Norfolk, Edward Howard, Duke of, 1686-1777Alternative names
Peter Collinson (1694–1768) was an English merchant and botanist. He was a partner in his father’s London trading business, and he remained a merchant throughout his life. However, at a young age, he also developed a passion for botany. He eventually wrote numerous essays on natural history topics for the Gentleman’s Magazine, and he contributed many reports to the Society of Antiquaries and to the Royal Society, of which he was a member. His extensive network of correspondents in Europe and North America placed Collinson at the nexus of the community of eighteenth century European and American natural scientists.
Peter Collinson was born in London, the son of the Quaker and London cloth merchant Peter Collinson and his wife Elizabeth Hall. Young Peter’s love of plants apparently stemmed from a garden owned by relatives with whom he lived as a boy and which he later inherited. However, Collinson is known less for his own original contributions to natural science than for his tireless support of the work of others. His publications and affiliation with the Royal Society brought him in contact with many eminent European naturalists and scientists of his day, including Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), Stephen Hales (1677-1761), and J. J. Dillenius (1684-1747). He also knew the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778, APS 1769), who named horse balm ( Collinsonia canadensis ) after him. Collinson was always supportive of the work of ordinary gardeners and plantsmen, such as Philip Miller (1691-1771), the gardener of the Chelsea Physic Garden, and the nurseryman James Gordon, who helped maintain the extensive gardens of Lord Petre, Collinson’s close friend and patron of scientific endeavors.
Collinson’s numerous contacts with fellow botanists placed him at the center of a large network of mid-eighteenth century European and American naturalists. It was through his family’s extensive trade in the cloth business with North America that he got to know a number of Americans. They included Alexander Garden (1730-1791, APS 1768), Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776, APS 1768), Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram (1699-1777, APS 1768).
Collinson and Bartram were particularly close friends. In the early 1730s, Bartram wrote to Collinson soliciting the post of king’s botanist in North America. While Collinson was not able to secure the position for another three decades, the two men arranged for Bartram to send seeds and seedlings to British subscribers. This group eventually numbered more than sixty men and included some of the most prominent botanists and landscape designers in Britain. Moreover, beginning in 1733, the two men engaged in a lively exchange of ideas and specimen that lasted until Collinson’s death in 1768. Collinson communicated many of Bartram’s studies to the Royal Society, which published Bartrams observations in the Philosophical Transactions . The naturalist John Fothergill (1712-1780, APS 1770) one of Collinson’s close friends, wrote that the “eminent naturalist, John Bartram, may almost be said to have been created such by my friend’s assistance.” John Bartram’s son William acknowledged Collinson’s crucial role in his father’s career, noting that “it was principally through the interest of Collinson that he [John Bartram] became acquainted, and entered into correspondence with, many of the most celebrated literary characters in Europe, and was elected a member of the Royal Society of London, of Stockholm, etc.” Collinson, who maintained his own extensive garden, introduced several American plants into Britain, including the American alder, three species of azalea, black birch, hemlock, sugar maple, mountain laurel, and many medicinal herbs.
Collinson and Franklin also maintained a long friendship marked by an active correspondence. Their shared interests included the discovery of mastodon bones in North America and, more famously, topics related to electricity. In fact, it was Collinson who introduced Franklin’s ideas on electricity to the Royal Society; the Society not only published them but also recognized Franklin’s work with the Copley medal in 1753. Franklin admired Collinson’s qualities as a scientist and as a man. He wrote that “if we may estimate the goodness of a man by his disposition to do good, and his constant endeavors and success in doing it, I can hardly conceive that a better man has ever existed.”
Collinson’s interests in North American matters also included the promotion of crop experiments in the colonies. In addition, he was an early patron of the American Philosophical Society, though not a member, and for many years served as purchasing agent for the Library Company of Philadelphia.
In 1724 Peter Collinson married Mary Russell. They had two children.
From the guide to the Collinson-Bartram Papers, 1732-1773, 1732-1773, (American Philosophical Society)
- Horticulture--United States
- Natural history
- Science and technology
- Seed industry and trade--United States
- Plants, Cultivated
- Seed industry and trade--England