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Alexander Garden – Physician and Botanist

Alexander Garden, Physician and Botanist

Today, Charleston, South Carolina, is considered one of America’s premier tourist destinations with its many historic homes, fine restaurants, and beautiful beaches. And although we do not think of Charleston as being a scientific center, many of its resident in years past had a great interest in the science of botany, primarily for economic reasons. For example, as soon as the first colonists landed here in 1670, one of their challenges was determining what crops would grow well here, especially crops that could be exported for profit. Several of the colonists had come from Barbados and were accustomed to growing sugar cane and exporting sugar, rum, and molasses. They soon discovered, however, that the winters here were too cold for that crop to flourish. Everything from cotton, indigo, ginger, olives, silk worms, and other agricultural endeavors were tried. In time, rice, indigo, and cotton, grown mainly by slave labor, became the economic foundation to make Charles Town, as it was known then, one of the richest cities in the American colonies.

An early immigrant more interested in the scientific and medicinal value of plants rather than the economic value was Dr. Alexander Garden who moved to Charles Town in April 1752. Born in 1730 and educated in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Scotland, within a few years of his arrival in Charles Town Garden established himself as a respected physician as well as a naturalists who corresponded with several European and American scientists concerning the flora and fauna found in the American colonies.

While a student at the University of Aberdeen, one of his professors, Dr. James Gordon, taught Garden the uses of several medicinal plants. When Garden first arrived in Charles Town, he seemed a bit disappointed in the botanical knowledge of many of the Charles Town area planters. At one point he made the comment that on many plantations the slaves knew more about the healing properties of plants than their masters.

It was not long, however, until he came in contact with some planters who shared his enthusiasm for the scientific value of plants as well as the economic value. One that he worked with was William Bull II, who loaned Garden several books on botany, including the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus’s Fundamenta Botanica published in 1736 and John Clayton’s Flora Virginica published in 1739, the first catalog of plants indigenous to the American south. Garden also became acquainted with Eliza Lucas Pinckney who in the 1740s had worked out the system of making indigo into a profitable export crop. Two other wealthy planters who Garden came to know were Robert Pringle and Henry Laurens. 

Garden established his home at 98 Broad Street where he grew a variety of plants native to America as well as plants sent to him from Europe and other parts of the world. His house at 98 Broad Street is still standing and after changing owners several times, in 1984 became home to the popular Gaulart and Maliclet French café.

For years he sent specimens of local plants, fish, reptiles, amphibia, and insects to scientists such as Englishman John Ellis, William Bartram and Benjamin Franklin, both of Philadelphia, as well as Carl Linnaeus, who in 1760 named a beautiful evergreen flowering shrub with fragrant flowers, the Gardenia Jasminoides, in Alexander Garden’s honor. Many people consider the Gardenia, which grows well in sub-tropical climates, to be one of the premier plants grown in South Carolina.

By 1754, Garden was taking trips to various parts of the colonies to collect specimens. In 1755 he accompanied South Carolina governor James Glen on an expedition into what was then Cherokee territory in the Appalachian Mountains. The next year, after an especially arduous excursion to the Mississippi River he wrote: “Good God, what will not the sacred thirst of the Botanical science urge one to undergo.” Obviously, Garden loved his scientific avocation and worked hard at it.

On Christmas day 1755, Garden married Elizabeth Peronneau, daughter of wealthy rice planter and wine importer Henry Peronneau, Jr. In the next few years, they had two daughters and one son.

Along with his passion for botany, Garden was also busy with his medical practice. When a smallpox epidemic hit Charles Town in December 1759, Garden and other local physicians inoculated over 2,400 residents. In spite of their efforts, some 700 Charlestonians out of a population of around 8,000 died of the disease. Garden also worked with planters to keep their families and their slaves healthy. One example was that during the smallpox outbreak, Garden was hired by planter Elias Ball II, who owned Kensington rice plantation on the Cooper River, to inoculate his family and a few of his most valuable slaves. Other planters such as Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Ann and Gabriel Manigault, and Robert Pringle also had their families inoculated.

Another duty as a physician was to check the health of African slaves coming in to Charles Town. For several years, all ships, especially slave ships, were required to have their passengers checked for disease. There was plenty of business. Between 1707 and 1775, 40% of all the slaves brought into America, over 200,000 of them, came through Charles Town. A large percentage of the slaves were sent to Sullivan’s Island where they were quarantined in a lazarette or pest house for a minimum of ten days before they were released to be sold. It was a gruesome business as a good many of the slaves were very ill following the long trip across the Atlantic. Garden wrote that: “There are few slave ships that come here from Africa but have had many of the cargoes thrown overboard. Some ships lost one fourth, some one third, some lost half; and I have seen some that have lost two-thirds of their slaves. I have often gone to visit those Vessels on their first arrival, in order to make a report of their state of health to the Governor and Council, but I have never yet been on board one that did not smell most offensive and noisome, what for filth, putrid air, and putrid dysenteries…it is a wonder any escape with life.”

One example of how bad the slave ship situation got at times is reflected in an article in the South Carolina Gazette in which the South Carolina governor offered 100 English pounds to anyone who could identify the ship captain who had dumped “a large number of dead Negroes” into Charles Town harbor and which “are drove upon the marsh opposite to Charles Town and the noisome smell is arising from their putrefaction.” Apparently, the offending ship captain was afraid that his entire cargo of slaves would be confiscated if dead ones were found among those still alive.

Perhaps it was that by 1770, Garden was ready to let someone else handle the unpleasant work of boarding slave ships, plus the fact that he needed more space for his growing collection of plants, that motivated him in 1771 to purchase a 1689-acre plantation. First established by Arthur Middleton in 1679 on Goose Creek and named Yeshoe, an Indian word meaning green water, the large plantation had for years produced indigo, which was a valuable cash crop from 1740 until the American Revolution. Located some 15 miles north of Charleston in what is now Hanahan, the plantation home, built by Middleton in the 1680s is still standing, and today is considered the oldest structure in South Carolina. When the Gardens moved in, the obviously well-read Elizbeth Peronneau Garden renamed the property Otranto after the 1764 novel by Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto.

At Otranto, Garden set up several agricultural experiments and created a sophisticated garden featuring indigenous plants. In a 1776 poem by George Ogilvie called Carolina or the Planter, he called Otranto “an ideal of southern plantation life – a haven of intellectual contemplation and natural beauty…”

During the American Revolution, although Dr. Garden agreed with some of the grievances of the colonists, he chose to maintain his relationship with the British. That choice was to bring him problems. One of them was that his son, Alexander Garden, Jr. chose to stand with the Americans, and much to his father’s displeasure, joined the American army where he earned the rank of major and became Aide-de-Camp to General Nathaniel Greene.

In March 1780, British forces lay siege to Charles Town and six weeks later the American army there surrendered. For the next two and a half years, while the British occupied Charles Town and most of South Carolina, the war continued in the north. Toward the end of 1782, the tide of the war turned, and by early December, the British were pulling out of Charles Town. When they left, many of the loyalists left as well and had their property confiscated by the South Carolina government. Garden and his wife and one of his daughters left for London leaving behind Otranto and the house on Broad Street. It must have been a sad time for them to leave behind their homes and their rebellious son who chose to stay in America. The family settled in the Westminster area of London and Garden lived there until his death from tuberculosis in April 1791.

Otranto went to Garden’s son, and over the years changed hands several times until in 1872 it was turned into the Otranto Hunt Club. Today the house and property have been developed into the Otranto subdivision in Hanahan. In a letter to George Ogilvie dated July 24, 1789, Garden reminisced about the beauty of Otranto with its gardens and great variety of exotic plants which his son and subsequent owners did not maintain. He concluded the letter with: “And what is it now—possessed by a Goth! It sickens my soul to think of it.”

Alexander Garden is considered the most important scientific figure in colonial Carolina. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society, and in England became vice president of the Royal Society of London, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. No doubt he was missed by the American scientific community after his forced return to England. Although famous for his meticulous medical and scientific endeavors, he is also said to have been respected for his “benevolence, cheerfulness, and pleasing manners.”

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