The Revolutionary Doctor Who Made New York ‘New York’

28:42 minutes

oil painting of the elgin botanic garden at sunset, with a white strucuture off in the distance surrounded by agricultural landscape
Painting of the Elgin Garden (artist unknown; ca. 1810)

Every holiday season, tourists throng Rockefeller Center to see the famous tree, soaring above the paved plazas and fountains. But more than 200 years ago, they would have found avocado and fig trees there, along with kumquats, cotton, and wheat—all specimens belonging to the Elgin Botanic Garden, founded by physician and botanist David Hosack.

Hosack grew up in the shadow of the American Revolution and became fascinated with the healing powers of plants as a young doctor studying abroad. Upon returning to the young United States, he founded America’s very first botanical garden, in the model of the great European gardens, as a place where he could study crops and medicinal plants.

He was close friends with both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (he was the attending physician at their fatal duel) and went on to help found many of New York City’s civic institutions, such as Bellevue Hospital and the New York Historical Society, along with the first obstetrics hospital, mental hospital, school for the deaf, and natural history museum.

“Hosack started with his garden, and ended with making New York New York,” says Victoria Johnson. She tells the story of Hosack’s life in her book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic.

Yet Hosack has been largely forgotten by history, overshadowed by names like Rockefeller and Carnegie, even though he was legendary in the generations after his death. In this segment, Ira braves the crowds of Rockefeller Center on a hunt for Hosack’s commemorative plaque, and interviews Johnson for the unheard story of this forgotten revolutionary hero.

Further Reading

Read an excerpt from American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic.

Learn more about the botanic garden that used to reside at today’s Rockefeller Plaza.

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Segment Guests

Victoria Johnson

Victoria Johnson is the author of American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright, 2018). She’s also an associate professor of Urban Policy & Planning at Hunter College.

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