Although Hosack’s professional activities were important, his influence was more far reaching than his achievements. He was the eldest of six children of Alexander Hosack, a merchant from Elgin, Scotland, and Jane Arden Hosack, daughter of a Manhattan butcher. Educated at academies in Newark and Hackensack, he entered Columbia College in 1786 as a freshman but moved to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), from which he graduated with a B.A. in 1789. Following his medical studies with Nicholas Romayne in New York, Hosack studied under Benjamin Rush and Adam Kuhn at the University of Pennsylvania (M.D., 1791).
After a short medical practice in Alexandria, Virginia, he went to Edinburgh for “additional instruction.” After nine months in Scotland he lived in the London area, focusing on botany. There he met William Curtis, Thomas Martyn (Regius professor of botany at Cambridge), George Pearson, and Sir Joseph Banks, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He was especially favored by James Edward Smith, who presented him with duplicate specimens from the Linnaean herbarium (cf. Robbins, 1960) and proposed his election to the Linnean Society. When Hosack returned to the United States, he brought with him minerals later donated to Princeton University.
Hosack was the first in New York to operate for hydrocele by injection and the first American to tie the femoral artery for aneurysm. He opposed his medical colleagues on the origin and treatment of yellow fever and became a strong advocate of the contagion theory. From 1795, when he became professor of botany at Columbia College, a position he held, together with a subsequent post as professor of materia medica, until 1811, he was increasingly devoted to the development of a public botanic garden. In 1801 he founded in New York the twenty-acre Elgin Botanic Garden as a “repository of native plants, and as subservient to medicine, agriculture, and the arts.” Foreign plants and seeds were received from European and West Indian correspondents. In 1811 the garden was sold to the state but was not maintained. The site, once beyond the city borders, is now marked by a plaque at Rockefeller Center. Hosack’s plan to publish an “American Botany or a Flora of the United States” was also abortive but the botanical books he assembled passed to New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, the founding of which (1820) he influenced.
With his protégé John W. Francis, Hosack founded the American Medical and Philosophical Register, which appeared in four volumes from 1810 to 1814 and in which most of Hosack’s papers were reissued. Besides his classes in medicine and the writing of syllabi for them, he maintained a large practice and attended many notables, including Robert Fulton and Alexander Hamilton (he was attending surgeon at the Burr-Hamilton duel).
His fine library of four to five thousand volumes contained many presentation copies. Harriet Martineau; Joseph Sanson; David Douglas; Alexander Gordon; and Bernhard, duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, all mention Hosack’s warm hospitality, particularly after he moved to Hyde Park. Gordon called him the Sir Joseph Banks of America.
Hosack married first Catherine Warner, who died in childbirth, then Mary Eddy of Philadelphia, who bore him six sons and three daughters. A third marriage, to a well-to-do widow, Magdalena Coster, in 1825, enabled him to entertain lavishly, to acquire the 700-acre estate of Samuel Bard at Hyde Park, and to establish the short-lived Rutgers Medical College.
See Christine Chapman Robbins, “David Hosack’s Herbarium and Its Linnaean Specimens,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 104 (1960), 293–313; and the fully documented biography “David Hosack. Citizen of New York,” in Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 62 (1964), 1–246; a recent comprehensive list of publications, unpublished works, and correspondence is on pp. 212–240.
John W. Francis, Hosack’s pupil, later professional colleague and lifelong friend, remarks upon him with great favor in Henry Tuckerman, ed., Old New York, Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years (New York, 1865). The Francis papers are preserved in the New York Public Library, as is the MS diary of T.K. Wharton, containing numerous references to Hosack; see dates 28 July 1832, 30 March 1833, 11 Sept. 1839. Anna Murray Vail’s list of 205 “Botanical Books of Dr. Hosack,” in Journal of New York Botanical Garden, 1 (1900), 22–26, is supplemented in subsequent issues under “Library Accessions.” E. J. McGuire, “The Elgin Botanic Garden and New York Literary Institution,” in United States Catholic Historical Society. Historical Records and Studies, 4 (1906), 327–339, accounts for property sale.