Dr. David Hosack was born in 1769 in New York City. Although he began studying the arts at Columbia College, now a branch of Columbia University, he also began studying medicine there during his first two years with Dr. Richard Bayley. While studying under Bayley in early 1788 at New York Hospital, a mob formed outside, 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, a riot ensued and Hosack, trying to protect the laboratory, was hit on the head with a heavy stone. After this incident he transferred to Princeton College where he completed his Bachelor of Arts in 1789. Subsequently Hosack returned to Columbia to continue his medical studies and gained clinical experience working at the New York City Alms House. He then went on to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where he studied with, among others, the eminent Dr. Benjamin Rush with whom he actually lived. It was there that he received his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1791. After practicing in New York for a time, Dr. Hosack traveled to Edingurgh and London to further enhance his professional knowledge, particularly in the subject of botany. After returning to New York he was served as Professor of Botany and Materia Medica at Columbia College while maintaining a successful private practice. One of Dr. Hosack’s numerous claims to fame was the fact that he attended the dying Alexander Hamilton following his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. David Hosack died on December 22, 1835 as the result of a stroke, or apoplexy as it was then called.
In 1801 Dr. Hosack purchased just over 19 acres of land in the vicinity of today’s Rockefeller Center for $4,807 in order to create the Elgin Botanic Gardens which opened in 1804. The Gardens consisted of thousands of species of plants including “numerous plants which are here associated in scientific order, for the instruction of the student in Botany or Medicine.” (1) The Gardens also contained one spacious green-house, two hot-houses and a pond for aquatic species. Over the next decade he invested a sizeable sum of money to maintain and improve the Gardens and by 1810 the financial burden had become too great. Dr. Hosack proposed to New York State that they purchase Elgin to benefit physicians and medical students throughout the state. New York did purchase the land with funds to be raised by a lottery but paid the doctor $28,000 less than the appraised value. The garden was placed in the hands of the Regents of the University (now known as SUNY Board of Regents), and was eventually abandoned, fell into decay and was later sold to raise funds for Columbia College.
(2) Lives of Eminent American Physicians and Surgeons of the Nineteenth Century. Samuel Gross, ed. 1861, 289-337. Written by Alex Eddy Hosack, MD, son of David Hosack