Benjamin Smith Barton

Last updated
Benjamin Barton
Born(1766-02-10)February 10, 1766
DiedDecember 19, 1815(1815-12-19) (aged 49)
Awards Magellanic Premium (1804)
Scientific career
Fields Botany
Institutions University of Philadelphia

Benjamin Smith Barton (February 10, 1766 – December 19, 1815) was an American botanist, naturalist, and physician. He was one of the first professors of natural history in the United States and built the largest collection of botanical specimens in the country. He wrote the first American textbook on botany. [1]

Physician professional who practices medicine

A physician, medical practitioner, medical doctor, or simply doctor, is a professional who practises medicine, which is concerned with promoting, maintaining, or restoring health through the study, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of disease, injury, and other physical and mental impairments. Physicians may focus their practice on certain disease categories, types of patients, and methods of treatment—known as specialities—or they may assume responsibility for the provision of continuing and comprehensive medical care to individuals, families, and communities—known as general practice. Medical practice properly requires both a detailed knowledge of the academic disciplines, such as anatomy and physiology, underlying diseases and their treatment—the science of medicine—and also a decent competence in its applied practice—the art or craft of medicine.


Early life

Barton's father, Rev. Thomas Barton, was an Irish immigrant from Carrickmacross who opened a school near Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1751. His mother was Esther Rittenhouse, sister of astronomer David Rittenhouse.

Thomas Barton (1730?–1780) was an American divine.

David Rittenhouse American astronomer

David Rittenhouse was an American astronomer, inventor, clockmaker, mathematician, surveyor, scientific instrument craftsman, and public official. Rittenhouse was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the United States Mint.

Between 1780 and 1782, Barton studied at York Academy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he showed an aptitude for drawing and an interest in collecting natural history specimens. Two years later, he attended the College of Philadelphia School of Medicine, studied medicine under Thomas Shippen, and attended Benjamin Rush's lectures in 1785. Young Barton also accompanied his uncle, David Rittenhouse, who had been commissioned to survey the western boundary of Pennsylvania in 1785. His travels aroused a lifelong interest in Native Americans. In 1786, Barton transferred to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied for two years before leaving without a degree because of financial difficulties and disagreements with two professors. [2] Historians have erroneously claimed that Barton then studied at the University of Göttingen, but that has yet to be verified. Seven years after his appointment as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Barton attempted to obtain an honorary degree from several European Universities. He was unable to receive one from the University of Göttingen and was ultimately awarded an honorary degree from the University of Kiel. [3]

Lancaster, Pennsylvania City in Pennsylvania, United States

Lancaster is a city located in South Central Pennsylvania which serves as the seat of Pennsylvania's Lancaster County and one of the oldest inland towns in the United States. With a population of 59,322, it ranks eighth in population among Pennsylvania's cities. The Lancaster metropolitan area population is 507,766, making it the 101st largest metropolitan area in the U.S. and second largest in the South Central Pennsylvania area.

Benjamin Rush 18th and 19th-century American physician, educator, author

Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence (U.S.) and a civic leader in Philadelphia, where he was a physician, politician, social reformer, humanitarian, and educator as well as the founder of Dickinson College. Rush attended the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. His later self-description there was: "He aimed right." He served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army and became a professor of chemistry, medical theory, and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

Native Americans in the United States Indigenous peoples of the United States (except Hawaii)

Native Americans, also known as American Indians, Indigenous Americans and other terms, are the indigenous peoples of the United States, except Hawaii. There are over 500 federally recognized tribes within the US, about half of which are associated with Indian reservations. The term "American Indian" excludes Native Hawaiians and some Alaska Natives, while Native Americans are American Indians, plus Alaska Natives of all ethnicities. Native Hawaiians are not counted as Native Americans by the US Census, instead being included in the Census grouping of "Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander".

Medical career

Returning to Philadelphia in 1789, Barton practiced medicine. In 1790, he was elected to a fellowship at Philadelphia's College of Physicians. The same year, he succeeded Adam Kuhn as professor of Natural History and Botany at the College of Philadelphia. The College and its medical school merged with the University of Pennsylvania the following year. Two years later, Barton was also elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [4] In early 1796, Barton succeeded Samuel Powel Griffitts, and became Professor of Materia Medica. Embarrassed by his lack of credentials, Barton purchased a degree of Doctor of Medicine from the Christian-Albrechts University at Kiel in August 1796. [5] In 1813, Barton succeeded to the professorship of the Theory and Practice of Medicine after the death of Rush but continued to lecture in natural history and botany. Concurrently with his academic position, he served as a physician at Pennsylvania Hospital from 1798 to his death, in 1815.

Adam Kuhn American physician

Adam Kuhn was an American physician and naturalist, and one of the earliest professors of medicine in a North American university.

University of Pennsylvania Private Ivy League research university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania is a private Ivy League research university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is one of the nine colonial colleges founded prior to the Declaration of Independence and the first institution of higher learning in the United States to refer to itself as a university. Benjamin Franklin, Penn's founder and first president, advocated an educational program that trained leaders in commerce, government, and public service, similar to a modern liberal arts curriculum.

American Academy of Arts and Sciences United States honorary society and center for independent policy research

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Founded in 1780, the Academy is dedicated to honoring excellence and leadership, working across disciplines and divides, and advancing the common good.


Profile Benjamin Smith Barton 1905.jpg

Barton corresponded with naturalists throughout the United States and Europe, and he made significant contributions to the scientific literature of his day. In 1803, Barton published Elements of botany, or Outlines of the natural history of vegetables, the first American textbook on botany. Barton's work in natural history and botany was often assisted by William Bartram, the traveler, botanist, and artist. Bartram provided the illustrations of North American plants for Barton's 1803 Elements of Botany. From 1798 to 1804, Barton published a work on medicinal plants, Collections for An Essay Towards a Materia Medica of the United-States. From 1802 to 1805 Barton edited the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal, and in 1803, Barton founded the short-lived American Linnaean Society of Philadelphia.

William Bartram American naturalist

William Bartram was an American naturalist. The son of Ann and the naturalist John Bartram, William Bartram and his twin sister Elizabeth were born in Kingsessing, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a boy, he accompanied his father on many of his travels to the Catskill Mountains, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, New England, and Florida. From his mid-teens, Bartram was noted for the quality of his botanic and ornithological drawings. He also had an increasing role in the maintenance of his father's botanic garden, and added many rare species to it.

Barton was also interested in anatomy and zoology, and in 1796, he published his Memoir Concerning the Fascinating Faculty Which Has been Ascribed to the Rattle-Snake. In 1803, he published a comparative study of linguistics, Etymology of Certain English Words and on Their Affinity to Words in the Languages of Different European, Asiatic and American (Indian) Nations, and a text on the origin of the first American people, New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America (1797).

Anatomy The study of the structure of organisms and their parts

Anatomy is the branch of biology concerned with the study of the structure of organisms and their parts. Anatomy is a branch of natural science which deals with the structural organization of living things. It is an old science, having its beginnings in prehistoric times. Anatomy is inherently tied to developmental biology, embryology, comparative anatomy, evolutionary biology, and phylogeny, as these are the processes by which anatomy is generated over immediate (embryology) and long (evolution) timescales. Anatomy and physiology, which study (respectively) the structure and function of organisms and their parts, make a natural pair of related disciplines, and they are often studied together. Human anatomy is one of the essential basic sciences that are applied in medicine.

Zoology is the branch of biology that studies the animal kingdom, including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits, and distribution of all animals, both living and extinct, and how they interact with their ecosystems. The term is derived from Ancient Greek ζῷον, zōion, i.e. "animal" and λόγος, logos, i.e. "knowledge, study".

He was the editor of the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal (1805–1808), one of the oldest scientific publications in the United States.

Barton was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1814. [6] The Society holds among its collections a number of Barton's publications as well as a complete run of the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal [7]


Barton also made a significant contribution to archeology. Although his early publication in 1787, Observations on Some Parts of Natural History, incorrectly attributed the prehistoric mounds of Ohio to the Danes, by his 1797 work (mentioned above), he had reconsidered his earlier claim and identified the Mound builders correctly as Native Americans. While he was not the first to make such a claim, he may have been the first to suggest a significant age to the mounds, as he posited that they were older than James Ussher's Biblical chronology. Lacking evidence, Barton still speculated that Native Americans originated in Asia.


Barton served as vice president of the American Philosophical Society from 1802 to 1815, the year of his death, and president of the Philadelphia Medical Society from 1808 to 1815. In 1812, he was elected as a member to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.


In 1815, Barton died of tuberculosis in New York City.


In botany, his author abbreviation is Barton.

His older brother, William Barton, was also a member of the American Philosophical Society. His maternal uncle, David Rittenhouse, served as the Society's second president after the death of founder Benjamin Franklin in 1790.

His son Thomas Pennant Barton (born in Philadelphia in 1803; died there 5 April 1869) gathered together a notable Shakespearean library. It comprised 2,000 of the rarest editions of Shakespeare's works, and formed, with about 10,000 miscellaneous books, one of the most important private collections in America. He provided by will that this should be sold after his death to some institution that could prevent its dispersion. His widow carried out his wishes, and the collection was acquired by the Boston Public Library, which set apart a special room for its accommodation. A catalogue was issued, prefaced by a memoir. [8]

Related Research Articles

Richard Harlan American zoologist

Richard Harlan was an American naturalist, zoologist, herpetologist, physicist, and paleontologist. He was the author of Fauna Americana, published in 1825, and American Herpetology.

Frederick Traugott Pursh was a German–American botanist.

Caspar Wistar (physician) American physician

Caspar Wistar was an American physician and anatomist. He is sometimes referred to as Caspar Wistar the Younger, to distinguish him from his grandfather of the same name.

Nathan Smith (physician) American physician

Nathan Smith was one of New England’s best-known and respected physicians. He was a skilled surgeon, teacher, writer, and practitioner. At a time when most American physicians were poorly educated, he single-handedly founded Dartmouth Medical School, and co-founded the University of Vermont College of Medicine, the medical school at Bowdoin College, and the Yale School of Medicine.

Nathaniel Chapman American physician

Nathaniel Chapman was an American physician. He was the founding president of the American Medical Association in 1847. Chapman founded the American Journal of the Medical Sciences in 1820 and served as its editor for some years, and also served as President of both the Philadelphia Medical Society and the American Philosophical Society.

Charles Caldwell (physician) American physician

Charles Caldwell was a noted 19th-century U.S. physician who is best known for starting what would become the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

Daniel Drake American physician and writer

Daniel Drake was a pioneering American physician and prolific writer.

William Barton (heraldist) American lawyer

William Barton was a Pennsylvania lawyer, scholar, and the designer of the Great Seal of the United States.

Benjamin Say was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Waterhouse American physician

Benjamin Waterhouse was a physician, co-founder and professor of Harvard Medical School. He is most well known for being the first doctor to test the smallpox vaccine in the United States, which he carried out on his own family.

William P. C. Barton American surgeon and scientist

William Paul Crillon Barton, was a medical botanist, physician, professor, naval surgeon, and botanical illustrator.

Jacob Bigelow American botanist, physician, and educational reformer

Jacob Bigelow was an American physician and botanist. He was architect of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the father of physician Henry Jacob Bigelow.

John Rhea Barton was an American orthopedic surgeon remembered for describing Barton's fracture.

Reynell Coates was an American physician, scientist, teacher, and poet.

Budd and Bartram

Budd and Bartram was a printing firm based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

John Conrad Otto American physician

John Conrad Otto was a United States physician.

Charles Karsner Mills

Charles Karsner Mills, M.D. (1845–1930), an American physician and an eminent neurologist, was called the dean of American neurology.


  1. Swensen 1997
  2. Swensen 1997
  3. Kariann Yokota, ""To pursue the stream to its fountain": Race, Inequality, and the Post-Colonial Exchange of Knowledge across the Atlantic," Explorations in Early American Culture Vol. 5 (2001), pp. 198
  4. "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 19, 2011.
  5. Ewan and Ewan, B. S. Barton, 2007, p. 162.
  6. American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  8. Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain :  Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Barton, Thomas"  . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography . New York: D. Appleton.


Wikisource-logo.svg Texts on Wikisource: