Turpin, P.J.F. (Pierre Jean François), 1775-1840

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1775-03-11
Death 1840-05-02
French
French

Biographical notes:

By the time of his death at age 49, Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815) had become one of the best known citizens in the city of Philadelphia, one of the leaders in American medical education, and one of the more controversial figures in American natural history.

Although it is clear, as he maintained, that Barton received training in medicine at elite European universities, the details of his medical education are at best murky. In 1786, Barton entered Edinburgh University under the recommendation of his mentors in Philadelphia, including Benjamin Rush. Ingratiating himself personally and distinguishing himself professionally, Barton joined both the Edinburgh Natural History Society and the Royal Medical Society, receiving the latter's Harveian Prize for his work on Hyosciannus niger, the black henbane. Such early signs of success, however, soon turned sour. By the winter of 1788, Barton withdrew from Edinburgh, claiming that he had been neglected by his professors, although it is equally plausible that he had worn out his welcome through his penchant for borrowing, and not readily repaying, money from colleagues, and perhaps from the Royal Medical Society.

Whatever the cause of Barton's departure from Edinburgh, depart he did, winding up in either the Netherlands or Germany by the fall of 1788 with no medical degree in hand. Later in life, Barton claimed to have taken a degree at the prestigious University of Göttingen, and when he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in January 1789, he was listed as Benjamin Smith Barton, M.D. However Göttingen has no record of granting a degree to Barton, and the timing makes it unlikely that he did: Barton returned to America during the fall of 1789 to become Professor of Botany at the College of Philadelphia. He received an M.D. from the University of Kiel in 1796.

In Philadelphia, Barton rapidly established a reputation as one of the preeminent botanists in the nation. His interest in systematic botany, materia medica, and Native American uses of plants blossomed into his best known and most popular work, The Elements of Botany; or, Outlines of the Natural History of Vegetables (Philadelphia, 1803), the first American botanical textbook. Impressed with the broad range of scholarship in the book, Thomas Jefferson asked Barton to assist Meriwether Lewis in his scientific preparation for the Corps of Discovery, and after Lewis' untimely death in 1809, Barton assisted in analyzing the natural historical results of the expedition. He was frequently engaged as a public lecturer on scientific topics during the first decade and a half of the 19th century.

From his days at Edinburgh, Barton's interests were never strictly confined to botany nor contained within the walls of the academy. Throughout his tenure at the College of Philadelphia, he offered public lectures on all aspects of natural history, tailoring some to a specifically female audience. His research was both creative and original, reflecting an advanced understanding of the current state of Anglo-American scholarship. His brilliant Memoir Concerning the Fascinating Faculty Which Has been Ascribed to the Rattle-Snake (Philadelphia, 1796), for example, was an examination of the reputed power of rattlesnakes to fascinate their prey, and as such touched not only upon anatomy and zoology, but upon the nature of perception and the relation of body and mind. He turned his attention, as well to the mastodon, chemistry, mineralogy, meteorology, and electricity.

Most famously, Barton followed his mentor Benjamin Rush in becoming an important early national theorist of race, and became consumed by his research into the culture, history, archaeology, and biology of American Indians. His Hints on the Etymology of Certain English Words and on Their Affinity to Words in the Languages of Different European, Asiatic and American (Indian) Nations, in a Letter... to Thomas Beddoes (Philadelphia, 1803) was an early effort in comparative linguistics that drew comparisons between American Indian languages and Welsh, and his New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America (Philadelphia, 1798) was well received.

Even as his scientific and academic reputations burgeoned, Barton maintained an active medical practice as a member of the staff of the Pennsylvania Hospital. Perhaps his major contribution to medicine was as editor of the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal (1804-1809), one of the nation's earliest medical journals and an important source for scholarly work in natural history.

Barton drew accolades for his work, beginning with his election to the American Philosophical Society in 1789 (vice president, 1802-1815). He was also inducted as a member of the Linnaean Society of London, the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Philadelphia Linnaean Society (president, 1806), and the Philadelphia Medical Society. He died from tuberculosis in New York City in 1815, leaving behind his wife of 18 years, Mary Penington.

From the guide to the Violetta Delafield-Benjamin Smith Barton Collection, 1783-1817, (American Philosophical Society)

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Subjects:

  • Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796
  • Zoology--18th century
  • Bartram's Garden (Philadelphia, Pa.)
  • Mineralogy
  • Medicine
  • Indians of North America--Languages
  • Choctaw Indians
  • Natural history--19th century
  • Science and technology
  • Mammals--Classification
  • Gout
  • Ethnobotany
  • Botany--Virginia
  • Seminole Indians
  • Indians of North America
  • Venereal disease
  • Meteorology--United States--18th century
  • Chemistry--18th century
  • Physics
  • Mastodon
  • Printing and Publishing
  • Dysentery
  • Education
  • Natural history
  • Yellow fever
  • Natural history--18th century
  • University of Pennsylvania--Faculty
  • Literature, Arts, and Culture
  • Tuscarora Indians
  • Medicine--Practice--18th century
  • Meteors
  • Native America
  • Electricity--18th century
  • Indians of North America--Agriculture
  • Physicians--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia
  • Medicine--Study and teaching--18th century
  • Kaigana Indians
  • Botany--Study and teaching--19th century
  • Kaskaskia Indians
  • Seneca Indians
  • Cherokee Indians
  • Yellow fever--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia--1793
  • Geology--18th century
  • Eastern Woodlands Indians
  • Cherokee language
  • Botanists
  • Travel
  • Business and Skilled Trades
  • Materia medica
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Mandan Indians
  • Osage language

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • New York (State) (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • Hudson River (N.Y.) (as recorded)
  • Tlaxcala (Mexico) (as recorded)
  • Niagara Falls (N.Y. and Ont.) (as recorded)
  • Buffalo (N.Y.) (as recorded)
  • New Jersey (as recorded)
  • Virginia (as recorded)