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Hosack, David

Hosack, David (1769-1835), a leading physician of his day and an eminent botanist and mineralogist, had strong ties with both Princeton and Columbia. The son of a New York wine merchant who came to America to serve under Lord Jeffery Amherst in the French and Indian War, he attended Columbia for two years and then transferred to Princeton, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1789. He made the change partly to escape from the distractions of the city, and partly to obtain the benefits of instruction by the distinguished faculty then teaching in Nassau Hall -- ``attractions,'' he said, which he ``could not resist.''

He studied medicine, first in New York, then in Philadelphia, where he lived with the family of his favorite teacher Benjamin Rush 1760. He later studied medicine and botany in Edinburgh and mineralogy in London, bringing back from Great Britain the beginnings of a mineralogical collection that he later gave to Princeton.

He was, successively, professor of botany and material medical at Columbia College, professor of the theory and practice of physic at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and president of the short-lived Rutgers Medical College, which he helped found.

Early in his career, he established ``in the vicinity'' of New York -- actually where Rockefeller Center now stands -- the famous Elgin Botanic Garden, named for his father's birthplace in northern Scotland. Here each year at the end of the spring term, he held a strawberry festival, in order, he once told another teacher, to let his students see that he was practical as well as theoretical. ``The fragaria is a most appropriate aliment,'' he reminded his skeptical colleague; ``Linnaeus cured his gout and protracted his life by strawberries.'' Among those who partook of his strawberries and of his botanical knowledge was John Torrey, who later taught botany and chemistry at Princeton and Columbia.

Hosack's circle of friends included Aaron Burr, Jr. 1772, and Alexander Hamilton. As the surgeon in attendance at their duel in 1804, he treated Hamilton after he was mortally wounded; and he was one of the pallbearers at Hamilton's funeral. Three years later, after Burr was tried for treason and acquitted, Hosack lent him passage-money to go abroad in order to escape the notoriety resulting from the trial.

Princeton awarded Hosack an honorary LL.D. in 1818, and commissioned his portrait by Rembrandt Peale in 1826; it hangs in Upper Eagle Dining Hall. When his friend Bishop John Henry Hobart 1793 died in 1830, Hosack was elected to succeed him as a vice president of the Alumni Association of Nassau Hall, of which James Madison was then president.

In his time, Hosack was considered one of New York's first citizens. He was influential in social and civic affairs as well as in his profession. He was a founder of the New York Historical Society and the American Academy of Fine Arts in addition to Bellevue Hospital, and ``his house was the resort of the learned and the enlightened from every part of the world.'' According to one of his medical colleagues, it was often observed by citizens of New York that DeWitt Clinton, Bishop Hobart, and Dr. Hosack were ``the tripod on which our city stood.''

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).



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