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Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879)



Jacob Bigelow was born in Sudbury, Massachusetts on February 27, 1786 or 1787 (sources disagree); he has been variously described as the son of a Congregational minister and the son of a farmer. After obtaining his A.B. from Harvard in 1806, he attended medical lectures under Dr. John Gorham while teaching at the Boston Latin School (Kelly 121). Sometime after 1808 Bigelow left Harvard for the University of Pennsylvania, earning his M.D. in 1810. During this time he also studied under Benjamin Smith Barton, "and so had his botanical knowledge considerably augmented" (Kelly 121). He practiced medicine by himself for a year without much financial success and then began a practice in Boston with Dr. James Jackson in 1811. This practice was quite successful, and for the next 60 or so years Dr. Bigelow "ranked next to his venerable senior, the most popular practicioner of the city" (Bailey 218). Beginning in 1812, Bigelow lectured on botany at Harvard with W. D. Peck; the interest shown in his lectures led him to compile his Florula Bostoniensis, which was published in 1814. Second and third editions followed, the second becoming the leading manual of the plants of New England for some three decades following its publication (Bailey 219). The following year (1815) he was appointed professor of materia medica at the Harvard Medical School, a post he retained until 1855. With Dr. Francis Boott he began work on a flora of New England, but this project was given up. From 1817-1820 he published American Medical Botany, for which he drew many of the plates and devised the means of reproducing them through a color aqua-tint process.

As his work in developing a process for printing the plates of his American Medical Botany shows, Bigelow was also interested in mechanics. This interest led to his appointment as Rumford Professor at Harvard College, a position endowed for the purpose of teaching the application of science to useful arts (Bailey 221). Bigelow held this position from 1816-1827. Bigelow's interest in mechanics and non-biological sciences also led to the publication of his Elements of Technology in 1829. In addition, Bigelow was active in the preparation of the first U.S. Pharmacopoeia, wrote on medical topics and on education, and played a major role in the establishment and design of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. He was president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1847-1863, and was a member of that organization for 67 years (Gray 265).

In addition to being a doctor, professor and botanist, Bigelow was also a poet. His Eolopoesis, American Rejected Addresses was published anonymously in 1855. Bigelow married Mary Scollay in 1817 and died in Boston on January 10, 1879. He was laid to rest in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. He is remembered in the genus Bigelowia in the family Compositae, named by De Candolle.


Bailey, L.H., Jr. "Some North American Botanists: V. Jacob Bigelow." Botanical Gazette 8(5): 217-222.
Gray, Asa. "Dr. Jacob Bigelow." The American Journal of Science and Arts Third Series. 17(100): 263-266.
Elliott, Clark A. Biographical Dictionary of American Science: The Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries. 1979.
Kelly, Howard A. "Jacob Bigelow." Some American Medical Botanists. Troy, New York : The Southworth Company Publishers, 1914.

Scope and Content:

The Bigelow papers consist of two main types of material: botanical illustrations and herbarium specimens. The botanical illustrations mostly pertain to Bigelow's American Medical Botany and include pen and pencil drawings, colored drawings and handcolored proofs (roughly 40 sheets of drawings). The herbarium specimens consist of about 17 different plants with identifying labels. They seem to have been collected on a European grant tour; a few are dated March 1839.


The provenance of this collection is unknown.

Container Listing: BOX BB


1. Notes and pencil and pen sketches (some look like tracings of colored drawings), 18 leaves

Sample colored engravings of Acer eriocarpum from F. André Michaux, Histoire des Arbres Forestiers de l'Amerique Septentrionale, Vol. II, Pl. 13 (opp. p. 278), Paris: de l'imprimerie de L. Haussmann, 1813. Sample plate seems to have one less color than the published one.

Sample plates from American Medical Botany, 1 as printed, 3 colored by hand.

Colored drawings that more or less correspond to printed plates from American Medical Botany. Ten leaves, five of which are labeled "Original copy -- J.B."

Colored drawings that don't correspond to plates from American Medical Botany. Eleven leaves; one labeled "Original copy - J. Bigelow" and one signed "S. Vaughan."


2 Specimens of about 17 different plants with identifying labels.

See Also:

Historic Letter Collection
Semi-Historic Letter Collection
Gray Archives Photograph Collection #0643
Jane Gray Autograph Collection


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Last Updated June 2002
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