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Was the son of an Episcopal clergyman, Rev. Thomas Barton, and born in the village of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, February 1o, 1766. His mother, who was the sister of the well-known astronomer, David Rittenhouse, died when he attained the age of eight years, and his father died when he was but fourteen, so that at a very early date young Barton was debarred parental care and training. His father had planned to take a trip to Europe, but died before sailing. A few years previous to leaving Lancaster, he placed his younger children, the subject of this sketch among them, with a friend in the country near the village. The love of nature, so marked in after years, was the result of his village and country life, and it is probable that this bent was furthered both by inheritance and by instruction from his father, who inclined to the study of Natural History. This is made evident from the fact that the father was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and corresponded with Linnæus on botanical subjects, as well as that he possessed, according to his son, a “fine collection of North American minerals, which was made by my father near forty years ago, at a time when he paid more attention to this part of natural history than, so far as I know, any other person in the colonies."
Young Barton developed a love for drawing at an early age, and maintained the accomplishment in after life, even becoming skilled at etching. It is said that his love of drawing and much of his instruction in the art was acquired from Major André, who was a prisoner in Lancaster.* He was very exacting in this direction, insisting that the illustrations for his books be precise and true to nature, forbidding any attempt at display by the artist for "artistic effect."
In the spring of 1780 young Barton and one of his brothers were placed in an academy at York, Pa., where he gave his attention for two years to classical studies. At the expiration of this time his elder brother, who lived in Philadelphia, took him to his home, and, during this period he attended the College of Philadelphia, which directed him towards medicine. In 1884, when eighteen years of age, he selected as a preceptor the well-known physician, Dr. William Shippen, and made a start in his life work.
Not content with medical lore derived from books, all of which at that date came from Europe, he gave his attention to the investigation of American productions. With this object in view he accompanied (1785) the commission of which his uncle, Mr. Rittenhouse, was a member, in its work of running the western boundary of Pennsylvania. . Here he made the acquaintance of the Indians, and began his researches in the direction of the simples employed in
* History of the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania.
their medication, as well as a study of their customs and history, a work he carried on during his subsequent life, and which led finally to the publication of the “Collections for an Essay towards a Materia Medica of the United States," which work appears in full in this Bulletin of the Lloyd Library.
In further considering the life of B. S. Barton, we find that in 1786 he went to Europe as a medical student, and, excepting a few months spent in London, remained for two years in Edinburgh. While here he issued (1787) a little pamphlet titled “Observations on Some Parts of Natural History: to which is Prefixed an Account of some Considerable Vestiges of an Ancient Date, which have been Discovered in Different Parts of North America.” This, his first attempt at public print, was not very creditable, being marred by some crudities and amateurish theories that very soon afterward became patent to himself. While here he became a member of The Royal Medical Society at Edinburgh, and, presenting thereto a paper on Hyoscyamus niger, won the Harveian prize. But, for personal reasons, he left Edinburgh before graduating, taking his degree at the celebrated German University at Göttingen in the fall of 1789. While in London he was kindly treated by both Dr. Hunter and Dr. Lettsom, who recognized his talents and scientific attainments. While here he was also elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.
Immediately on his return to Philadelphia he began the practice of medicine, and (1789) when but twenty-four years of age was elected Professor of Natural History and Botany in the College of Philadelphia, the Chair having been created with the object of acquiring his services. This was probably the first Chair in Natural History in America, although not the first in Botany. When the University of Pennsylvania and College of Philadelphia united (1791), the professorship was retained by Barton, and held by him until his death. In 1798 he was appointed one of the physicians in the Pennsylvania Hospital, which position he also held during the remainder of his life. It is evident that Dr. Barton aspired to the highest of honors, and worked tenaciously to qualify himself to receive them. Thus it was that when the celebrated Professor Rush died in 1813, Barton applied for the position, and was elected Professor of “The Theory and Practice of Medicine, and of Institutes and Clinical Medicine."
But he was not destined to do more than step into the place, make his bow, and pass away. During his early years he was often ill, being afflicted with hemorrhages and gout. During after-life he studied hard and persistently, “the pernicious consequences of his midnight and injudicious toils” sacrificing his strength and vitality. A severe hemorrhage was sustained during the time he was engaged in preparing his new series of lectures, and after delivering two courses, increasing ill health forced him to seek for relief by means of a sea voyage. He sailed for France in April of 1815, returning by way of England in November, disheartened. On landing at New York he was afflicted by hydrothorax, and detained in that city three weeks. Finally, reaching home a very sick man, he took to his bed, became rapidly worse, and was found dead the morning of December 19, 1815. And yet, notwithstanding his illness, accompanied by violent hemorrhages from the lungs, he persisted in working, and three days before BENJAMIN SMITH BARTON.
his death wrote a paper concerning a genus of plants named in his honor, which was read by his nephew, W. P. C. Barton, at the following meeting of the American Philosophical Society.
In considering the contributions to science and the work of Benjamin S. Barton, one is struck by the variety of subjects. He was “an indefatigable student and writer.” He was a mutual friend of both Pursh and Nuttall, contributing much towards their success as botanists in the study of the plants of North America. Thus Frederick Pursh, in his Flora Americana Septentrionalis (London, 1814), credits Barton with supplying the funds which enabled him to take a botanical excursion, which he describes to the effect that he started the first of 1805, traversed the mountain chains of Virginia and Carolina, returning through the coast lands, reaching Philadelphia late in the autumn. Concerning Thomas Nuttall, Barton remarks:
"I became acquainted with this young Englishman in Philadelphia several years ago; and observing in him an ardent attachment to, and some knowledge of botany, I omitted no opportunity of fostering his zeal, and of endeavouring to extend his knowledge. He had constant access to my house and the benefit of my botanical books.
“In 1810 I proposed to Mr. Nuttall the undertaking of an expedition entirely at my own expense, and under my immediate direction, to explore the botany, etc., of the northern and the north-western parts of the United States and the adjoining British territories. Accordingly, having provided him with a special passport from the President of the United States, Mr. Madison, and with whatever else I deemed necessary, together with a considerable collection of manuscript queries and memoranda, Mr. Nuttall took his departure from Philadelphia in April, 1810.
"His route was by Pittsburg to Detroit, Michilimakinak, Fox River, the Falls of St. Anthony, etc. He deviated, however, from the route which had been pointed out to him, having been prevailed upon to ascend the Missouri in company with some of his own countrymen, some Americans, and others, whose objects were principally traffic.
"He proceeded to the Mikanee-town; from thence to the territory of the Mandan Indians, in the boat of a Spanish gentleman; and in the same vessel descended the Missouri to St. Louis, near the confluence of this great river with the Mississippi, in the autumn of 1811.
“ Among a very considerable number of plants which he observed and collected in the course of his journey, there were two species of a genus which he observes in his notes to have the ‘facies' or aspect of cactus, and which he very properly referred to the class and order of Icosandria monogynia-he named this genus BARTONIA. One of the species he calls Bartonia superba, and the other Bartonia polypetala. The former he found in flower in August and September; growing all the way from the river Platte to the Andes, ou broken hills and the clefts of rocks -(Pursh adds, not I fear on the best authority, and on volcanic soil.') He speaks of it as a plant (herba) about three feet high, whose 'splendid flower expands only in the evening, suddenly opening after remaining closed during the day, and diffusing a most agreeable odour.' It may justly rank (he adds) with the most splendid plants of either America, and very probably inhabits Mexico, if not South America.
"The other species, Bartonia polypetala, he describes as a perennial, growing on gravelly hills, near the Grand Detour, and flowering in August.
“In the latter end of the year 1811, Mr. Nuttall returned to England by the way of New Orleans. Previously to his departure, he transmitted to me a number of the dried specimens and seeds which he had collected. Among these there were specimens of both species of Bartonia, together with a good collection of seeds. At the same time he sent me a manuscript book, in which he has given pretty full descriptions of the two plants by the names which I have already mentioned; viz.: Bartonia superba and Bartonia polypetala."
That Professor B. S. Barton was a man of varied attainments is shown by the fact that his papers on every subject commanded attention the world over, and won him distinction at home. To his biography, by W. P. C. Barton, we are indebted for the following list of works from his pen:
"1. De Hyoscyamo nigro-the Harveian prize dissertation, before mentioned, 1787.
"2. On the same parts of natural history, etc., etc., his first work, before mentioned, published in London in 1787-octavo, about 80 pages, with an engraving
3. A memoir concerning the fascinating faculty which has been ascribed to the rattlesnake, and other North American serpents; first edition, octavo, 36 pages--1796.
“4. Collections for an essay towards a materia medica of the United States. Read before the Philadelphia Medical Society, on the twenty-first day of February, 1798—49 pages octavo.
5. Fragments of the natural history of Pennsylvania, folio, 42 pages1799.
"6. New views of the origin of the tribes and nations of America-octavo, 165 pages—1798.
“7. Supplement to a memoir concerning the fascinating faculty which has been ascribed to the rattle-snake, and other North American serpents, in a letter to Professor Zimmerman, of Brunswick, in Germany-octavo, 38 pages1800.
“8. Memoir concerning the disease of Goitre, as it prevails in different parts of North America; octavo, 94 pages, 1800.
"9. Collections, etc., part first, second edition-64 pages octavo—1801.
“10. Elements of botany, or, outlines of the natural history of vegetables, illustrated by 30 plates, first edition, two volumes octavo, together 508 pages -1803
“11. Collections, etc., part second, first edition-53 pages, octavo—1804.
“ 12. Facts, observations, and conjectures relative to the generation of the opossum of North America, in a letter to Mons. Roume, of Paris-8vo, 14 pages-1809.