Dr. John Loomis Blodgett

(1809 – 1853)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) curates two vascular plant specimens collected by Dr. John Loomis Blodgett.  Both came to NCU in a gift of specimens from The Natural History Museum (BM) in London, United Kingdom in 2009; most of the specimens in that gift were collected by Ferdinand Rugel.

Other herbaria in North America curating specimens collected by Dr. Blodgett include the Field Museum (F: vascular plants, algae), the Harvard University Herbaria (GH,:vascular plants; FH: algae), Missouri Botanical Garden (MO: vascular plants), and the New York Botanical Garden (NY: vascular plants, algae), University of Michigan (MICH: algae) and the Academy of Natural Sciences (PH: algae).

Cynanchum blodgettii, named in honor of John Loomis Blodgett. Photograph by Bruce Sorrie.

According to Bruce Ledin, “John Loomis Blodgett was one of the first to collect plants on the Florida Keys, as well as on the mainland of South Florida. He sent his dried specimens to John Torrey for identification. Blodgett’s work in South Florida covered the years from 1838 to 1853 and his plant collection represented botanists’ main knowledge of South Florida prior to 1890. Not much is actually known about his life… He apparently never married and he did not write of his work nor about plants.

Nothing is known of his family or ancestors, but it is known that he was born in South Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1809. From 1827 to 1831 he studied medicine at the Berkshire Medical Institution in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a school which was founded in 1821 and had its last commencement in 1867. He graduated from this school in 1831, writing a thesis on “The Use of Friction to the Skin”. In 1834 he moved to Ohio and later to Mobile, presumably seeking a warmer climate for his health. Later he went to Mississippi and here he was hired as a physician and surgeon for the Mississippi State Colonization Society. This Society, formed in 1827, was the fourth branch of the American Colonization Society which was organized in 1817 and continued to exist until 1912; its main function was to transport liberated slaves from the United States to Liberia in Africa.

In April of 1837, Blodgett, Rev. J. F. C. Finley, and Captain Richards set sail on the schooner “Oriental” from New Orleans with a company of liberated slaves. They landed in Liberia a few months later and proceeded to set up a colony, naming it “Greenville” for James Green, one of the first advocates of emancipation. Blodgett’s stay in Liberia was less than two years; he left in December of 1838. During his stay in Africa, he probably became acquainted with Miss Mary Skinner, daughter of Dr. Ezekial Skinner, the Colonial physician of Liberia. Miss Skinner “accompanied her father to assist him in his benevolent labors, and especially to take and preserve drawings of the plants and other interesting objects in the natural history of Africa”. It is possible that she might have interested Blodgett in natural history.

When Blodgett returned to the United States late in 1838, he settled in Key West. This was a thriving town only 16 years old and populated by about 600 people from New England and the Southern States, as well as from the Bahamas and Cuba. “Wrecking” was their main business…

During Blodgett’s remaining years in Key West, he became interested in collecting marine algae. He was undoubtedly influenced by a visit in 1849 to Key West by W. H. Harvey of Dublin, Ireland, an authority on algae. Blodgett sent specimens to Harvey and these are included in Harvey’s “Neveis Borealis-americana”…

Blodgett was a physician, surgeon, and druggist. It is not known what drew him to Key West. He may have been interested in living in the most tropical section of the United States for his health or because of his introduction to tropical flora in Africa. He most probably was active in servicing the Navy and Army stationed in Key West, both of which were in great need of medical men. Several outbreaks of yellow fever and small pox had previously occurred. There is no record, however, that Blodgett ever joined the Army or Navy. In the spring of 1853 Blodgett returned to Amherst, Massachusetts, and died in that city in July of the same year, when only 44 years old…

We owe much to Doctor Blodgett for opening the eyes of the northern botanists to the wealth of West Indian material in South Florida. Many of the trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, cacti, orchids, etc., that grow wild here were made known to the world through his work, and Blodgett is given credit for collecting many of them for the first time in the United States. It was not until the 1880’s-nearly thirty years after Blodgett’s death-that any further extensive collecting was done in South Florida.

Blodgett’s name will always be well known to the botanists of South Florida, for several plants, some of them quite common, have been named for him. These include the following: Aphora (now Ditaxis), Blodgetti (Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family), Cyperus Blodgetti (Cyperaceae or Sedge family) named by John Torrey; Metastelma Blodgetti (Asclepiadaceae or Milkweed family) named by Asa Gray; Solanum Blodgetti (Solanaceae or Nightshade family), Paspsalum Blodgetti (Gramineae or grass family), Salvia Blodgettii (Labiatae or Mint family) named by A. W. Chapman; Guettardia Blodgettii (now G. elliptica) (Rubiaceae or Madder family)  named by R. J. Shuttleworth; Vernonia Blodgettii (Compositae or Sunflower family), Chamesyce Blodgettii (Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family) named by J. K. Small; Rhus Blodgettii (Anacardiaceae or Poison Ivy family) named by Kearney.

Harvey in 1858 named for Blodgett a genus of algae — Blodgettia – of which the species, B. conferoides, is an interesting marine green alga known only in association with a filamentous fungus which is epiphytic in its cell walls. It probably represents more nearly a marine lichen, for the alga and fungus are always associated together.”1

Liberia is located on the west coast of Africa. Source: Google Maps 2022

Dr. J. L. Blodgett was the surgeon aboard the Oriental, which was used by The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, to transport immigrants to Liberia.  “The American Colonization Society was founded in response to what was seen as a growing social problem: what to do with free Blacks. The number of free people of color grew steadily following the American Revolutionary War, from 60,000 in 1790 to 300,000 by 1830. Slave owners feared that these free Blacks might help their slaves to escape or rebel. In addition, many white Americans believed that African Americans were an inferior race, and, therefore, should be relocated to a place where they could live in peace, a place where they would not encounter prejudice, a place where they could be citizens.” 2 The following is a letter that Blodgett wrote concerning the colony established at Greenville, a settlement about 150 miles southeast of Monrovia.3  The town was built ca. 1838 by colonists of the Mississippi Colonization Society and was named after Judge James Green, one of the first Mississippi Delta planters to send former enslaved people to Liberia.7

LETTER FROM DR. BLODGETT.  The following letter from the surgeon of the Mississippi Colonial Settlement in Africa, has been received by the Editor of the New Orleans Observer, and appeared in that paper, on the 14th of July last:
GREENVILLE, (W. AFRICA,) Dec. 1st, 1837.
Rev. A.B. Lawrence:
It is not often that we have an opportunity of sending letters to America, an apology which I offer for sending so few.  Nothing of importance has transpired since I wrote by the Oriental. 4 As yet, I know little of the country, except in the immediate vicinity of this place, and therefore, until I become better acquainted, cannot write a full description.  Passing back from the beach, the distance of a mile, the soil is almost entirely composed of silicious sand, that has the appearance of having been gradually rescued from the ocean, and offers no inducements to cultivation.  Leaving this, the country becomes hilly, and the soil is principally made up of clay and vegetable mould, which is extremely productive[.]  The Sinoe5 comes down to us through intervals of rich alluvion, much resembling those of the Ohio, and other western rivers of the States.  On the banks of this river, about three miles from the ocean, is situated the principal Sinoe town, beyond which, relying on the accounts of the natives, the country, for the space of four days journey in the interior, is an entire wilderness, without inhabitants.  I intend making a tour up the river, through this tract to ascertain its resources, and its capability of being occupied for the purposes of colonization as soon as I can make it compatible with other duties.

The forests of this country are more impenetrable than those of the States, owing to the immense variety of climbing shrubs and trees. Some species enlarge their trunks to more than a foot in diameter; but still too weak to stand erect, they throw off their branches, twisting and fastening upon every object capable of yielding support, until they seem to tie the whole forest together. These, with climbing ferns of dense foliage weaving and interlocking, form tangles and thickets quite impervious to man or beast. Obstacles of this kind are unfavorable to an expeditious survey or clearing of lands for cultivation. The timber of this country is generally harder and more dense than that of temperate climates; much of it will sink in water after it has been seasoned. We have all the varieties necessary in the construction of houses, utensils, furniture and for ship building. Indeed, for the two latter purposes much timber is exported from this coast to Europe. Camwood comes from the interior in billets of fifteen or eighteen inches in length; it is transported on the backs of the natives. At present it forms a lawful currency of the colony of Monrovia and its dependencies, its value being fixed at sixty dollars per ton [.]

Of cattle, we have both wild and domesticated. Neat cattle are plenty but small, they do not ordinarily exceed half the size of American breeds; the natives take little pains in rearing them. There is a wild breed much larger; they live in the woods, and are fond of bathing in the water: Their horns are short, and their skin nearly destitute of hair. One of our laborers shot a cow a few days ago, which weighed after being dressed, exclusive of hide or tallow, more than five hundred pounds. The meat was tender, and had nothing in its taste or flavor to distinguish it from that of the domesticated animal. We have an abundance of deer; leopards are rarely seen; their skins are occasionally offered for sale by the natives; lions have never shown themselves in this vicinity. The elephant range is more inferior; the forest is too close for this animal near the sea coast: their tusks are offered almost every day; most of them are of second quality, showing that more of these animals die of disease or old age, than are destroyed by the natives. The largest of these tusks weigh fifty and sometimes exceed eighty pounds. Reptiles, in general, are not so numerous as in America. Chamelions [sic] and lizards are common. Serpents are rarely found; none of the venomous kinds are known to exist on this part of the coast.

Our agricultural concerns, you will be delighted to hear, are in a prosperous condition. We have an opening of sixty or seventy acres on the banks of the river, about two miles from town, part of which is already, and the remainder in course of being planted. Sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, plantains, corn and sugar cane flourish exceedingly. Of most of these articles we have the prospect of a speedy and abundant supply.

My health continues good. No sickness of consequence has appeared in the colony. Fevers are light, they commonly yield in three or four days.

A description of the Native Africans who inhabit this vicinity, although they are considered the most peaceable and industrious of any on the coast, would be disgusting. They are of an agricultural disposition, producing large quantities of rice for exportation. It is no uncommon thing to see three or four slaving vessels taking this article, at the same time within sight of our establishment. They even land and carry their goods by our door. With a good assortment of trade articles, they are able at times to purchase five hundred bushels of rice per day. The slavers are a great annoyance to us in this respect, and we wait impatiently for strength to forbid their intrusion. The natives are much addicted to theft, fond of muskets and warlike instruments, and great smokers of tobacco. The climate being warm, light clothing is all that is requisite; unfortunately, however, fashion is quite in the extreme in this respect; and still worse, there are some here as in civilized countries, who are mere devotees of fashion. They are fond of ornaments, such as beads, rings and chains – to be in taste the rings must be a full half-inch in thickness, and the chains such as would be used to chain a bear or leopard, of brass or iron, it does not seem particular which. I have seen persons so loaded with these articles that they could not walk without much exertion. To the rings are sometimes attached a multitude of little bells, so that you have to notice the approach of persons of distinction.

Though these natives are degraded and vicious beyond the conception of persons who have never stepped from the circle of civilization, yet they possess some qualities which will facilitate their advancement in the scale of existence, and which will serve as an encouragement to efforts for their improvement. A strong feeling of curiosity may be observed in their actions when any thing novel is presented to their view. Our buildings, our implements, our carpenter and smith work and our mode of agriculture, all engage their attention, and excite their admiration. Country man be fool – white man know every thing – with other expressions, of similar import, show that they are not insensible to the superior advantages which we enjoy; nor are their minds so stupefied our moulded by prejudice or habit, as not to be desirous of obtaining the blessings of civilization for themselves. A spirit for improvement is evidently at work among them. They are very anxious to obtain a knowledge of the English language – to learn to write, or to learn to make book, as their expression runs. It is not unusual for persons to offer themselves as laborers if they can be in a situation favorable to learning our language, with the prospect of little or no other remuneration. Our mode of transacting business they are anxious to imitate. If you hire one of them to labor by the week or month, or if you purchase any thing of them on credit, or if they make any agreement with you, or leave any thing in your charge, although neither they nor their friends can read, yet you must give them a book or an agreement in writing, (a piece of paper with writing upon it, as they do not know the difference, is just as good) with which they are always satisfied.

A school was lately commenced in a village near us, which only failed for want of common ability in the teacher. The natives had hired him without our knowledge, and at their own expense. For a few of the first days the school was attended by about 40 boys. This circumstance alone is sufficient to show that schools might be commenced under the most favorable circumstances. There is room for at least half a dozen teachers within five miles of our settlement, at places where it may be said the people are waiting for schools. I believe that that part of the coast is a rich field for missionary effort. The people are neither Mahomedans or idolaters. Indeed I cannot ascertain that they have religion of any kind. There are therefore, no structures of superstition and error to demolish, but the field is entirely un-occupied – a waste – a blank, waiting to be sketched by the hand of Christian benevolence. In fact, in a literal sense, Ethiopia is stretching out her hands to God. After a long period of debasement, after the most powerful nations of the world have unsuccessfully attempted to rescue her from the degradation in which she has been sinking deeper and deeper, she is now extending her arms to lay hold on the benefits which civilization and Christian philanthropy are offering as her last hope.

The slave trade is carried, this season, to an almost unparalleled degrees.  Scarce a day passes but one or more slaving vessels are in sight.  One establishment at the mouth of the Gallenas 6, it is supposed, will ship this season alone from five to six thousand slaves.

Yours truly,

Greenville is a coastal city in Liberia, located about 200 miles SE of Monrovia, the capital city. Source: Google Maps 2022



1. Ledin, Bruce (1953)  John Loomis Blodgett (1809-1853):  A PIONEER BOTANIST OF SOUTH FLORIDA.  Tequesta [Journal of the Historical Society of Southern Florida] 1(13):  23-33 (1953). http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00101446/00013/23j

2.  Wikipedia contributors. (2022, October 30). American Colonization Society. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:17, November 5, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=American_Colonization_Society&oldid=1118981795

3.  Blodgett, J.L. (1837) Letter. The African Repository and Colonial Journal, Volume 14(11): 340-342. Published by order of the managers of the American Colonization Society. WASHINGTON: Published by James C. Dunn, 1838.

4.  Blodgett served as surgeon aboard the Oriental; see reference #1.

5.  The Sinoe River empties into the Atlantic Ocean east of Greenville at 4d59’37”N, 9d02’12”W and forms the western boundary of Sapo National Park in Liberia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinoe_River accessed on 26 September 2011.

6.  The Gallinas River is situated near the present Sierra Leone – Liberia border, was a principal departure point for vessels carrying enslaved people. http://www.pdavis.nl/Gallinas.htm accessed on 26 September 2011

7.  Wikipedia contributors. (2022, July 1). Greenville, Liberia. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:48, November 5, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Greenville,_Liberia&oldid=1096046450