Portrait of Hosack by Rembrandt Peale, 1826
31 August 1769|
New York City
|Died||22 December 1835
New York City
|Education||Columbia University, Princeton University, and University of Edinburgh|
|Profession||Physician, Botanist and Educator|
Dr. David Hosack (August 31, 1769 – December 22, 1835), a noted physician, botanist, and educator, is perhaps most widely known as the doctor who attended to Alexander Hamilton after Hamilton's deadly duel with Aaron Burr. Born in New York City to parents Alexander and Jane Hosack, David was the first of their seven children. Following the end of the American Revolution, Hosack was sent to New Jersey academies to further his education, first in Newark and then Hackensack. He would go on to attend Columbia College, now a branch of Columbia University, where he began as a student of art, but eventually became fascinated by medicine. Young David would eventually enter into an apprenticeship with Dr. Richard Bayley. While studying under Bayley in early 1788 at New York Hospital, a mob formed outside of the hospital, as the illicit obtainment of cadavers from graveyards left medical teaching scandalous and disliked. After a medical student taunted the crowd by waving the arm of one of the corpses out of a window at the mob, a riot ensued and Hosack, trying to protect the laboratory, was hit on the head with a heavy stone.
Shortly after the mob incident Hosack transferred to the College of New Jersey, or today's Princeton University. Hosack graduated from Princeton in 1789  and quickly enrolled as a student under Dr. Nicholas Romayne, where he regularly visited homes for the poor and insane, as they were the only places to offer clinical instruction. In the fall of 1790 Hosack transferred to a medical school in Pennsylvania, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on cholera. He received his medical degree the following spring, shortly after marrying Catharine Warner, whom he had first met at Princeton. David and Catharine moved to Alexandria, Virginia shortly after their marriage, where Dr. Hosack opened his first medical practice. Their son Alexander was born in June 1792, shortly before the family moved back to New York City. In his few years in the medical field, Hosack had learned that the best practitioners had received at least some of their schooling in Europe, so his father agreed to pay his way to Britain in order to obtain said schooling.
Time in England
Upon arriving in England, Hosack matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, where he was horrified to find his knowledge of botany was sorely lacking. Well received by some of the leading scientific minds of the period, Hosack spent much of his time in their botanical gardens and lecture halls, until his knowledge of botany grew to one of the largest of all Americans.
Return to America
Shortly after his return to America, Hosack's son Alexander died. His wife Catharine died shortly after in 1796 giving birth to another child, which also died. These tragedies, along with the epidemics of yellow fever that hit Philadelphia in 1793 and New York in 1795 and 1798, led Hosack to devote much of his life hereafter towards the expansion of medical knowledge and education, as well as the training of doctors in caring for women and children. Hosack also become an advocate for the betterment of lives of the poor, which led him to become a founder of the Humane Society. Hosack also helped to found Bellevue Hospital in New York City. In 1827 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Honorary Academician.
David Hosack was the doctor of Alexander Hamilton and his family, and is perhaps best known as the doctor present during Hamilton's deadly duel with Aaron Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Hosack treated Hamilton following his fatal wounding by Burr, just as he had treated Hamilton's son after he was fatally shot in a duel at the same location in 1801. A good deal of Hosack's practice was dedicated towards that of a family doctor, as he was more than capable of bestowing pediatric or obstetric care if need be.
Hosack was appointed professor of natural history at Columbia College in 1795, and in 1797 succeeded to the chair of materia medica. By 1801 he was a Professor of Botany at Columbia University. In 1807 he was named professor of midwifery and surgery in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, later occupying the chairs of the “Theory and Practice of Medicine” and of “Obstetrics and the Diseases of Women and Children.” In 1821, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He helped organize the short-lived medical department of Rutgers College in 1826 (later associated with Geneva Medical College from 1827 to 1830, and even offered his own private medical school as a course in training. One of his most distinguished students was the celebrated New York City physician, John Franklin Gray, who later became the first practitioner of homoeopathy in the United States. His adoption of homeopathy resulted in the loss of his friendship with him.
Hosack made many important contributions to the field of medicine in his lifetime. He performed the first successful ligature of an aneurism of the femoral artery. He was also the first to introduce the operation for hydrocele by injection, was one of the first physicians to use a stethoscope, and was a strong advocate of smallpox vaccination. He also made a lot of progress towards combating yellow fever, and was the first man to make an accurate description of its symptoms. He was also the creator of America's first botanical garden, Elgin Botanical Garden, which he modeled after the ones he had seen in England. His funding was insufficient to support such a project for so long, and the state legislature eventually purchased his garden for a much lower sum than he had put into it. The garden was then given to Columbia University, which had no interest in continuing with such a costly project.
Hosack and another prominent physician, Nicholas Romayne, also of New York City, both sought at various times an academic sponsorship in order to found new medical schools. They were early proponents in the belief that medical education should be easily accessible. One of Hosack's earlier victories was the merger of the College of Physicians and Surgeons and Columbia University.
In 1826, Hosack, was thej first to suggest an alliance with Rutgers College, located in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He had a falling out with the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and was looking for a university to host his medical faculty.
An alliance was formed between Rutgers College, Hosack, and several of his colleagues. Instruction began on November 6, 1826, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, however, as quickly as the college came into existence, opposition to Hosack and Rutgers Medical School surfaced. Hosack came under attack by the County Medical Society of New York for "unjustifiable interference in the medical concerns of the state and disregard for the provisions of the laws of the state regarding medical education."
"The flamboyent personalities (involved) and notoriety attracted students and money away from competing schools and drew animousity to them like a magnet. The story of the intrigues and political in-fighting of New York City's physicians, their medical societies and institutions during this time period is a complex one."
Consequently, sponsorship of the New Brunswick school created great controversity in the medical profession in New York and resulted in much political maneuvering "involving county and state medical societies, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the Regents of the State University of New York, the New York State Legislature, and ultimately, the New York State Supreme Court."
Rutgers countered with attacks against the College of Physicians and Surgeons and its supporters for "perpetuating monopoly in medical education." Two years of acrimonious debate ended with Hosack's opponents successfully enacting a bill that negated any medical degrees "as licenses to practice medicine in New York State" granted outside of the City of New York, effectively ending the New Brunswick connection.
Undaunted, Hosack traveled to Upstate New York and succeeded in gaining the sponsorship of Geneva College in Geneva, New York. Soon after, the Rutgers Medical College established under the authority of Rutgers College, New Jersey, transferred its allegiance to Geneva College in the State of New York.
The trustees of the college voted on October 30, 1827 to establish the medical faculty.
According to the trustees' minutes, the Geneva College was to consist of two branches, one in Geneva and the other in New York City. Each branch would have six professors. The medical school in Geneva never materialized, due to one delay after another, and the venture was abandoned, however, the branch in New York City was opened in early November, 1827; "amid a barrage of criticism on the part of the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons."
This sponsorship was also short lived. The political forces that opposed Hosack in his Rutgers endeavor, soon caught up with him in Geneva. The affiliation lasted from 1827 to 1830 when Hosack's adversaries filed suit in "The People v. The Trustees of Geneva College" which ruled that the college did not have the power to operate or appoint a faculty at any place but Geneva. This invalidated the branch of Geneva College in New York City.
Elgin Botanical Garden in New York
In 1801, Hosack purchased twenty acres of land in a fashionable section of New York City. At the time, the land was in a rural area, a full three and one-half miles from the city limit. "The whole tract of land was intended by Professor Hosack for a botanical garden, the prime object of which was to be the collection and cultivation of native plants of this country, especially such as possess medicinal properties or are otherwise useful." Elgin, as it was called, was the first public botanical garden in the United States.
At his own expense, Hosack landscaped the garden with a variety of indigenous and exotic plants. By 1805, the garden was home to 1,500 species of plants, the majority, of American origin. The following year, he published a catalogue of the plants found in the botanic garden at Elgin. "The catalogue, now extremely rare, contains an extensive list of the plants under cultivation and was intended as a guide for students and others visiting the gardens."
The New York State Legislature passed an act in 1810 that allowed the State of New York to purchase what was known as Elgin Botanical Garden. Care of the garden was placed in the hands of the Regents of the University (now known as SUNY Board of Regents).
Unfortunately, the garden was eventually abandoned, fell into decay and was later sold to raise funds for Columbia College. It was felt that Dr. Hosack was so preoccupied with his endeavors in the "inauguration" of Rutgers Medical College, that he did not have time or money to continue the garden.
Close to two years after his wife Catharine died, Hosack married again, to Mary Eddy  of Philadelphia, with whom he had nine children—seven of whom survived to adulthood. She was the sister of Thomas Eddy (1758–1827) of Philadelphia. Eddy was a prominent philanthropist and prison reformer. A confirmed family man, Hosack gained a reputation as one who enjoyed living well. Becoming a very popular medical practitioner and professor in the years to come, ever a visionary and liberal spender willing to sacrifice his wealth to his interests, he became quite the paterfamilias.
Not surprisingly, Hosack was the founder and first president of the New York Horticultural Society, the first such organization in America. As honorary members, he brought in his old friend Sir James Edward Smith as well as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Marquis de Lafayette (Robbins 1964, 174-175). He was president of the Literary Society and the Philosophical Society and one of the founders of the New-York Historical Society—and its fourth president (1820–1827).
After Mary died in 1824, he married Magdalena Coster, a widow of one of his friends and a mother with seven children of her own. The families were combined with rare success, living in a house on Chambers Street and maintaining a country estate for summer getaways on Kip’s Bay—both part of the Coster inheritance. Every Saturday, the Hosacks hosted a salon remarkable for the leading artists and intellectuals as well as other medical men who attended, and they became well known as social leaders in the city (Robbins 1964, 166). Hosack befriended the poet William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) and was a patron of American artists including Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of telegraphy, and Thomas Cole.
In later life, with his third wife’s family assets to assist in his enterprises, David Hosack was able to purchase the famous Hudson River estate of Hyde Park, former home of his old teacher and sometime partner in medical practice Dr. Samuel Bard, and he recommenced developing a fine botanical garden. The Hosack’s opulent “retreat” became a popular haunt of visitors who enjoyed the mystique of the Hudson River valley, including not only painters and naturalists but the writer Washington Irving.
Gillen D'Arcy Wood's 2005 historical novel, Hosack's Folly, was based on the life of Dr. Hosack. Hosack's Folly takes place twenty years after the Hamilton-Burr duel, during a time of great danger in New York due to a pending yellow fever epidemic.
- An introductory lecture on medical education (1801)
- Observations on the Canada thistle (1810)
- Observations on the establishment of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in the city of New-York (1811)
- Observations on the surgery of the ancients: vindicating their claims to many of the reputed discoveries and improvements of modern times (1813)
- Observations on the advantages of exposing wounds to the air after capital operations (1813)
- Observations on vision (1813)
- Observations on the laws governing the communication of contagious diseases: and the means of arresting their progress (1815)
- Tribute to the memory of the late Caspar Wistar (1818)
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- Raymond, Marcius Denison. Gray genealogy : being a genealogical record and history of the descendants of John Gray, of Beverly, Mass., and also including sketches of other Gray families. New York: Higginson Book Company, 1887.