Garden, Alexander (1730?-1791)

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Alexander Garden (1730?-1791)



Origins. To a student of natural science born and raised in cold and rugged Scotland the lush forests and semitropical coastal lands of South Carolina must have seemed a kind of paradise. Alexander Garden emigrated there in his early twenties, shortly after completing his studies in the great intellectual center of Edinburgh and receiving his M.D. degree in 1753. In Prince William County, South Carolina, he entered practice as a physician to wealthy planters.

New Surroundings. Garden was enthralled by his new home. Virtually every plant and animal was new to the young doctor, and he was eager to share his interests and discoveries with a wider intellectual world than South Carolina offered. Opportunity came disguised as adversity. New emigrants to the American South typically underwent a period of adjustmentthen known as seasoningto the often fierce climate. Gardens seasoning apparently went badly, for after a years residence he traveled northward for his health. He quickly made contacts with some of the leading lights of Americas growing scientific community. In New York he met with Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Golden, also an avid botanist. Through Coldens impressive library, Garden first became acquainted with Carl Linnaeuss new system for classifying the worlds flora and fauna. Returning to South Carolina via Philadelphia, Garden conferred with the renowned Quaker botanist John Bartram.

Linnaeus. Back in South Carolina in 1755, Garden got the chance to see yet another facet of Americas natural variety. He accompanied an expedition to secure Cherokee support at the outset of the French and Indian War, penetrating as far as the Blue Ridge Mountains. Determined to live no longer in scientific isolation, he reported his observations from this trip to acquaintances in Britain and even attempted to open a correspondence with Linnaeus himself. Three years and several unanswered letters later, Garden finally received a reply from the great man. The ice broken, Garden and Linnaeus corresponded voluminously thereafter. To Linnaeus and to his faraway friends, Garden sent specimens of American animals and plants, proposing many new species that were often rejected by his European colleagues. Garden was not simply being a nuisance; in the world of natural science, discovering hitherto unknown species was the way to publication, recognition, and fame. He fared better with exotic reptiles and amphibiansthe Congo snake and the mud eel are two of Gardens discoveriesand achieved fame when a British colleague named a previously unclassified flower after him (Gardenia). Linnaeus also had Garden elected to the Swedish Royal Society of Upsala in 1763. British recognition came a decade later: in 1773 Garden was elected to the Royal Society of London. His scientific paper on the mysterious electric eel was read before the society in 1775. But by then the real news in London was of the outbreak of war in the colonies.

Loyalist. Garden was a Loyalist, but he managed at first to avoid undue attention from South Carolinian rebels. His son Alexander, at school in Britain, staunchly supported American independence, but Garden forbade his return. When the main theater of war turned to South Carolina in 1780, neither father nor son could maintain neutrality. Dr. Garden openly sided with the British, and Alexander Jr. came back against his fathers will and served the American army. When the war ended, Garden Sr. was exiled and his property confiscated by the victorious Americans. Although later granted permission to return with most of his property restored, Garden refused to go back to America. He had suffered severely from seasickness on his return to England, made worse by the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. He sought relief by traveling through Europe, and he ended his days in London on 15 April 1791. His exile and illness were made more bearable by the honors he received from the scholarly company he so craved.


Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America 1735-1789 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956).

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Alexander Garden

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