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Seed Sown on Good Soil: Astronomy, Botany, and Medicine in Early American Books

Posted on 05/26/2020

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Perhaps you’ve explored Readex’s five Origins of Modern Science and Technology collections, which include material from the latter half of the twentieth century. For an earlier perspective on the history of science you can also delve into three new digital products:

It may appear counterintuitive to look for science content in material written for children,  or for a distinctly religious audience, or in relation to Native Americans. Consider though that religious leaders were often the most highly educated members of society during America’s formative years. For example, the evangelism of Cambridge-graduate John Eliot in no way diminished his philology in producing his Algonquian Bible in 1663.

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Through the examples that follow, we’ll sample Readex’s early American offerings in astronomy, botany, and medicine.

When the prominent religious leader Increase Mather wasn’t trying to mitigate the cultural damage resulting from the Salem witch trials, he had his eyes fixed upon the stars, or rather, upon shooting stars—comets.

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Using the best authorities available to him, Mather described in great detail comets observed over about two thousand years. While doing so, he made a considerable effort to relate the comets’ appearances to significant events occurring at the time, which makes reconciling his accounts with our modern chronology of comets much easier. It’s interesting to read how Mather distinguished comets and notable planetary conjunctions as divine signals of portentous events rather than predictive of specific events as the “judicial astrologers” claimed. He accepted that correlation is not causation. 

…the Holy Patriark Abraham, by occasion of the Comet which appeared A.M. 2018. was induced to study Astronomy, that so he might be the better able to judge of the nature and meaning of such works of God. All this notwithstanding the curiosity and presumption of Judicial Astrologers, is not to be justified, who undertake peremptorily to Prognosticate, what the particular things are, (yea, and the places and persons concerned in them) that shall come to pass after such Configurations and Planetary Aspects. I have read of a Mahomedan Astrologer who did praedict a great inundation to be in Syria, A.D. 1095. because of a Conjunction of all the Planets (except Saturn) in the watery sign of Pisces, (like as it was before Noah's Flood) which fell out to be true. But such Astrologers have at other times come off with shame by their bold and rash predictions, as Calvisius, and Wendelinus have more then once noted e.g. A.D. 1186. because of rare Conjunctions of all the Planets then hapning; the Astrologers of those dayes declared that there would follow horrendous Tempests of Wind, and after that I know not what miracles, nothing of which came to pass.


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This is neither Mather’s only work on comets, nor his earliest; American Sermons, 1652-1819 also includes a shorter book from 1681.

As a measure of the objectivity many religious authors brought to their scientific studies, in A series of discourses on the Christian revelation, viewed in connexion with the modern astronomy (1818) Thomas Chalmers wrote of the limits of meaningful human speculation on the religious and physical character of life on other planets.

The man who could embark in an enterprise so foolish and so fanciful, as to theorize it on the details of the botany of another world, or to theorize it on the natural and moral history of its people, is just making as outrageous a departure from all sense, and all science, and all sobriety, when he presumes to speculate, or to assert on the details or the methods of God’s administration among its rational and accountable inhabitants. He wings his fancy to as hazardous a region, and vainly strives a penetrating vision through the mantle of as deep an obscurity. All the elements of such a speculation are hidden from him.

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On the basis of his faith Chalmers was willing to assert that Creation is one divine phenomenon everywhere and forever, but he would not speculate on its particular manifestations on other planets without empirical evidence.

The illustration below is from an unattributed volume entitled, A Compend of astronomy, containing an exposition of the appearances of the celestial bodies. For the use of students. This work of 64 pages is available in Readex’s American Children’s Books, 1654-1819. Although intended for a juvenile audience, it’s arguably of a higher technical order than the foregoing discourses written for adults.

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We find substantive sources on botany in American Children’s Books, 1654-1819 as well, among them Priscilla Wakefield’s An introduction to botany, in a series of familiar letters, with illustrative engravings, published in Boston in 1811.

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With engravings, an appendix, a catalogue and a glossary; the kids had it pretty good when it came to natural science! Feast your eyes on Plate 3. Again, this is serious material for the improvement of young minds.

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Not everything was so demanding, however. The following is taken from another unattributed work, Evening tales; or Amusements for youth, printed in Philadelphia in 1813.



G. What a delightful smell!

H. Charming! It is sweeter than Mr. Essence’s shop.

T. Do you know whence it comes?

G. O—it is from the bean-field on the other side of the hedge, I suppose.

T. It is. This is the month in which beans are in blossom. See—the stalks are full of their black and white flowers.

H. I see peas in blossom, too, on the other side of the field.

G. You told us some time ago of grass and […]


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In her 1819, A botanical catechism: containing introductory lessons for students in botany. By a lady, Jane Kilby Welsh, writing behind her penname had something to say about botany. Like the previous excerpt, this one was also framed as an interrogatory. But these questions were presented as a textbook for teachers and students alike:

The Teacher will find it expedient to have an example of some perfect and complete flower, for the purpose of pointing out the elementary organs as the answers are given. Specimens dried with care, may be used with advantage, in attending to the elementary principles of this study in the winter season.


Question. To what part of a plant does the term carpogenation apply?

Answer. Carpogenation comprises the flower and fruit.

Q. How many elementary organs are there?

A. Seven.

Q. Name them.

A. Calyx, corol, stamina, pistil, pericarp, seed, receptacle.

Q. What is the calyx?

A. The external covering or lower part of a flower resembling the leaves in texture, and is generally green, which in Botany is synonymous with not coloured.

Q. What is a corol?

A. The coloured blossoms or petals of a flower, generally situated within or above the calyx.

Q. What are the stamina or stamens?

A. The mealy or glutinous knobs, generally placed on thread like or filamentous organs.

Q. What is a pistil?

A. The central organ of the flower, whose base becomes the pericarp and seed.

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For those inclined to investigate medicinal plants, in Native American Indians, 1645-1819 there’s a broadside advertisement from 1805 lauding the exertions of Charity Shaw as a compounding pharmacist and dispenser of “Indian Medicines.” She claims to have discovered these by careful study of Native American remedies.

THE INDIAN MEDICINES have had a fair trial in Boston and its vicinity—The increase of demands, and certificates published in the Boston papers, must be an evidence to every candid, reflecting mind, that the Roots and Herbs of our Country (if properly adapted) are sufficient to mitigate and cure all the diseases incident to its climate.

Mrs. Shaw has, from her infancy been attached to the studies of Natural History—she derived more information from the Indians in Connecticut, Long-Island, and New-Jersey, of the Medicinal use of Plants, than from any distinguished Authors whatever; their technical terms, and scientifick arrangements, proved too methodical for the slender fibres of her brain—she found it much more conducive to health, to seek plants in the fields than in books.—She copied with her pencil all that were curious and useful—gave them to the poor and sick—whose gratitude have brought them thus far into circulation and general usefulness.


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So Mrs. Shaw consulted the experts but ultimately pursued the time-honored scientific tradition of seeking primary evidence from the things themselves. Her preparations included ingredients such as castile soap, sarsaparilla, goldenrod, pond lily, snake root and other substances that were perhaps beneficial or at least benign in their results. Despite the enthusiastic testimonials appearing alongside the above, however, it’s possible that the thought of “Raccoon Ointment,” “Deer’s-Foot Jelly” or “Indian Liquid for Worms” is not to your taste. For a more palatable topic with resonance in the twenty-first century we find in American Sermons, 1652-1819 discourses on the pros and cons of vaccination:

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The gist of Massey’s argument is that for mankind as for the biblical Job, patience is a virtue; “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21). God purportedly inflicts distress either as a test or as punishment. For physicians to induce the same boils and pustules that the Devil used to inflame Job was presumptuous and sinful in its interference with God’s will.

And so we are come to the Words of our Text, So went Satan forth from the Presence of the Lord, and smote Job with sore Boils, from the sole of his foot unto his Crown.

The Silence of Scripture hath given Interpreters Occasion of guessing at the Distemper which the Devil here inflicted upon Job: But among them all, it appears not certainly what it was. I will therefore desire to give an Opinion, equally I think true, with any that hath yet been taken Notice of: It is this, That the Devil by some venemous Infusion into the Body of Job, might raise his Blood to such a Ferment, as threw out a Confluence of inflammatory Pustules all over him from Head to Foot: That is, his Distemper might be what is now incident to most Men, and perhaps conveyed to him by some such Way as that of Inoculation.

I do not at present see what can be advanced to invalidate this Supposition, which I look upon to be as tenable as any that is extant about this Matter: Having this additional Advantage, that the Scene of Action lies in those parts of the World, whence this Practice is confessedly derived.

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Massey makes the analogy that a medical Patient is exactly that person who patiently suffers bodily affliction but keeps his soul and spirit inviolate rather than seeking to thwart God’s will through means of worldly intervention.

For an altogether different opinion on vaccination we turn to Isaac Maddox, Lord Bishop of Worcester, in a 1752 sermon dedicated to King George II of Great Britain. Apparently vaccination saved the king’s children from smallpox and so became endorsed as public health policy. This would have been about thirty years later than the anti-vaccination sermon excerpted above.

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The difference between the former sermon and this one is that between the Old Testament and the New, the trials of Job versus the salvation of Lazarus—and by extension the salvation of the wealthy potential contributors to a hospital for the indigent afflicted. For this is less of a sermon and more of an outright appeal for charity.

REFLECT, with Attention, upon that beautiful, and in the present Case, very apposite Parable of the hard-hearted rich Man, and the afflicted Lazarus, drawn by the compassionate Savior of Mankind, to excite Benevolence and Pity, by representing the different Fate and Condition of the uncharitable Rich, and the distressed Poor, in this World, and in the next.

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More to the point of vaccination itself, Maddox relates the “easy and voluntary” procedure as standing in the same light with accidental exposure to the “invisible Particles,” but productive of such different results in protecting against smallpox that charity must support inoculation.

For ‘tis no more invading the Prerogative of Heaven, to occasion one easy and voluntary Conveyance of the Infection than another; by a slight and hardly sensible Rasure upon the Skin of the Arm, than communicating the same Distemper by invisible Particles, to that tender Organ the Lungs, which are so frequently affected by the Venom of this Disease, when contracted by the Breath, or receiving into the Body infected Particles in what is called the natural Way.


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In the sixteenth century Nicolaus Copernicus upended the Ptolemaic model (and also the predominating assumption of European and English religious authorities) which held that Earth was properly at the center of cosmic and divine schema. Copernicus asserted instead that the Earth and the planets orbited the sun. This paradigm shift set the stage for Galileo and Kepler to refine celestial mechanics further still through use of the telescope to gather empirical data. In 1633 Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church as a heretic for supporting the Copernican revolution in astronomy.

The three new Readex products highlighted above include important material from that early period in human scientific understanding—and later. As with the telescope, Readex provides finely crafted tools that allow intrepid researchers to reimagine the status quo through direct encounters with primary sources. We hope that the above examples might inspire your own revolutionary ideas.

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To learn more about these new resources, please contact Readex.

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