John Bartram was born to a Quaker family near Darby, Pennsylvania, on March 23, 1699, the son of Elizabeth Hunt and William Bartram. He was the grandson of Richard Bartram, who accompanied William Penn to the colonies in 1682. Following the death of his father, who was killed in 1712 by Indians in North Carolina, and his uncle, John inherited his uncle's estate at Darby near Philadelphia.
Bartram was a self-taught student of natural history, especially botany. He learned the classical languages (for which he had a natural talent), and studied medicine and surgery with such dedication that he was able to successfully tend the sick in his neighborhood, despite his lack of credentials. He constructed the first botanical garden in the colonies in 1728, covering some five or six acres, building the stone house and even manufacturing the iron farming utensils himself. He made frequent collecting expeditions throughout the Atlantic Seaboard, from Canada to Florida, collecting mostly botanical specimens, but also minerals and rocks. He was much admired as a botanist by Linnaeus, who donated not only plant specimens but also some European minerals to his collection.
Besides Linnaeus, Bartram was also a friend of Benjamin Franklin (who likewise had an interest in minerals), George Washington, Sir Hans Sloane, and the controversial British naturalist and mineral collector John Hill (1714-1775). They supplied him with books and analytical equipment in trade for American specimens gathered during his frequent excursions. Bartram was elected to membership in several European scientific societies, and was appointed American botanist to King George III ... extraordinary recognition for a man without formal education. He was widely admired in Europe and America for his botanical expertise, his temperate, generous and hospitable nature, and his opposition to slavery.
Bartram's botanical garden and mineral collection were preserved for some time following his death, albeit perhaps not with as much organization or care as he would have given them. A visitor to his estate in 1783 described seeing "all manner of rocks and minerals which are now kept in a box without any system, intermixed with European specimens, especially Swedish, sent over by Linnaeus." The collection's disposition thereafter is not known, but his botanical garden is now a part of Philadelphia's park system.
WILSON, W.E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), 241 pp.
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