Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815)

Page 1 of 11

Benjamin Smith Barton, by Samuel Jennings1

Barton as a young man with dark bushy hair

Courtesy American Philosophical Society

Date and size of original painting unknown.

Benjamin Smith Barton

Engraving from a portrait by Saint-Mémin

Bartaon as an old man with gray hair

From the collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives

(Date unknown) 3.75 x 3.75 in.

Benjamin Barton at 37 years of age was the youngest of the five members of the American Philosophical Society to whom Jefferson referred Lewis. Barton expressed an interest, were his health sufficient, in accompanying Lewis at least part of the way. Initial promise but ultimate failure to fulfill exemplified Barton's role in the history of the expedition and in other projects he contemplated.

His credentials were impressive. He was vice-president of the APS and an active contributor to its Transactions. His Elements of Botany, the first such text in the country, was just off the press. The second edition of his book, New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America (1798), published a few years earlier, had deduced—from word-similarities—an Asian origin of native American peoples. For fourteen years he had been teaching botany, natural history and especially materia medica at the medical school. The last course, dealing with the substances of practice, was required of all medical students. Those who studied natural history with Barton were likely to become enthusiastic for the subject.

Barton had the trust of Jefferson, to whom he had dedicated his book on languages, and for whom he had named a plant. Barton's standing with his contemporaries in Philadelphia and Edinburgh was less secure. Alexander Wilson1 and especially Charles Willson Peale accused him of concealing sources of his work. Peale was mistaken in supposing that specimens of Swedish birds intended for the Peale Museum had been appropriated by Barton–the shipment simply had been delayed. Still, perhaps because of Barton's failure to forward another item–a waxwork–explicitly intended for the museum, Peale did not revise his accusation that Barton "never scrupled to take the feathers of others to enrich his own plumage."2 It does appear that on at least two occasions Barton published as his own the observations and discoveries of others. One was the plant commonly known as twinleaf, which André Michaux (1746-1802) had found in Virginia and brought back to John Bartram for his garden. Barton saw it there, made drawings of it and, perhaps on the presumption that having recognized it as a new genus he could claim the privilege of naming it, did so: Jeffersonia diphylla.3

Having in distinguished fashion nearly completed his studies for the medical degree at Edinburgh, and honored by election as one of the four annual presidents of the Royal Medical Society, he abruptly left—without his degree but with funds of the Society that were repeatedly sought but never returned. The question of whether and where he obtained a degree remained a mystery until records obtained by the APS in 1970 yielded a diploma dated 31 August 1796 from Christian-Albrechts University at Kiel. That date was seven years after Barton's confession to Benjamin Rush that he had no medical degree, but only three months after Barton's letter to a German colleague asking help in procuring it. In the letter Barton claimed a degree "from an university which, I confess, I do not much respect," a condescension that does not accord with the non-selectivity of the request.4

Jefferson may well have expected that Lewis's initial contacts with Barton would have opened up the resources in natural history then available in Philadelphia–for instance in the persons of William Bartram, Charles Willson Peale and Bernard McMahon. But that seems not to have occurred. As open as colleagues' resources were to Barton–William Bartram was a generous fount of information–his were closed to them. Barton's old friend Muhlenberg complained of his reluctance to share, mystified that while he has twice shown Barton his herbarium, Barton had never shown his.5 On the other hand, Barton did thank Bartram effusively in the introduction to Elements of Botany, but his reference to Bartram's "original genius, and unaspiring science" neglects Bartram's formal credentials: elected to APS at the age of 28, and the author of a book on natural history (1792) that made him "one of the most widely read American authors in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries."6

Finally, most important for the history of the scientific accomplishments of the Expedition, its first plant specimens were consigned to Barton's care. As Moulton notes, from this point began "the disassembling of the collection."7 The scattered plant specimens were largely recovered, but the natural history volume promised by Barton was never forthcoming. Though Barton was not solely at fault, he contributed to the delay in publishing that allowed others to "carr(y) off the honors that belong by right to Lewis and Clark."8

1. Samuel Jennings (d. 1834), a Philadelphian who spent most of his life in London, England, created the first abolitionist painting in America, Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, for the Library Company of Philadelphia.

2. See Lillian B. Miller, ed., The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, 5 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983-2000), 5:420-24 and 515n.

3. Jeanette E. Graustein, "The Eminent Benjamin Smith Barton," Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography 85 (1985), 423-438. The American Philosophical Society commissioned Michaux, who was a prominent French naturalist and an experienced explorer, to follow the Missouri River in search of a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Michaux set out in June of 1793, but got no farther than Kentucky before it was learned that his secret objective was to raise an American militia for an attack on Spanish possessions west of the Mississippi. On Jefferson's insistence the government of the French Republic called him home.

4. Whitfield J. Bell, "Benjamin Smith Barton, M.D.," Journal of the History of Medicine 26, (1971), 197-203.

5. Graustein, 431.

6. Robert M. Peck, "Barton, Benjamin Smith." American National Biography Online. Accessed July 8, 2003.

7. Moulton, Journals, 12:3.

8. Elliott Coues, as quoted in David Freeman, Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), 260.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program