Thursday, June 1, 2017

Early South Carolina - Seed & Plant Collectors - John Shecut (1770-1836)

John Linnaeus Edward Whitridge Shecut (1770-1836)

John Shecut, physician, author & botanist, was born in Beaufort, S.C. His father, Abraham Shecut, & his mother, Marie (Barbary) Shecut, were French Huguenots who were refugees first to Switzerland & later to America. In 1779, they resettled again to the South Carolina capitol of Charles Town.

The young Shecut was fortunate to have as a friend of the family one of the eras most celebrated physicians, Dr. David Ramsay. Ramsay (1749-1815) was an American physician, public official, & historian from Charleston. Under Ramsay's tutelage Shecut learned medicine. Shecut began the formal study of medicine in 1786, at the College of Philadelphia under Benjamin Rush (1745-1813). At the age of 21, he returned to Charleston & began the practice of medicine.


Shecut plate from Flora Carolinaeenis. Special Collections at the College of Charleston.

Shecut opened a drug & medicine store at 83 King and 130 Queen Streets, where he offered patent medicines probably made from local plants. Most medical practitioners of that period expressed some level of interest in the field of botany.  Shecut was no exception; botany developed into one of his most enduring passions. In 1806, his Flora Carolinaeenis, or a Historical, Medical, & Economical Display of the Vegetable Kingdom according to the Vegetable Kingdom according to the Linnaean or Sexual System of Botany was released. This was intended to be a comprehensive catalog of plants, which would outline their medicinal properties & yet remain usable to the layman. 

In 1819 Shecut reflected; "In 1806, conceiving an era favorable to botany, the author complied & published a series of numbers on botany entitled Flora Carolinaeenis in honor of his native state. This work was honored with a numerous patronage, & was continued to the completion of 2 volumes." Shecut apparently found a popular audience, but the professional reviews were less than kind. One reviewer found Shecut's writing "ponderous." But, by the early 20C, a Dr. Gee, expressed admiration at the scope of Shecut's project, calling it one of the most extensive works on S.C. plant life ever published.

Shecut had a wide range of interests including botany, literature, history & geography. His 1819 medical treatise, opens with a systematic overview of Charleston, creating one of the 1st tour guides of that city.  He was also a driving force for the 1808 formation of the South Carolina Homespun Society, an early but short-lived cotton factory along the Ashley River in Charleston. The object of the organization was to promote "domestic manufactures." The effort was aborted by inexperience, lack of capital, & unfavorable economic circumstance, but the episode adds to the fragmentary history of early textile manufacturing in America. 

In 1813, Shecut helped to organize the influential Antiquarian Society of Charleston, later the Literary & Philosophical Society of South Carolina; an organization dedicated the collection & preservation of natural history specimens.

Shecut offered his readers a poem at the beginning of his 1806 Flora Carolinaeeis: 
A VIEW OF THE AMERICAN FOREST IN AUTUMN, 
By The Author. - 
SUCH the gifts of heaven, to the sons of men
Heavens well belov'd, whose providential care
Each season variegates with variegated blessings, 
Congenial to the hearts, of Carolina's grateful sons. 
Unnumbered beauties grace the autumnal scene, 
The spring and summer's labours at an end, 
Smiling, retire, nature's sweet handmaid 
Flora ever fair, and ever lavish of her gifts, 
Leaves not the garden, or the forest bare 
Or destitute of verdure, the foliage now assumes 
Rich shades of yellow, crimson, white and red,* 
And thus combine to strike th' astonish'd eye, and 
Call the attention thither, the Laurua, Kalmix, Cyfirett, 
And others ever-green, now re-assume their beauties, 
Retaining varied verdures, dark and lightly green. 
Others deciduous, approaching winter warns, 
Leaves, take the hint, and from their verdant hue, 
Instantly change to white, to crimson, to yellow and to red. 
Now Jvyeea, Laurus, Juglans, Acer, all 
Anew, unfold the secrets of their charms; 
Each striving most to attract the wand'ring eye, 
Each yielding to the sons of men, a grand display, of 
Nature's last bequest: Nor yet the last, for 
Succeeding years, a fresh succession brings, 
Jehovah reigns, and nature again renew'd 
Spring, summer, autumn, winter, owns the hand Divine. 
Charleston, August 6, 1805. 
And he then explained: Many leaves of our forest trees, on the approach of winter, undergo an essential change in their colour, the leaves of the Sweet Gum turn red, so does the Maple, Sycamore, &c. yellow.

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