Benjamin Smith Barton

Benjamin Smith Barton bigraphy, stories - American botanist

Benjamin Smith Barton : biography

February 10, 1766 – December 19, 1815

Benjamin Smith Barton (February 10, 1766 – December 19, 1815) was an American botanist, naturalist, and physician.


In botany, his author abbreviation is Barton.

His older brother, William Barton, was also a member of the American Philosophical Society. His maternal uncle, David Rittenhouse, served as the Society’s second president after the death of founder Benjamin Franklin in 1790.

His son Thomas Pennant Barton (born in Philadelphia in 1803; died there 5 April 1869) gathered together a notable Shakespearean library. It comprised 2,000 of the rarest editions of Shakespeare’s works, and formed, with about 10,000 miscellaneous books, one of the most important private collections in America. He provided by will that this should be sold after his death to some institution that could prevent its dispersion. His widow carried out his wishes, and the collection was acquired by the Boston Public Library, which set apart a special room for its accommodation. A catalogue was issued, prefaced by a memoir.


Barton’s father, Rev. Thomas Barton was an Irish immigrant from Carrickmacross who opened a school near Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1751. His mother was Esther Rittenhouse, sister of astronomer David Rittenhouse.


Between the years 1780-1782, Barton studied at York Academy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Two years later, he attended the College of Philadelphia, studying medicine under Dr. Thomas Shippen, and attended Dr. Benjamin Rush’s lectures in 1785. Young Barton also accompanied his uncle, David Rittenhouse who had been commissioned to survey the western boundary of Pennsylvania in 1785. The young Barton’s travels aroused a lifelong interest in Native Americans. In 1786 Barton transferred to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied for two years before leaving due to financial difficulties, disagreements with two professors, and without a degree. Historians have erroneously claimed that Barton then studied at the University of Göttingen, but this has yet to be verified.

Medical career

Returning to Philadelphia in 1789, Barton practiced medicine. In 1790 he was elected to a fellowship at Philadelphia’s College of Physicians. That same year, he succeeded Adam Kuhn as professor of Natural History and Botany at the College of Philadelphia. The College and its medical school merged with the University of Pennsylvania the following year. Two years later, Barton was also elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In early 1796 Barton succeeded Samuel Powel Griffitts, and became Professor of Materia Medica. Embarrassed by his lack of credentials, Barton purchased a degree of Doctor of Medicine from the Christian-Albrechts University at Kiel in August 1796.Ewan and Ewan, B. S. Barton, 2007, p. 162. In 1813, Barton succeeded to the professorship of the Theory and Practice of Medicine following the death of Benjamin Rush, even as he continued to lecture in natural history and botany. Concurrently with his academic position, he served as a physician at Pennsylvania Hospital from 1798 through his death in 1815.


Barton corresponded with naturalists throughout the United States and Europe, and made significant contributions to the scientific literature of his day. In 1803 Barton published Elements of botany, or Outlines of the natural history of vegetables, the first American textbook on botany. Barton’s work in natural history and botany was often assisted by William Bartram, the traveler, botanist, and artist. Bartram provided the illustrations of North American plants for Barton’s 1803 Elements of Botany. From 1798-1804, Barton published a work on medicinal plants, Collections for An Essay Towards a Materia Medica of the United-States. From 1802-1805 Barton editied the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal, and in 1803 Barton founded the short-lived American Linnaean Society of Philadelphia.

Barton was also interested in anatomy and zoology, and in 1796, published his Memoir Concerning the Fascinating Faculty Which Has been Ascribed to the Rattle-Snake. In 1803 he published a comparative study of linguistics, Etymology of Certain English Words and on Their Affinity to Words in the Languages of Different European, Asiatic and American (Indian) Nations and a text on the origin of the first American people, New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America (1797). He was the editor of the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal (1805–1808), one of the oldest scientific publications in the United States.

Archaeological interests

Barton made one significant contribution to the field of archaeology as well. Although his early publication of 1787, Observations on Some Parts of Natural History, incorrectly attributed the prehistoric mounds of Ohio to the Danes, in his 1797 work (mentioned above) he reconsidered his earlier claim, identifying the Mound builders as Native Americans. While he was not the first to make this claim, he may have been the first to suggest a significant age to the mounds, positing that they were older than James Ussher’s Biblical chronology. Lacking evidence, Barton nevertheless speculated that Native Americans originated in Asia.


Barton served as vice president of the American Philosophical Society from 1802 to 1815, the year of his death, and president of the Philadelphia Medical Society from 1808-1815. In 1812, he was elected as a member to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.


In 1815, Barton died of tuberculosis in New York City.