The most important figure in eighteenth-century natural history investigations in South Carolina, Garden is best remembered today for the plant Gardenia jasminoides, named for him by John Ellis in 1760.
Physician, naturalist. Born in January 1730 in the parish of Birse, Scotland, Garden was the son of the parish rector, the Reverend Alexander Garden, and his wife, whose name is not known. Young Alexander attended the parish school in Birse until he was thirteen and then went to the University of Aberdeen to serve as an apprentice to Dr. James Gordon. From Gordon he learned the uses of medicinal plants and years later remembered Gordon as “a very ingenious and skillful physician and botanist, who first initiated me into these studies, and tinctured my mind very early with a relish for them.” After serving two years as surgeon’s first mate in the Royal Navy, Garden resigned in 1750 to enter the University of Edinburgh with the intention of obtaining a medical degree. He received additional training in medicine and botany, but lacking funds to complete his studies for a degree and concerned that he might have tuberculosis, he left Edinburgh in 1751 to seek a warmer climate. Intrigued by professional opportunities in North America, he accepted a position as an assistant in the medical practice of Dr. William Rose of Charleston and arrived in the city in April 1752.
Fascinated by the vast number of plants that he had never seen, Garden began to collect specimens. He soon became a close friend of Dr. William Bull, another botany enthusiast, who introduced him to the works of Carolus Linnaeus, the great Swedish naturalist whose new system of classification of plants and animals was gaining wide acceptance among naturalists. Garden borrowed Bull’s copies of Linnaeus’s works and applied his principles of classification to the plants that he collected.
In July 1754 Garden visited the amateur botanist Cadwallader Colden in New York and the noted botanist John Bartram at his garden near Philadelphia. He returned to Charleston determined to further his scientific knowledge and to correspond with men like Linnaeus. That December he and Dr. David Olyphant established a medical practice in the city. In March 1755 Garden began a correspondence with the London naturalist John Ellis that would last until Ellis’s death. During the summer of 1755, Garden accompanied a government expedition to Cherokee Indian country in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northwestern South Carolina, there discovering the plant commonly known today as silver bell. Shortly after his return, his medical partner moved from the city and Garden was left with the entire practice. On Christmas Day 1755, he and Elizabeth Peronneau were married in St. Philip’s Church in Charleston. The union produced two daughters and a son.
By January 1760 Garden had established a correspondence with Linnaeus and begun gathering natural history specimens for Linnaeus’s continuing work with the classification of plants and animals. His first shipment was delayed by the smallpox epidemic that raged in Charleston from February until June 1760, during which Garden and his fellow physicians inoculated between 2,400 and 2,800 persons within one two-week period. Garden sent several large shipments of specimens to Linnaeus, consisting primarily of dried fish skins and reptiles preserved in wine. Among them were forty-one new species of fishes, three lizards, thirteen snakes, and one amphibian described for the first time in the twelfth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema naturae. Those specimens constituted the largest body of material sent to Linnaeus by anyone in North America. They included such familiar fishes as the striped mullet, bluefish, and pompano, and the corn snake, copperhead, eastern king snake, and eastern glass lizard. Garden himself described one new amphibian, Amphiuma means, the two-toed amphiuma, an aquatic salamander discovered near Charleston and reported in a letter to John Ellis in 1770.
When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Garden sympathized with the grievances of the colonists but had no personal reason to desert the British crown. At the end of the war, Garden and other Loyalists were stripped of their property and banished from the country. He sailed for England in December 1782, having lost virtually everything for which he had worked, though he had taken no active part in the war. He and his wife and daughter settled in London, where he died on April 15, 1791. The most important figure in eighteenth-century natural history investigations in South Carolina, Garden is best remembered today for the plant Gardenia jasminoides, named for him by John Ellis in 1760.
Berkeley, Edmund, and Dorothy Smith Berkeley. Dr. Alexander Garden of Charles Town. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. Sanders, Albert E. “Alexander Garden (1730–1791), Pioneer Naturalist in Colonial America.” In Collection Building in Ichthyology and Herpetology, edited by Theodore W. Pietsch and William D. Anderson, Jr. Lawrence, Kans.: American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, 1997.
Smith, J. E. A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus and Other Naturalists. 2 vols. 1821. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1978.