Barton, Benjamin Smith

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Barton, Benjamin Smith

(b. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 10 February 1766; d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19 December 1815)

botany, zoology ethnography, medicine.

Barton was the author of the first botanical textbook published in the United States, Elements ofBotany (1803), which ran to six editions (three during his lifetime); an influential teacher at the University of Pennsylvania (his students included William Darlington, William Baldwin, Charles Wilkins Short, Thomas Horsfield, and Meriwether Lewis); the patron of Frederick Pursh and Thomas Nuttall, with whose specimens he hoped to produce a flora of North America; and the owner of the largest private natural history library of his time. Between 1797 and 1807 he assembled what was then the largest herbarium of native plants (1,674 specimens).

His father, Thomas Barton, attended Trinity College, Dublin; came to Pennsylvania in 1750; and married David Rittenhouse’s older sister, Esther, in 1753. Ordained in the Anglican Church, he worked with the Indians around Carlisle, and settled on Conestoga Creek. Benjamin’s mother died in 1774, and his father in 1780, leaving Benjamin an orphan at fourteen. Educated by his older brother, William, and at an academy in York, Pennsylvania, he early showed a liking for history, natural history, and drawing, but recurrent gout soon plagued his health. He commenced medical training at eighteen under Dr. William Shippen of Philadelphia. During 1785 he joined his uncle David Rittenhouse, commissioned to survey the western boundary of Pennsylvania. During the first of his two years (1786–1787) of medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, although twice ill, he won for his dissertation on black henbane the Harveian Prize, which he did not receive until about 1813. He had been made one of four annual presidents of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh and had been entrusted with a sum of the Society’s money, which he was unable to return before his departure.

Barton did not receive a medical degree from Edinburgh, nor is there confirmation that he did from Göttingen, but he received a diploma from Lisbon Academy, Portugal. He took no pride in the Lisbon diploma, however, and in 1796 he wrote (but may not have sent) a letter to D. Christopher Ebeling of Hamburg University, seeking a degree from that or another German university. In 1801 A Memoirconcerning the disease of Goitre, as it prevails in different parts of North America (Philadelphia, 1800) was published in Portuguese in Lisbon (his doctoral thesis?) and in 1802 in German in Göttingen.

Barton’s “irritable and even cholerick” disposition with his colleagues, influenced by his gout, was no doubt worsened by the consciousness of the sum unreturned to the Medical Society. As his nephew, W. P. C. Barton, wrote (p. 283): “… the struggles he made in early life through the most discouraging, nay appalling influence of want, added to the direful ravages of disease—his subsequent elevation appears astonishing … . He whose mental exertions survive such a fate, and who perseveres through it, is not, believe me, a common man!”.

In 1789, at the age of twenty-three, Barton returned to Philadelphia to become professor of natural history and botany; in 1795 he succeeded to the professorship of materia medica, and in 1813 he added the professorship of the practice of physic to his already too busy life. For ten years (1790–1800) he served as one of the American Philosophical Society’s curators, and from 1802 to 1815 as one of its vice-presidents. In 1797 he married Mary Pennington, by whom he had two children, Thomas Pennant and Hetty. He visited Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1802, and revisited Virginia in 1805.

Barton was continually publishing short papers on his observations, or those related to him by his associates, not always with permission or acknowledgment. His prose was diffuse and sometimes redundant; he seldom revised but expostulated in an intimate style. His interpretations of complex phenomena generally followed the views of the antiquarians. His bibliography is a farrago, for he continually announced projected works, varying their titles. He began a revision of Gronovius’ Flora Virginica, and a “Flora of Pennsylvania.” In 1808 he began editing successful European works, relating the content to American readers. Meanwhile, to the dismay of Jefferson and others, his natural history of the Lewis and Clark expedition lay unfinished.

In 1815 Barton revisited France and England, then died within two weeks of his return to Philadelphia. Barton had, said Elliott Coues, “every qualification of a great naturalist except success, his actual achievements being far from commensurate with his eminent ability and erudition.”


I. Original Works. Barton’s papers are preserved in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the possession of John R. Delafield. Barton launched the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal (1804–1809), to which he contributed numerous articles on medicine, natural history, physical geography, and lives of naturalists. Lists of his writings are found in Max Meisel, Bibliography of American Natural History, 3 vols. (New York, 1924–1929); Elements of Botany, 6th ed., William P. C. Barton, ed. (Philadelphia, 1836). pp. 27–30, illustrated, as were all editions. with drawings by William Bartram; Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., Early American Science, Needs andOpportunities for Study (Williamsburg, Va., 1955), p. 45; and Francis W. Pennell, “Benjamin Smith Barton as Naturalist,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 86 (1942), 108–122. W. L. McAtee edited “Journal of Benjamin Smith Barton on a Visit to Virginia, 1802,” in Castanea, 3 (1938), 85–117.

II. Secondary Literature. Additional sources, any of which must be read with caution as to the known facts and/or the bias of the writer in mind, are Jeannette E. Graustein, “The Eminent Benjamin Smith Barton,” in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 85 (1961), 423–438; John C. Greene, “Early Scientific Interest in the American Indian: Comparative Linguistics,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society104 (1960). 511–517 [John E. Hall] “Life of Benjamin S. Barton M.D.,” extracted from the paper read by W. P. C. Barton before the Philadelphia Medical Society shortly after his uncle’s death, in The Port Folio, 4th ser., 1 (1816), 273–287; Francis Harper, “Proposals for Publishing Bartram’s Travels,” in Library Bulletin of the American Philosophical Society (1945), 27–38; Francis W. Pennell, “The Elder Barton—His Plant-Collection and the Mystery of His Floras,” in Bartonia, no. 9 (1926), 17–34; and Edgar Fahs Smith, “Benjamin Smith Barton,” in Papers of the Lancaster County Historical Society, 28 (1924), 59–66. Barton presents his future biographer a challenge matched by few men of his period. The acidulous estimates of his students Charles Caldwell and James Rush may be balanced by the regard of DeWitt Clinton.

Joseph Ewan

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Benjamin Smith Barton

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