appeared as newspaper articles. Because Colden early gave up medical practice, he was sometimes speculative and incorrect in his observations—as in his manuscript essay on yellow fever.

Colden maintained an alertness to astronomical events of importance and corresponded on the application of astronomy to cartography and surveying. He wrote essays on light, on optics, and on waterspouts and published a piece on fluxions. His knowledge of mathematics was good, and he displayed significant insights in several fields. His History of the Five Indian Nations, although much of it was based on French accounts, was considered as reliable on both sides of the Atlantic.

Colden’s major scientific effort was the most ambitious ever attempted in the colonies. Conscious that Newton had admitted his inability to understand the cause of gravity, Colden sought to supply this deficiency by devising his own explanation. He began publishing on this subject with An Explication of the First Causes of Action in Matter, which appeared in 1746. The same year, a pirated edition was brought out in London; a German translation came out in 1748, and a French translation in 1751. In that year Colden issued a second, expanded edition in London under the title The principles of Action in Matter Several magazines published extracts and synopses; but when he produced a third, corrected and further expanded, edition in 1755, no publisher would touch it. He had to be content with a couple of magazine articles drawn from it and with the permanence anticipated from depositing the manuscript in the library of the University of Edinburgh.

Although specific reactions appeared slowly, Colden’s effort ultimately provoked much comment of widely varying character. None then realized that his method had been to elaborate upon uncoordinated texts drawn primarily from the “Queries” in Newton’s Opticks, where the great author had sought to suggest developmental possibilities (such phenomena as fermentation, putrefaction, and fertilization) residing in the corpuscular philosophy. Colden never realized that his work was in direct conflict with the laws of motion of the Principia, which he did not fully comprehend. He therefore resented being called an opponent of Newton and sought further to apply his method to explanations of heat, fermentation, putrefaction, colors, and fertilization. At the end, several qualified commentators dismissed the enterprise; Leonhard Euler pronounced it incompetent.

On the basis of his constructive achievements in botany and other fields, as well as his wide correspondence and European reputation, Colden was able to play a significant role in the American scientific community. He was an original member of the 1743 American Philosophical Society. He had usefull relationships with his fellow Scottish émigrés James Alexander, Alexander Garden, and William Douglass; and he knew well not only Logan but also John Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, and most other Americans active in science.


I. Original Works. Colden’s published botanical contributions were made in “Plantae Coldenghamiae,” in Acta Societatis regiae scientiarum Upsaliensis, 4 (1743), 81–136; 5 (1744–1750), 47–82. Among his published medical writings, the heavily annotated An Abstract From Dr. Berkley’s [sic] Treatise on Tar-Water (New York, 1745) was published separately as well as in a newspaper. In periodicals, he published “Extract of a Letter From Cadwallader Colden, Esq. to Dr. Fothergill Concerning the Throat Distemper, oct. l, 1753,” in Medical Observations and Inquiries, 1 (1757), 211–229; “The Cure of Cancers,” in Gentlemen’s Magazine, 21 (1751), 305–308; and “Farther Account of Phytolacca, or Poke-Weed,” ibid., 22 (1752), 302. Other medical essays appeared in newspapers and after his death. His History of the Five Indian Nations (New York, 1727; 2nd ed., London, 1747) was of ethnological as well as political significance; a continuation was published long after his death. The work he regarded as his magnum opus was An Explication of the First Causes of Action in Matter (New York, 1745 [actually 1746]). This was translated into German by A. G. Kastner (Hamburg, 1748) and also appeared in French (Paris, 1751). Colden issued an expanded edition under the title The Principles of Action in Matter (London, 1751) and published articles extending and explaining it in English periodicals.

The great hulk of Colden MSS are among the Colden Papers of the New-York Historical Society; most of these have been published: The Colden Letter Books, vols. 9 and 10 of New-York Historical Society, Collections (New York, 1876–1877) and The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, vols. 50–56, 67–68 of New York Historical Society, Collections (New York, 1917–1923, 1934–1935); some materials, especially scientific papers, remain unpublished. The third, MS ed. of The Principles of Action in Matter and some other items are in the library of the University of Edinburgh. Additional MSS are held by the Newberry Library, Chicago, and the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. Colden’s MS copybook (1737–1753) is in the Rosenbach Foundation, Philadephia.

II. Secondary Writings. The only biography is Alice M. Keys, Cadwallader Colden (New York, 1906), which does little with his scientific career. Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1956), pp. 38–48, describes his general role; one aspect of his science is examined in Brooke Hindle, “Cadwallader Colden’s Extension of the Newtonian System,” in William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 15 (1956), 459–475. Saul Jarcho has written on aspects of Colden’s medical career: “Cadwallader Colden as a Student of Infectious Disease,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 29 (1955), 99–115; The Correspondence of Cadwallader Colden and Hugh Graham on Infectious Fevers,” ibid., 30 (1956), 195–211; “Obstacles to the Progress of Medicine in Colonial New York,” ibid., 36 (1962), 450–461; and “The Therapeutic Use of Resin and of Tar Water by Bishop George Berkeley and Cadwallader Colden,” in New York State Journal of Medicine55 (1955), 834–840.

Brooke Hindle

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Cadwallader Colden

The American botanist and politician Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776), a diverse thinker whose scholarship encompassed natural history, the nature of the universe, and medicine, was also lieutenant governor of New York.

Cadwallader Colden was born on Feb. 7, 1688, in Ireland of Scottish parents; his father was a minister. He received a degree from the University of Edinburgh and then studied medicine in London. He emigrated to Philadelphia in 1710 and went to New York in 1718 at the request of Governor Robert Hunter, who made Colden surveyor general of the colony in 1720. This sinecure allowed him the leisure for a scientific career, although he remained interested in politics, serving as a member of the Governor's Council.

In 1739 Colden left New York City to live at his farm, Coldengham, where he spent much of his time in scientific study. He began corresponding with Peter Collinson, the London botanist, who brought Colden into the international natural history circle. Colden became one of the first men in Europe or America to completely master the new Linnaean system of plant classification, which he rigorously applied to the flora surrounding his farm. These descriptions, which he circulated in Europe, drew praise even from Linnaeus himself. Colden criticized the Linnaean reliance on sexual characteristics and suggested a more natural system.

Being located in America had been an advantage for his botanical work, but when Colden turned from natural history to speculations on the nature of the universe, even his finely honed, highly rational mind could not make up for his geographical isolation. An Explication of the First Causes of Action in Matter (1745) was his attempt to discover the cause of gravity, postulating a division of the material world into matter, light, and ether. Although it is possible to read an equation of energy with matter in the work, it was in general a rationally deduced system in no way based on the observations of scientists in Europe. He sent copies to European scientists, most of whom refused to comment, but the German scientist Leonhard Euler called it absurd. Colden never accepted the verdict and hoped, by tinkering, to perfect his theory. He consistently produced respectable medical treatises, although his abstract rational tendencies led him to write a dissertation on yellow fever without ever actually having seen a case of the disease.

In 1760 he realized an old ambition to be lieutenant governor of New York. He was a confidant of Governor George Clinton and wrote many speeches and papers for him. In 1764 he declared his intention to enforce the Stamp Act and the following year was burned in effigy by a mob. He tried to balance himself between the radicals and conservatives in the 1770s. After the Battle of Lexington, Colden retired to his Long Island estate, where he died on Sept. 28, 1776.

Colden had married Alice Cristie in 1715 and among their children, a daughter, Jane, became the first woman botanist. Their son David was also a scholar of some standing.

Further Reading

There is no up-to-date biography of Colden. Different aspects of his career are treated in Alice M. Keys, Cadwallader Colden, a Representative Eighteenth Century Official (1906), and in Isaac Woodbridge Riley, American Philosophy: The Early Schools (1907). General background may be found in Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735-1789 (1956).

Additional Sources

Fingerhut, Eugene R., Survivor, Cadwallader Colden II in Revolutionary America, Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1983. □