• Dr. Alexander Garden

    1730 – 1791

    Garden was born in January 1730 in Birse, Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, the son of a clergyman. He studied medicine at Marischal College in the mid-1740s, discovering an interest in natural history while there. After two years as a surgeon's assistant in the navy, he continued his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. 

    In April of 1752, An opportunity came to practice medicine in South Carolina. Garden's father, the Reverend Alexander Garden, had emigrated to South Carolina earlier and had a a congregation in Charleston. The younger Garden emigrated to Prince William Parish in South Carolina in late 1752. He was granted his MD by Marischal College In 1754. 

    Garden moved to to Charles Town (Charleston) the following year. He married Elizabeth Peronneau (1739–1805) and was a partner in a busy medical practice.

    He still had a great interest in natural history and collected and studied flora and fauna and made collections to send his friend John Ellis, a merchant and zoologist in London, and to Carols Linnaeus in Sweden.

    "there is not a living soul who knows the least iota of Natural History" he wrote to Ellis (quote from South Carolina Naturalists : An Anthology 1700-1860 by David Taylor)

    Garden corresponded with many of the great minds of the day,There were no neighbors with similar interests. Benjamin Franklin, William Bartram and others. his botanical and zoological conversations were carried on by letters and packages. His collections in which he sent to Europe included birds, fish, reptiles, amphibia, insects, and plants from South Carolina or further afield, some from new species or genera which were then described in the scientific literature.

    Garden could not have met the earlier naturalist Mark Catesby who visited Charleston in 1722 while working on his Natural History of Carolina Florida and The Bahama IslandsGarden truly was not short of his criticisms of Catesby’s works He writes to his friend Baker in March of 1755 ( 6 years after the death of Mark Catesby):

    “Mr. Catesby, your friend was an Ingenious Man but that he drew with Exactness I scarce can think for I have lately had occasion to look him over with some care & I find him Erring in a very Essential part I mean leaves; Surely he never knew or rather did not attend to use of the Leaves in determining the species- Indeed they are so far from being well done that most of tham are unnaturall- I don’t know but the copy that I have seen may have been none of his Best works & I really wish it may be so, as I’m certain, if I know anything of my own mind, I am far from choosing to speak against Character especially a Naturalist without great Causes”

    (quote from Dr. Alexander Garden of Charles Town by Edmund Berkeley & Dorothy Smith Berkeley) Gardens criticisms of Mark Catesby continued over the years and Catesby’s biographers have been inclined to think it a bit of professional jealousy. He goes on later in a letter dated January 1, 1760 to Carols Linnaeus about Catesby : 

    ”Please to observe the Albuls. our Mullet; and you will immediately perceive that he had not only forgotten to count and express the rays of the fins, but that he has, which is hardly credible, left our the pectorial fins entirely, and overlooked one of the ventral ones. So he has done in most other instances. It is suffciently evident that his sole object was to make showy figures of the productions of Nature, rather to invent than to describe. It is indulging fancies of his own brain, instead of contemplating and observing the beautiful works of God.”


    Mark Catesby’s image of the Mullet & Grunt, Volume II Plate T6.

    Alexander Garden sent various magnolias and some Gordonia specimens to London, and wrote descriptions of Stillingia and Fothergilla, but ironically the plant named for him was nothing to do with his efforts, and not even American. Linnaeus had to be pushed to name a plant after Garden, and eventually Ellis persuaded him to use Gardenia as a name for the Cape jasmine, also known as Cape jessamine.
    His zoological interests led Garden to write about cochineal insects and about the greater siren, (Sirena lacertina), once called the mud iguana. One of Garden's sirens is still in the London Natural History Museum, pickled in a jar. As a doctor, he used his scientific knowledge in the smallpox epidemic in Charleston in 1760 when he inoculated over 2000 people, and he published an essay on the medicinal properties of the pinkroot (Spigelia marilandica).

    During the Revolutionary War, Garden sided with the British. Two years later he left South Carolina when his property was confiscated. He returned to in London in 1783. He became vice-president of the Royal Society . Garden died of tuberculosis on April 15th in 1791.