Meet Jane Colden, the 18th century botanist snubbed by Linnaeus

A barrier-breaking scientist with no formal training, she has been repeatedly left out of science history

Published April 25, 2021 2:00PM (EDT)

Jane Colden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/WikiCommons)
Jane Colden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/WikiCommons)

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Had she not been a woman, Jane Colden would likely be one of the most famous early American botanists. But, because of her gender, she faced numerous barriers, including a lack of formal schooling and being given the cold shoulder by the foremost expert of her time. Nevertheless, Colden continued drawing and studying plants around her home in the Hudson Valley in the new New York colony, eventually discovering two entirely new species, in part thanks to her father, Dr. Cadwallader Colden.

Dr. Colden was a scientist, medical doctor, and the lieutenant governor of the New York colony. Because of this role, he was given an estate in modern-day Newburgh, New York, to work on classifying the region's plants. In 1743, Dr. Colden published Plantae Coldenghamae, which described the plants on his land, with the help of his daughter, Jane, aged 19.  

Though Jane was interested in botany, it was difficult for women to be taxonomic botanists in the 18th century, since many women were not allowed to attend school, nor learn Latin, the official language of taxonomy. But, the history of science shows us that if women were scientists, they tended to be botanists, likely due to the medicinal properties in plants which were important for women caretakers. For example, Hatshepsut, Queen of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, organized the Punt expedition partly to search for new medicinal plants. In the 18th century, Queen Charlotte of Great Britain and Ireland (later, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) promoted gardening as women's work through her time spent at Kew Gardens

For Colden, Queen Charlotte's influence, along with her father's teaching and Carl Linnaeus' recently published Systema Naturae — a revolutionary book which explained how to scientifically classify plants and animals — meant that she could be a botanist. Her father was aging and expressed frustration with his task of categorizing plants, and so recruited his daughter's help. She was happy to be included in her father's botany projects, and she began communicating with other botanists like Alexander Garden, John Bartram, John Ellis, and Peter Collinson. During this time, botanists were often in communication with each other, sending illustrations and descriptions of plants back and forth when they found something exciting. 

Colden likely began studying and drawing plants in the late 1730s. She wrote a manuscript, comprised of over 340 ink drawings of leaves, and crafted detailed descriptions, which usually included local medicinal uses. For example, she wrote "Asclepias tuberosa [Ed: commonly, the butterfly weed] is an excellent cure for the colick. This was learn'd from a Canadian Indian…and confirmed by Dr. Pater of New England…Pedicularis canadensis is called by the country people Betony [now, called wood betony]. They make tea of the leaves and use it for fever."

While studying plants around her family's estate one afternoon in 1753, Colden discovered a small, pink-flowered plant in the woods and determined that it had never been scientifically described. She sent this new plant to Garden, who agreed that it was unknown to Western science (it is likely that Indigenous peoples like the Lenape — who lived in this region before it was colonized — already knew about these plants). Colden wrote to Linnaeus, as the authority on new discoveries at the time. She said she had found a new species and proposed the name "Gardenia," after her colleague Garden. Linnaeus disagreed with Colden's assessment, and assigned the plant to the already known Hypercium genus (commonly called St. John's wort).

Over time, scientists found that Colden's original assessment was correct — this small, pink-flowered plant was a new species, which was then named Triadenum (or, Marsh St. John's wort). But, by this point, her role in its discovery had been long forgotten. In fact, contemporary scientists are still discussing the morphology and taxonomy of these two species. So, Colden was right when she said that the North American plant was not reported on in European books, given that plant does not live in Europe. Since Linnaeus did not take Colden's suggestion for the plant, she lost the honor of naming a new discovery for a colleague — Peter Ellis named a different plant in Garden's honor: Gardenia jasminodies, the cape jasmine or gardenia.

In 1756, Colden made another new discovery, this time a white-flowered plant which, again, she could not identify in Linnaeus's books. She wrote about her findings in a letter to John Ellis, who proposed it as a new species to Linnaeus on Colden's behalf. She called this new plant "Fibraurea," though when Ellis wrote to Linnaeus, he said, "This young lady merits your esteem, and does honor your system…suppose you should call this Coldenella, or any other name that may distinguish her among your genera." Linnaeus refused and named the plant "Helleborus" which was later renamed Coptis groenlandica (commonly called threeleaf goldthread). 

Since "Fibraurea/Helleborus" was not named for Colden, Collinson wrote to Linnaeus asking again for a plant to be named after her. But, Linnaeus again ignored this request. It was common at the time for plants to be named after their describer, and as there were many new plants being written about at the time, there was no shortage of things that needed a name. Linnaeus was very much a man of his time, however. In developing his classification system, he believed that the most natural system for grouping plants would center on the reproductive parts, as he thought God intended. So, it is unsurprising that Linnaeus did not want to formally recognize Colden, since she was a woman. 

Because Linnaeus, and others, did not acknowledge her, Colden's work was effectively ignored. In addition to her discoveries, she developed a new method of using a rolling press with printer's ink to take a leaf impression — a system that made recording leaves much more accurate than drawing them. While Colden thought she described two new species, others have argued that there were probably more than two. Dutch botanist John Frederik Gronovius wrote that he found at least three additional new species in her manuscript, and that she wrote on unique characteristics in even more plants which had not been written about elsewhere.

In spite of her discoveries, Colden was never recognized for her scientific work; the genus Coldenia (a flowering plant genus) was named for her father. While science historians recognize Colden's work, there have been no notable revisions to botanical history, like revising a species' history and naming her as its describer, and there is still no genus named for her.

Aside from some mentions in academic texts about women in science, Colden's legacy as one of the first women botanists has been largely forgotten. Sadly, once she married in 1759, her botany work stopped, and she died in childbirth in 1766, just prior to her 42nd birthday. 

By Brittany Kenyon-Flatt

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