Spell It: Meet Jane Colden, the female botanist the history books forgot

History is full of women who have done extraordinary things, but who had to stay in the shadows because of their gender. Eighteenth-century American botanist Jane Colden is one of them.

Click start to play today’s Spell It, where “botany” is one of the words you can make with the letters provided.

History has shown that if women were scientists, they were probably botanists, probably because of the medicinal properties of plants, which were important to know for the women who cared for them. According to a February 2021 report in Massive Science, Hatshepsut, Queen of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, organized Punt’s expedition with the intention of researching new medicinal plants. And in the 18th century, Britain’s Queen Charlotte promoted gardening as a woman’s job, throughout her time at Kew Gardens.

Jane Colden
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

For Colden, an interest in botany was inevitable. His love for plants was nurtured from an early age by his scientist father, Dr. Colden. In 1743 he published Plantae Coldenghamaewho describes the plants on her land, with the help of Jane, then 19 years old.

But although the young Colden was interested in botany, it was difficult for her to be a taxonomic botanist in the 18th century – a time when many women were not allowed to attend school, let alone learn Latin. , the official taxonomy language.

Still, Colden persisted. In the late 1730s she compiled a manuscript comprising 340 ink drawings of leaves and wrote detailed descriptions, which often included the medicinal uses of plants.

One afternoon in 1753, looking for plants in the woods, she discovered a small species with pink flowers. She knew it had never been described scientifically. She sent the plant to another well-known botanist, Alexander Garden, who agreed that it was unknown to Western science. The plant was probably used by indigenous peoples like the Lenape.

Colden then wrote to Carl Linnaeus, who wrote the groundbreaking book natural system, which scientifically classifies plants and animals. Colden wrote, proposing the name “Gardenia” for the new species, after his colleague Garden. Linnaeus, however, disagreed with Colden and assigned the plant to the already known genus Hypercium (St. John’s wort).

Over time, scientists discovered that Colden was right – the pink-flowered plant was actually a new species. It was named triadenum and Colden missed the honor of naming it for a colleague.

In 1756 she made another discovery, and a male colleague brought it to Linnaeus’ attention on Colden’s behalf. She called the new plant fibraurea, but Linnaeus again refused and named the plant helleborus.

Because Colden was unrecognized by established botanists of the time, her work was effectively ignored. But Colden’s manuscript was later revealed to show three additional new plant species. And she was even responsible for a new technique, of using a rolling press with printing ink to take the imprint of a leaf, rather than stretching it – a much more precise method.

Today most historians of science acknowledge her work, but there have been no revisions in botanical history, and still no genus named for her – a common practice for botanists who discovered new plants.

What do you think of the legacy of Colden, one of the first female botanists in the West? Play Spell It today and let us know at [email protected]

Colin L. Johnson