(b. Selby [?], Yorkshire, England, ca. 1600, d. Basing, Hampshire, England, September 1644)
The year of Thomas Johnson’s birth and his parentage are unknown. He was certainly born in Yorkshire, probably at Selby; and, if there, possibly in either 1600 or 1605. He lived in Lincolnshire before 1620; and his travels in 1626 in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, and County Durham suggest connections with the bourgeoisie and lesser landed gentry there.
On 28 November 1620 Johnson was apprenticed to the London apothecary William Bell and on 28 November 1628 was made a free brother of the Society of Apothecaries. His laudatory Latin contribution to John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole, Paradisus terrestris, published in 1629, shows that he rapidly gained eminence in his profession. In 1629 George Johnson, son of Marmaduke Johnson of Rotsea in Holderness, Yorkshire, was bound apprentice to Thomas Johnson, who had certainly been to Rotsea in 1626, presumably to visit his relatives there. By 1633 Johnson was established at his apothecary’s shop on Snow Hill, London, where it is likely that his kinsman George continued the practice after Thomas’ death. By 1630 he had become acquainted with Dr. George Bowles and by 1631 with John Goodyear, who with John Parkinson and Johnson himself were the ablest British botanists of the first half of the seventeenth century. On 12 December 1633 Johnson was admitted liveryman of the Society of Apothecaries, and on 3 August 1640 he was sworn to the Society’s Court of Assistants.
By 1642, with the outbreak of civil war, the position of Royalist citizens in London was precarious; and although Johnson attended the Apothecaries’ Court on 8 December 1642, at about that time he apparently joined other prominent London Royalists with Charles I at Oxford. Johnson figures among the notorious “Caroline creations” at Oxford University. He was made bachelor of physic on 31 January 1643 and doctor of physic on 9 May 1643, no doubt in recognition of his loyalty, although he was academically more deserving than most of the recipients. As Lieutenant Colonel Johnson he was in the king’s army at basing House on 7, November 1643, when it was besieged by Sir William Waller. On 14 September 1644, still under siege, Johnson was “shot in the shoulder, whereby contracting a Feaver he dyed a fortnight after.” He probably left a widow and a son, Thomas, who was bound apprentice to the Society of Apothecaries on 10 May 1649.
Johnson’s Iter plantarum (1629) is a lively description of a botanical journey into Kent and of a visit to Hampstead Health. The lists of plants observed establish him as the foremost British field botanist of his day, and the Iter is the first local flora of Britain.Descriptio itineris (1632) brought the total number of species recorded for the first time in Kent to over 300; it includes an additional list of species for Hampstead Health.
In 1632 Johnson was commissioned to produce within a year a revised edition of John Gerard’s Herball (1597). The changes which Johnson made in his edition of 1633 are quite remarkable. A new set of 2,766 wood- block illustrations was incorporated into the text of 1,634 folio pages (with about forty leaves of additional matter), and many of Gerard’s mistakes were corrected. Johnson wrote on p. 1114: “Our author here (as in many other places) knit knots somewhat intricate to loose.” Passages which Johnson substantially emended were marked with a dagger, and completely new ones with a double cross. Contributions by his friends John Parkinson, George Bowles, John Goodyear, and others are acknowledged by name. Many of the additions are based on Johnson’s own journeys. In all, about 120 plants were recorded for the first time in Britian in the Iter, the Descriptio, and his edition of Gerard. Another excellent addition by Johnson to Gerard is a survey of the history of botany, the first such in English. The 1636 reprint of the Herball contains only minor corrections but adds Johnson’s intention, with the help of some of his friends, to travel over the greater part of England to discover the native plants.
An account of a botanical journey to Bath and Bristol, including the already famous Avon gorge, appeared in Mercurius botanicus in 1634. Mercurii botanici pars altera (1641) describes Johnson’s last and longest journey into North Wales, made in 1639. In this he clearly stated his intentions: having published a catalogue of all the plants found on his previous excursions, he proposed to add the discoveries of his friends and records from the literature to his own observations; he hoped to add accurately drawn figures and eventually, with his friend Goodyear, to publish their histories; and he hoped that others would notify him of their records. Johnson intended the two parts of the Mercurius to be a complete catalogue of all known British plants, a total of about 900, of which nearly fifty were new to Britain. After Johnson’s death William How brought together the two parts of the Mercurius in Phytologia Britannica (1650), a hasty and defective compilation which earned How undeserved credit.
Thomas Johnson, apothecary, soldier, and botanist, was almost certainly the same Thomas Johnson whose translation of the massive works of the French surgeon Ambroise Paré first appeared in 1634; this English edition had a profound influence on British surgery until at least the end of the seventeenth century. The editorial method, prose style, and botanical emendations strongly suggest the author.
Johnson was an amiable companion, a brave soldier, a successful apothecary, and an industrious and scholarly editor. Although he contributed nothing to the principles or ideas of scientific botany, he stands high among the pioneers of the study of the British flora. His botanical work was respected by John Ray, inspired Sir Joseph Banks to an interest in plants, and continues to give pleasure to many botanists. Furthermore, his edition of the works of paré had a profound and beneficial influence on British surgery.
He is commemorated in the name given by Robert Brown to the liliaceous genus Johnsonia.
I. Original Works.A complete bibliography and references to related works are given in the excellent biography by H. Wallis Kew and H. E. Powell, Thomas Johnson, Botanist and Royalist (London, 1932). Johnson’s principal works are Iter plantarum investigationis ergo susceptum. A decem sociis, in agrum Cantianum. Anno Dom. 1629. Julii 13.Ericetum Hampstedianum. . . 1 Augusti (London ); Descriptio itineris plantarum investigationis ergo suscepti, in agrum Cantianum Anno Dom. 1632.Et enumeratio plantarum in ericeto Hampstediano . . . ([London], 1632); The Herball or Gnerall Historie of Plantes, Gathered by John Gerarde.... Very Much Enlarged and Amended. . . (London, 1633; repr. with minor alterations, 1636); Mercurius botanicus. Siva plantarum gratia suscepti itineris, anno 1634 descriptio. . . (London, 1634); The Workes of That Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey. Translated out of Latine and Compared With the French (London, 1634; reiss., 1649, 1665, 1678); and Mercurii botanici pars altera Sive Planta-rum gratia suscepti itineris in Cambriam siva Walliam descriptio . . . (London, 1641). The Iter, Descriptio, Mercurius, and Mercurii . . . pars altra were reprinted by T. S. Ralph in Opuscula omnia botanica Thomae Johnsoni (London, 1847). Facs. repr. of the exceedingly rare Iter and Descriptio, with English trans, by C. E. Raven, appear in Thomas Johnson. Botanical Journeys in Kent and Hampstead, J. S. L. Gilmour, ed (Pittsburgh, Pa., 1972).
II. Secondary Literature. No significant biographical details have come to light since the account of Kew and Powell. The best appreciations of Johnson’s botanical work are in Agnes Arber, Herbals, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1938), pp. 134- 135, more extensively in C.E. Raven Early English Naturalists From Neckham to Ray (Cambridge, 1947), ch. 16, “Thomas Johnson and His Friends” and, for the early journeys, by several contributors to Gilmour’s ed. of the Iter and Descriptio. A vivid account of the importance of Johnson’s trans. of the works of Ambrose Paré is given by sir D’ Arcy power, “Epoch- making Books in British Surgery. VI. Johnson’s Ambroise Parey,” in British Journal of Surgery, 16 (1928), 181- 187.
D. E. Coombe
Thomas Johnson was the first governor of Maryland. He served in the Maryland House of Delegates in the early 1780s and was chief judge of the Maryland General Court from 1790 to 1791. Johnson was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1791, where he served a brief and uneventful term before resigning because of poor health.
Johnson was born November 4, 1732, to Thomas Johnson and Dorcas Sedgwick Johnson, in Calvert County, Maryland. Johnson was one of twelve children, and he received no formal education as a child. His parents sent him to Annapolis, Maryland, to work as a registry clerk at the land office under Thomas Jennings. Following his apprenticeship, Johnson began to study law in the office of Stephen Bordley, an Annapolis attorney. He was admitted to the bar in 1760, and practiced law before entering politics.
In 1766 Johnson married Ann Jennings, the daughter of his former instructor at the Annapolis land office. They were married for twenty-eight years, until Ann died. They had eight children.
From 1762 to 1773, Johnson was a member of the Maryland colonial assembly. In 1765 he became famous for his strong opposition to the stamp act, which was the first tax imposed on the colonists by Great Britain. Johnson was named a delegate to the Maryland convention in 1774, and a Maryland representative to the First continental congress, in Philadelphia. He also served on a committee that drafted a petition of grievances to King George III. Johnson formally nominated george washington before the Continental Congress in 1775 for the
position of commander in chief of the Continental Army.
"America[ns] wish … to preserve the constitutional liberty … handed down to us by our ancestors. If our petition is rejected by … our friends in England, will not our very moderate men on this side of the water be compelled to own the necessity of opposing force by force?"
Johnson supported the Declaration of Independence, although he was not present in Philadelphia on the day it was signed. He voted for Maryland's independence on July 6, 1776, and contributed to the new state constitution that year. During the American Revolution, he served in the Maryland militia as first brigadier general. In 1777 Johnson led nearly two thousand men from Frederick, Maryland, to General Washington's headquarters in New Jersey. Also in 1777 Johnson was elected the first governor of
Maryland, from which position he was able to provide crucial assistance in keeping Washington's army peopled and equipped. Johnson continued to serve as Maryland's governor until 1779, when he declined a fourth term. He entered the Maryland House of Delegates in 1780.
Johnson also pursued interests outside of politics. In 1785 he helped organize the state-chartered Potomac Company. This company grew from Johnson's idea to improve navigation along the Potomac River and open a passageway to the West Coast. Johnson began the company with the help of his good friend Washington, who served as president of the company. In the end the enterprise proved unprofitable.
In 1788 Johnson supported ratification of the U.S. Constitution at the Maryland Constitutional Convention. From 1790 to 1791, he served as chief judge of the Maryland General Court. In 1791 President Washington nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Johnson was hesitant to serve on the Supreme Court because at that time each justice was responsible for riding circuit court duties. Chief Justice john jay assured Johnson that every effort would be made to relieve the rigors of the circuit court duty, but Johnson was assigned to the Southern Circuit, which included all the territory south of the Potomac. Johnson sought a reassignment. When Jay refused to accommodate that request, Johnson resigned, citing poor health. He had served as an associate justice for just over one year. During his brief and uneventful Supreme Court tenure, he had authored only one opinion.
Johnson continued his public service, becoming a member of the board of commissioners of the federal city, appointed by President Washington to plan a new national capital on the Potomac. That commission voted to name the new city Washington and selected a design submitted by Pierre L'Enfant. Johnson was present in September 1793 when the cornerstone for the new Capitol was laid.
President Washington nominated Johnson to serve as secretary of state in 1795, but Johnson declined. Instead, Johnson retired to Frederick, Maryland, where he died October 26, 1819.
Witt, Elder, ed. 1990. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.