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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Salisbury

Jane Colden: America's First Female Botanist

According to NYBG’s Article in Science Talk, Jane Colden can be considered America’s First Female Botanist. Her name may be familiar to many of you, but hers was a new name to me.

Though she amassed descriptions and illustrations for 341 plants, creating a manuscript that was never published, her work was not recognized until well after her untimely death in childbirth in 1766 at the age of 42. More than a century, James Britten published her biography in the Journal of Botany, British and Foreign in 1895. Her botanical studies focused on the NY state region of her childhood home, Coldengham.

Daughter of the Lieutenant Governor of NY who also happened to be a scientist and physician, Colden was trained in the Linnaean system of plant nomenclature by her dad. Peter Collinson, who worked closely with the Bartrams among others, noted her skill to Linnaeus himself stating:

“As this accomplished lady is the only one of the fair sex that I have heard of, who is scientifically skillful in the Linnaean system, you, no doubt, will distinguish her merits, and recommend her example to the ladies of every country.”

In her book, American Eden, Victoria Johnson notes that it was Colden who taught Samuel Bard, President George Washington's former physician the Linnaean system of botany. Bard would later become a founding member of the New York State Society for the promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures. He credits her with his life-long interest in botany.

Johnson also notes Colder interacted with the likes of the John Bartram Sr and a young William Bartram as well as a teenaged Peter Kalm among many other plantsmen (yes, men) of the time. She was the only women in a field of men and as they, and she, aged, and refined their skills, Jane found herself well-respected and in regular communication with those often noted for the discovering, naming, exchange and distribution of American plants.

Beatrice Sheer Smith, author of Jane Colden (1724 - 1746) and her Botanic Manuscript featured in the American Journal of Botany mentions Jane's listing in the Dictionary of American Biography as the "first woman in the new world to be distinguished as a botanist."

Today Jane's manuscript is housed in the Natural History Museum in London. Unfortunately it is not available as a scanned document, and so we will have to travel to London to see it. Road Trip anyone? But you can see examples of her illustrations and descriptions in many of the references listed below and at the link to the MSU libraries.

In her Arnoldia article about Colden, Mary Harrison notes Jane Colden's willingness to express challenges to accepted convention regardless of author. In an example Harrison details Colden's disagreement with Linnaeus' description of Polygala senega and Clematis virginiana suggesting Linnaeus doesn't have the leaf and floral descriptions quite correct. These notes accompany her plant descriptions and simple drawings. Evidencing the lack of formal education of women at the time, Colden would sometimes create her own descriptive vocabulary for what she was witnessing.

This ability and willingness to disagree is due in great part to her upbringing. As Sara Sidstone Gronim writes:

Cultivating a Daughter
Cadwallader could turn to a daughter to carry out work that was generally masculine because he could draw on multiple understandings of gender common in the eighteenth century, understandings that crosscut each other in ways that allowed him to think of Jane as a natural extension of his own work. Historians of women, while recognizing that gender is a consistent way of organizing hierarchies of difference, also recognize that women's experiences have varied widely. They have consequently become attentive to the ways in which gender is situated, the particular play of beliefs and practices that bear upon individual women's lives.
The Coldens were situated such that beliefs and practices in multiple realms-family life, work, and female decorum, as well as botany itself-intersected in ways that gave Jane opportunities to be simultaneously a good daughter and a woman of increasingly autonomous action and judgment.

If you are interested in gender roles of the time and how this plays into the development of a young colonial lady into the first American female botanist I highly recommend Gronim's article.

In another communication to a colleague, Collinson wrote about Colden, “She deserves to be celebrated”

Source: Wikipedia

As Sara Gronim puts it so eloquently:

She was certainly a foremother for women in science, but not because she embodies some mythic ideal of the lone genius. Rather, she exemplifies how important the work of countless ordinary people was to the development of what would become modern science, how important colonial places were to that development, and how significant women's engagement with the new learning was to its eventual success. She also exemplifies the complexities of beliefs and practices that people have used to distinguish genders, and how those different discourses can intersect in ways that open up unexpected possibilities for particular women. This space allowed Jane Colden to know the wild plants of New York as well as anyone would before the nineteenth century, save possibly the Pennsylvanian John Bartram. She knew them through direct bodily experiences of sight, smell, touch, and taste. She simultaneously knew them systematically and abstractly, knowledge that allowed her to contribute to a universal catalogue of plants. But she knew more than botany; she knew how to present her findings with both the self-confidence and self-effacement appropriate to a participant in these networks of botanists-how to pursue her passion without transgressing the decorum deemed appropriate to women. Nothing in what Jane Colden knew fundamentally challenged either the assumptions that underlay botany or gender hierarchies, but she did not pursue botany to please us. In the end, what she knew best was how to please herself.

Let's do just that. Let's celebrate her! Has Jane Colden influenced your work? How did you come to know about her?


Gronim, S. S. (2007). What Jane knew: a woman botanist in the eighteenth century. Journal of women's history, 19(3), 33-59.

Harrison, M. (1995). Jane Colden: Colonial American Botanist. Arnoldia, 55(2), 19-26.

Johnson, V. (2018). American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. Liveright Publishing.

MSU Libraries - Michigan State University - Jane Colden

NYBG Science Talk - America's First Female Botanist Nicole Tarnowski

Smith, B. S. (1988). JANE COLDEN (1724–1766) AND HER BOTANIC MANUSCRIPT. American Journal of Botany, 75(7), 1090-1096.

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