Finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Nonfiction
A New York Times Editors' Choice Selection
The untold story of Hamilton’s—and Burr’s—personal physician, whose dream to build America’s first botanical garden inspired the young Republic.
On a clear morning in July 1804, Alexander Hamilton stepped onto a boat at the edge of the Hudson River. He was bound for a New Jersey dueling ground to settle his bitter dispute with Aaron Burr. Hamilton took just two men with him: his “second” for the duel, and Dr. David Hosack.
As historian Victoria Johnson reveals in her groundbreaking biography, Hosack was one of the few points the duelists did agree on. Summoned that morning because of his role as the beloved Hamilton family doctor, he was also a close friend of Burr. A brilliant surgeon and a world-class botanist, Hosack—who until now has been lost in the fog of history—was a pioneering thinker who shaped a young nation.
Born in New York City, he was educated in Europe and returned to America inspired by his newfound knowledge. He assembled a plant collection so spectacular and diverse that it amazes botanists today, conducted some of the first pharmaceutical research in the United States, and introduced new surgeries to America. His tireless work championing public health and science earned him national fame and praise from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander von Humboldt, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
One goal drove Hosack above all others: to build the Republic’s first botanical garden. Despite innumerable obstacles and near-constant resistance, Hosack triumphed when, by 1810, his Elgin Botanic Garden at last crowned twenty acres of Manhattan farmland. “Where others saw real estate and power, Hosack saw the landscape as a pharmacopoeia able to bring medicine into the modern age” (Eric W. Sanderson, author of Mannahatta). Today what remains of America’s first botanical garden lies in the heart of midtown, buried beneath Rockefeller Center.
Whether collecting specimens along the banks of the Hudson River, lecturing before a class of rapt medical students, or breaking the fever of a young Philip Hamilton, David Hosack was an American visionary who has been too long forgotten. Alongside other towering figures of the post-Revolutionary generation, he took the reins of a nation. In unearthing the dramatic story of his life, Johnson offers a lush depiction of the man who gave a new voice to the powers and perils of nature.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
The physician attending the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr didn’t get a shout-out from Lin-Manuel Miranda, but Dr. David Hosack’s captivating life would make a great musical of its own. A surgical pioneer who treated patients from New York’s high society, Hosack was fascinated by the medicinal properties of plants, creating America’s first botanical garden; his research still pays dividends today. The founding fathers cast such a broad shadow that many of their contemporaries’ legacies have been lost—history professor Victoria Johnson’s immediate, descriptive storytelling finally gives Hosack a much-deserved moment in the spotlight.
Johnson, an associate professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College, dives deeply into the life of David Hosack (1769 1835), whose work as a leading physician and as the foremost American botanist of his time provides a window into the United States' formative post-Revolutionary years. Johnson first examines Hosack's early medical training, at Columbia College, Princeton, and the University of Edinburgh, and his efforts to increase the era's medical knowledge. In parallel, she explicates the political and personal rivalries that consumed the fledgling U.S., experienced firsthand by Hosack as attending physician at Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr's infamous 1804 duel. Johnson focuses, however, on Hosack's hard-won creation of the country's first botanical garden, lacing the text with surprisingly entertaining descriptions of some of the hundreds of plants Hosack enthusiastically acquired, such as the carnivorous roundleaf sundew, used by some Native Americans as a "wart remover... and also a love potion." Johnson exhibits a welcome eye for the telling detail noting, for instance, that for 18th-century medical students the "dissection season" began in autumn, when the weather cooled and corpses lasted longer. History buffs and avid gardeners will find Hosack an appealing and intriguing figure who doubles as an exemplar of the qualities of a vibrant and expanding America.