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What Jane Knew: A Woman Botanist in the Eighteenth Century

Jane Colden (1724–1760) was among the first women anywhere to master formal Linnaean botany, and she did so not in a European center of learning but on a farm in the Hudson Valley of New York. Colden became a skilled, talented botanist, despite the unusualness of this activity for a woman in this period. She was able to develop these skills because she could take advantage of several intersecting circumstances. She first engaged with botany at the behest of her father, who had himself practiced botany and had found it a route to prestige and sociability. Her skill, however, soon surpassed his and brought her the admiration and respect of skilled botanists elsewhere in the Atlantic world, where the demand for exotic flora and for reliable information about plants was rising. As important as her talents as a botanist were to her participation in networks of botanists, so too was her ability to negotiate successfully a borderland where the decorum expected of a botanist overlapped with that expected of a woman. Jane Colden's story illustrates the importance of both women's scientific work and colonial participation to the eventual centrality of formal science in Western culture.