A Proper Female Pursuit in an 18C Patriarchal Society
Colden thought women should study botany because of "their natural curiosity & the pleasure they take in the beauty and variety of dress seems to fit them for it." Moreover, he viewed such study as an ideal substitute for idleness among his female children, when he moved his family to the country in 1729. He believed gardening & botany "an Amusement which may be made agreable for the Ladies who are often at a loss to fill their time." He went so far as to recommend that perhaps from Jane's example "young ladies in a like situation may find an agreable way to fill up some part Of their time which otherwise might be heavy on their hand May amuse & please themselves & at the same time be usefull to others." A letter of 1755 from Colden to Dutch botanist Jan Gronovius (1666-1762) : "I have a daughter who has an inclination to reading and a curiosity for natural philosophy or natural History and a sufficient capacity for attaining a competent knowledge. I took the pains to explain to her Linnaeus' system and to put it in English for her to use by freeing it from the Technical Terms which was easily done by using two or three words in place of one. She is now grown very fond of the study and has made such progress in it as I believe would please you if you saw her performance. Tho' perhaps she could not have been persuaded to learn the terms at first she now understands to some degree Linnaeus' characters notwithstanding that she does not understand Latin."
Jane Colden far surpassed her father's amusement theory. She was the first scientist to describe the gardenia. Although she had to read the works of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) in translation, she mastered the Linnaean system of plant classification perfectly. She catalogued, described, and sketched at least 400 plants. She actively collected seeds & specimens of New World flora & exchanged them with others on both sides of the Atlantic.The South Carolina scientist Dr. Alexander Garden (1730-1791) wrote in a letter to John Ellis in 1755, that Jane Colden “is greatly master of the Linnaean method, and cultivates it with assiduity.”
Peter Collinson (1694-1768) wrote about her to American plant collector John Bartram: "Our friend Colden's daughter has a scientifical manner. Sent over several sheets of plants very curiously anatomised after [Linnaeus'] Method. I believe she is the first Lady that has attempted any thing of this nature." Collinson reported to Carolus Linnaeus, "Your system, I can tell you obtains much in America. Mr. Clayton and Dr. Colden at Albany of Hudson's River in New York are complete Professors....Even Dr. Colden's daughter was an enthusiast." He later wrote to Linnaeus, that Jane Colden “is perhaps the first lady that has so perfectly studied your system. She deserves to be celebrated.”
Carolus Linnaeus also knew of her work. He corresponded directly with her father; and in a 1758, letter to British naturalist John Ellis (1711-1778) tells Linnaeus that he will let Jane know "what civil things you say of her." The only plant bearing the Colden’s surname is Coldenia, so named by Linnaeus, in reference to a relative of the Borage and Comfrey plants Coldenia procumbens. Her work on plant classification was in a Scottish scientific journal in 1770, four years after her death.