James King Davidson’s Journal

James King Davidson was a senior at Dickinson College in 1829. Born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in 1810, he went on to receive his M.D. from the Jefferson Medical College. A notebook of his, now part of Dickinson College’s Special Collections, is a remarkable record of the “natural” knowledge expected of an undergraduate in the early nineteenth century. Included in it are many of his own hand-sketched drawings of flowers and plants, notes on world and natural history, as well as numerous observations on astronomy, geology, geography, and phrenology. He even records recent developments in animal “electricity” (below).

Amarillis formisissima

Wild Ginseng

Anthemis cotula (Wild Chamomile or May Weed)

A selection from Davidson’s notes on natural history:

It is well known that some plants are luminous; and also that parts of plants in an incipient state of decomposition shine more or less. Potatoes kept in cellars in a growing state and therefore useless as food sometimes become so luminous that we can read by them the print of a book in the dark. The dictamus albansspreads around it, in dry summer evenings, an atmosphere which on the approach of a [taper?] inflames with a bright blue flame. Other plants give out a sparkling light probably of an electrical nature.

Extract from the National Gazette of April 12, 1825 quoted by Davidson:

“A new theory for explaining muscular powers has been recently advanced in Europe by Dr. Prevant and Mr. Dumas. It has excited considerable attention on the Continent and is built on the newly discovered laws of electric magnetic attraction. The conclusion to which these physiologists have been led by their observations and experiments is, that muscular contractions are the result of an attraction between the nervous filaments distributed to the muscle fibres, consequent on the transmission of currents of electricity through these nervous filaments–“


Lobelia inflata (Wild or Indian Tobacco) Lobelia Cardinalis, Lobelia siphilitica

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