Early Botanists of Colonial America, Part 1

It will probably not surprise those who know me well when I say that the moment I stepped in the apothecary shop at Colonial Williamsburg last year, I felt like my two great loves of history and science finally came together for the first time. My reaction? I totally geeked out...and basically haven't stopped ever since. Previously, I had never seriously contemplated the thought that scientists had traveled to the "New World" alongside everyone else. I found myself particularly interested in learning about botanists of the time period, as that is my personal area of professional specialty. So, doing what any sane (note sarcasm...) twenty-something would do, I marched down to my university library to check out 8-10 hefty books on the topic of colonial botany. I had never expected so many botanists to dance across the pages of our country's history, much less in just the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries in Virginia. What enthralled me even more was how fascinating their life stories are. As you might have guessed, I've decided to write a series of posts chronicling a handful of notable early botanists in Colonial America.

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Fittingly enough, the first botanist to visit Colonial America came to the English colony of Jamestown. His name was Johannes Fleischer, Jr. and, interestingly enough, was of German rather than English heritage. The senior Johannes Fleischer taught Latin as a profession and later earned a doctorate from the University of Wittenberg. Evidently Latin was a passion as well as profession; in 1577 when Fleischer married his bride, two dozen scholars wrote poems in Latin and Greek wishing the happy couple well (Grassl, First Scientist 133). Johannes Jr. arrived five years later, but his was not destined to be an easy life. His mother died when he was five and his father six years later (Grassl, First Scientist 134).

However, a bright spot was where the child lived. His hometown of Breslau, Silesia (now under Poland's jurisdiction post-WWII) was a scholarly environment. The young lad was taken under the wing of local physician Laurentius Scholz. Of botanical bent, Scholz maintained a garden of flowers and herbs (Grassl, First Scientist 134) for both medicinal and pleasure purposes. Indeed, many of the botanists of this time period were medical professionals. Scholz was no exception.

The junior Fleischer's interest in botany was most likely encouraged by Schultz personally, up until Schultz' death in 1599 when the boy was sixteen. He went on to become a Ph.D. student at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He studied under Dr. Casper Bauhin, a professor specializing in both botany and anatomy (Grassl, First Scientist 134). In 1606 at the age of 24, Johannes Fleischer graduated with his Ph.D., with specialization in both medicine and botany. He then spent some time collecting plants around Silesia and other parts of Europe in collaboration with his former major professor (Grassl, Premier Physician 2).

Replicas of the Susan Constant & Godspeed at Jamestown Settlement

Perhaps interested in the medicinal properties of plants in North America and motivated to keep collecting for Dr. Bauhin, Fleischer connected with the Virginia Company and made arrangements to travel to the North American colony. This is where historical accounts vary. Grassl in his First Scientist chapter describes Fleischer sailing for Jamestown in October 1607, approximately ten months after the first colonists had departed London. In this scenario, Fleischer booked passage on the pinnace (a small, 20-ton vessel) Phoenix under Francis Nelson, which was sailing in tandem with Christopher Newport's John and Francis on the first resupply mission (137). However, on Christmas Eve, the two ships were separated due to a heavy fog just a few dozen miles away from the Chesapeake Bay. The John and Francis arrived at Jamestown on 2 January 1608, but due to the contrary weather and storms it took until 20 April 1608 for the Phoenix to show up. All had presumed the Phoenix and her passengers lost (138-139). However, in his later Premier Physician paper, Grassl notes that new research suggests Fleischer left London for Jamestown with the original batch of colonists in December 1606 (3). In this scenario, Fleischer would have been berthed on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, or Discovery (The First Residents of Jamestown). Either way, Johannes Fleischer was unquestionably one of the first colonists at Jamestown.

As Grassl pined in First Scientist,

"[Fleischer's] love of botany had drawn him to a strange continent more than 3,500 miles from home. He had traveled farther than anyone else to reach Virginia. But unlike most of his companions, he was not motivated to find riches but plants to heal the illnesses of mankind. His dedication to healing would soon be put to the test." (140)

Summertime, with the ever-present heat, was known as a time for sickness. Dysentery, typhoid fever, and salt poisoning are believed to the predominant causes of mortality. The fact that no well had been dug to provide pure water didn't exactly help the survival rate, either. No doubt, Dr. Johannes Fleischer, Jr., M.D. attended many colonists suffering from these diseases (Grassl, First Scientist 140). Captain John Smith - self-elected president of the Jamestown colony, left the colony during this time period in order to go exploring. Unfortunately, Captain Smith took English physician Walter Russell along, leaving Dr. Fleischer the only medical professional in the colony (Grassl, Premier Physician 5).

Alas, amid taking care of those around him, Dr. Fleischer himself fell ill and died sometime around early August 1608. He was most likely buried in an unmarked grave somewhere within the confines of James Fort. It took nearly five years for news of his passing to arrive in his hometown of Breslau (Grassl, First Scientist 145).

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To be completely honest, I had never heard of Johannes Fleischer prior to visiting the Archaearium museum at Historic Jamestowne a little over a year ago (check out my video on him in the Resources section below!). This botanist may have not had much opportunity of discovering herbs or other medicinal plants of North America, but he certainly had opportunity to utilize his medical skills in ministering to many ailing sufferers, and that choice is to be commended. It would take seventy years for another notable botanist to arrive on Virginia's shores, and his name was John Banister.

To be continued...

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"The First Residents of Jamestown". Historic Jamestown, National Park Service, 26 February 2015. Accessed 9 January 2022. https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/the-first-residents-of-jamestown.htm

Grassl, Gary C. "Johannes Fleischer, Jr., M.D.: The First Scientist at Jamestown, Virginia". Yearbook of German-American Studies, vol. 35, 2000, 133-151.

---. "Dr. Johannes Fleischer the Younger: Premier Physician and Botanist at Jamestown". Loyola Notre Dame Library, https://loyolanotredamelib.org/php/report05/articles/pdfs/Report46Grassip1-11.pdf. Accessed 7 January 2022.

Further Resources:

History of Jamestown - a great primer on the colony's history from the organization which preserves the actual site

Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery - links to three videos from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation giving tours of their replica ships that the Jamestown colonists sailed the Atlantic on. Exploring Historic Jamestowne's Archaearium, Part 2 - my video all about Johannes Fleischer

Ships of the Roanoke Voyages - the ships used by the Jamestown colonists were similar to the ones used by the ill-fated Roanoke colonists. The NPS has a great page talking about the various types of vessels, including the pinnace that one account says Fleicher crossed the Atlantic on.