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There were quite a number of female botanists during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, but for the United States at least, the true pioneer was Jane Colden, who lived in the Eighteenth Century.  Her father, Cadwallader Colden, was a Scottish physician and a Royalist. He was thus not as celebrated as other naturalists, especially after the Revolution.  Because of this, and because of her sex, Jane was also obscured. Cadwallader Colden, who immigrated to Philadelphia and later to New York, thought women best suited to the study of botany because of their interest in beauty.  Thus he taught his second daughter the Linnaean system of botanical classification and inspired her work in botanical studies. She became skilled in drawing plants and produced 340 ink and wash drawings of plants.  She was a pioneer in the botany of New York and became more involved as her father involved himself in other pursuits.  

Still Jane Colden was often ignored or taken advantage of because she was female.  Although acknowledged as an expert in the Linnaean system by her father (who bragged about her accomplishments to the likes of John Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Alexander Garden, and Peter Kalm - one of Linnaeus' students from Sweden), she could never really break through the barriers that kept women in a lower status at the time.  Although she discovered several flowering plants new to science, it was her father who was honored with the generic name Coldenia.  Even her suggestions to male botanists for the honoring of some other person fell on deaf ears, as did John Ellis' recommendation to Linnaeus that he name a plant genus after her. At 35 she married a Scottish widower and unfortunately suffered a fate many women did during the Eighteenth Century - death in childbirth, just short of her 41st birthday. Her father followed her, dying just as the American Revolution began.

Jane Colden's drawings and plant descriptions survived her death after a Hessian Captain rescued them during the Revolutionary War. He was much taken with her work and returned to England with it. The drawings and descriptions are now at the British Museum.  

Literature References:

Bonta, Marcia Myers. 1991. Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists. Texas A & M University Press.

Robbins, Paula Ivaska. 2009. Jane Colden: America's First Woman Botanist. Purple Mountain Press.

Internet References:

Harrison, Mary. 1995. Jane Colden: Colonial American Botanist. Arnoldia 1995 Summer 19-26.

Jane Colden

The Story of Jane Colden

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 05:54 PM PST.

Also republished by Backyard Science, SciTech, History for Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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