John D. Godman (1794-1830)

A contemporary portrait of John D. Godman (1794-1830)

From A Memoir of . . . Dr. John D. Godman (Philadelphia, 1859): [His] essays are not inferior in poetical beauty, and vivid and accurate description, to the celebrated letters of Gilbert White on the natural history of Selbourne. He came to the study of natural history as an investigator of facts, and not as a pupil of the schools; his great aim being to learn the instincts, the structure, and the habits of all animated beings. This science was a favourite pursuit, and he devoted himself to it with indefatigable zeal. He has been heard to say that, in investigating the habits of the shrew mole, he walked many hundred miles. His powers of observation were quick, patient, keen, and discriminating: it was these qualities that made him so admirable a naturalist.

John Godman is an often under-appreciated American naturalist. Born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1794, he died in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1830. In that short life of 36 years, however, he traveled widely, wrote extensively, and made important contributions to the understanding of the natural world in the new nation. Orphaned as a young child, without any financial means or prospects, he began his career apprenticed to a printer in Baltimore but joined the Navy when he was 20 and was a sailor in the Chesapeake Bay, at the defense of Fort McHenry (1814) where Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner.” When the war with Britain ended, Godman went to medical school and worked as a doctor until 1821, at which time he became a professor of medicine in Cincinatti, Ohio. He soon moved back to Philadelphia, becoming a professor of anatomy at Rutgers Medical Caollege. He was forced to travel to the West Indies to improve his failing health. Upon his return to the United States, he settled finally in Germantown, Pennsylvania, where he began his carer as a naturalist and nature-writer. He wrote articles on zoology for the Encyclopedia Americana. He managed to complete his three-volume American Natural History between 1823 and 1828 as well as numerous other natural history writings before his untimely death of consumption (a.k.a. tuberculosis), the same vicious scourge that would also carry off John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Brontë, Anton Chekov, Henry David Thoreau, D. H. Lawrence, and George Orwell.

Godman links:


Bones of mastodon from American Natural History (Dickinson Special Collections)

John D. Godman in Early American Nature Writers by Daniel Patterson, Roger Thompson (Greenwood, 2008): “At a time when the environment is of growing concern to students and general readers, nature writing is especially meaningful. This book profiles the literary careers of 52 early American nature writers, such as John James Audubon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Caroline Stansbury Kirkland, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Mabel Osgood Wright. Each entry is written by an expert contributor and discusses the writer’s life and works.”

Rambles of a Naturalist by John D. Godman

Memoir of Dr. John D. Godman : professor of anatomy, author of “anatomical illustrations” & c. who died at Philadelphia, April 17, 1830. From an introductory lecture / by Thomas Sewall: At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, along with numerous other contemporary texts about Godman and by Godman.

Charles Willson Peale’s Museum: An article from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University that notes Godman’s role in early American natural history

John D. Godman at the FamousAmericans website: “As a lecturer on anatomy and as a naturalist he had but few equals among his contemporaries in the United States, and he was also well versed in the Latin, French, arid German languages.”

Link to Rambles of a Naturalist in the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Complete text of Rambles of  a Naturalist, which ends:

“During hard winters the crows suffer greatly, and perish in considerable numbers from hunger. When starved severely, the poor wretches will swallow bits of leather, rope, rags, in short, anything that appears to promise the slightest relief. Multitudes belonging to the Bristol roost perished during the winter of 1828-9 from this cause. All the water-courses were solidly frozen, and it was distressing to observe these starvelings every morning winging their weary way towards the shores of the sea, in hopes of food, and again toiling homewards in the afternoon, apparently scarce able to fly.

In speaking of destroying crows, we have never adverted to the use of poison, which in their case is wholly inadmissible, on this account–where crows are common, hogs generally run at large, and to poison the crows would equally poison them: the crows would die, and fall to the ground, where they would certainly be eaten by the hogs.

Crows, when caught young, learn to talk plainly, if pains be taken to repeat certain phrases to them, and they become exceedingly impudent and troublesome. Like all of their tribe, they will steal and hide silver or other bright objects, of which they can make no possible use.”

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