32. Our Cousins The Scientists: John Bartram, William Bartram, and John Dalton

My wife and I are scientists — behavioral scientists, to be sure, but scientists nevertheless. Today such occupations are not unusual, but two or three hundred years ago they were almost unheard of in a world where most people made their living off the land.

I have written before about two protoscientists in our family tree. Thomas Ashton and Edmund Trafford, of co. Lancaster, England, practiced alchemy in the 15th century, claiming to have “discovered an elixir that restored youth and changed base metals into gold and silver”.

Not truly scientists, alchemists nevertheless displayed certain scientific characteristics. These included notions of causation – one idea, for example, was that different metals were alloys that could be transmuted into precious metal by driving out impurities – and the use of experiments to further knowledge. They departed from science in the haphazardness of their efforts, the use of religious metaphor to support their endeavors (e.g., Christ’s torments reflected in the alchemical torment of metals), and the failure to properly cumulate results (which if nothing else should have led to an earlier abandonment of their efforts). As a result in the end they contributed little to the science of chemistry [7, 8].

However, there are three true scientists in our family background who made more substantial contributions than the alchemists. Unlike Thomas Ashton and Edmund Trafford they are not direct ancestors, but rather cousins of varying degree.

John Bartram

John Bartram was born in 1699, the son of William Bartram, a Quaker of Darby township, (now) Delaware county, Pennsylvania, and the grandson of John Bartram, who in 1682 had immigrated to the colony with his family from co. Derby, England.

John educated himself in botany, medicine, and surgery while supporting himself as a farm laborer. In 1728 he created the first American botanical garden in Kingsessing, now part of Philadelphia and still in existence as “Bartram’s Garden”, a national historic landmark [1].

He began actively collecting native American plants and seeds of all types, many of which he forwarded to London naturalist Peter Collinson. For that purpose he began undertaking long-range travel across the eastern half of the American continent. A keen observer, he experimented with plant hybrids in his Kingsessing garden. However, he was not a systematist like Carolus Linnaeus, the creator of the genus and species classifications we know today. Nevertheless Linnaeus called him the greatest “natural botanist” in the world, and in 1765 George III appointed Bartram as Botanist to the King. John died in 1777 [1, 2].

John Bartram
John Bartram (reputed)

Today Bartram is best known for his 1751 book, Observations on the Inhabitants, Soil, Divers Productions, etc., Made by John Bartram in His Travels from Pennsylvania to Onondaga, Oswego, and the Lake Ontario. He is commonly regarded as “the father of American botany” [1].

Through the Bowers and Stayman side of the family, my relatives and I descend from the scientist’s grandfather, the immigrant John Bartram. We are therefore first cousins several times removed from the botanist.

William Bartram

Like his father John, William Bartram (1739-1823) was a noted botanist and writer, as well as an artist, naturalist, ethnographer, and explorer. His Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws (1791) was initially published in Philadelphia, but soon after was reprinted in London, Dublin, Berlin, and Paris, the latter two places in translation [1].

William Bartram
William Bartram

Although he discovered a number of new plants – and resented that he did not receive more recognition for it – William’s fame as a naturalist is based on his great skill as an illustrator of both flora and fauna. This was something that was evident by his teens, and he became progressively more accomplished as he aged. He also continued to maintain the garden at Kingsessing, to which he added new species [3].

John and William Bartram home and garden


In 1808, William sat for a portrait by the famous artist Charles Wilson Peale. A reproduction accompanies. My close relatives and I are William’s second cousins several times removed.

John Dalton

John Dalton was born in 1766 in Eaglesfield, co. Cumberland, England, the son of a Quaker weaver named Joseph Dalton. Joseph’s parents were Jonathan and Abigail (Fearon) Dalton. It was Abigail who provided our ancestral link, for my close relatives and I descend from the Fearon family [4, 5].

At a young age John undertook a course on surveying and navigation, and came to the attention of Eliju Robinson, his relation and a man of means who provided further educational opportunity. He began teaching school in Eaglesfield at the tender age of 12, and studied under John Gough, a blind scholar who taught him the classical languages, mathematics, and natural philosophy [5].

John began his scientific inquiries with a weather diary, using a barometer, thermometer, and hygroscope of his own construction. In 1793, he became a teacher of mathematics, natural philosophy, and chemistry in the New College of Manchester. A year later he read a paper on his own defective color vision to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, to which he had been elected a short time previously [5].

In 1795, Dalton began the investigations into chemistry and physics that were to lead to his greatest successes. His early work was on the circulation of heat in fluids, and on the relationship between temperature and compression. In the course of studying diffusion, he began to experiment with different elemental gases such as oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Studying the absorption of the gases by water, he speculated that absorption was determined by the weight of the gas particles. Although that proved incorrect, it led directly to his successful attempts to assign weights to elements [5].

Developing his ideas over the opening years of the 19th century, Dalton proposed that elements are made of tiny particles called atoms, which differ in size and mass from the atoms of other elements. In addition, elements were proposed to combine in whole-number ratios during chemical reactions to form compounds [4].

Dalton proceeded to publish tables of atomic weights, starting with only five elements, including hydrogen which he assigned a weight of one — a unit now unofficially called a dalton. By 1808, he had included 20 elements in his scheme, and by 1827, 36. These concepts and discoveries allowed the rapid advancement of the field of chemistry [4].

John Dalton

Today Dalton is regarded as the father of atomic theory [4]. He died in 1844, having achieved fellowship in the Royal Society, corresponding membership in the French Académie des Sciences, and foreign honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences [6].

My close relatives and I are related to John Dalton through the Bowers and Snyder side of the family. We descend from John Fearon, Sr., of Eaglesfield (d. Jan 1661/2), the grandfather of Abigail Fearon Dalton. John Dalton is our third cousin several times removed [4].

The Bartram genealogical material cited in this article, and our connection to it, is available in the Stayman-McCrosky Ancestry, which can be downloaded at Lulu.com. The Dalton-Fearon material is in The Omnibus Ancestry: 619 Documented American and European Lines, likewise downloadable at Lulu.com.


[1] Boles, D.B., & Boles, H.W. (2000). Stayman-McCrosky Ancestry. Tuscaloosa, AL: private print. Available for download at Lulu.com.

[2] Information retrieved from http://biography.yourdictionary.com/john-bartram (2017).

[3] Slaughter, T.P. (1996). The Natures of John and William Bartram. NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[4] Boles, D.B. (2017). The Omnibus Ancestry: 619 Documented American and European Lines.  Available for download at Lulu.com.

[5] Millington, J.P. (1906). John Dalton. London: J.M. Dent & Co.

[6] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalton (2017).

[7] von Meyer, E. (1891). A History of Chemistry from Earliest Times to the Present Day. London: Macmillan and Co.

[8] Nummedal, T. (2013). Alchemy and religion in Christian Europe. Ambix, vol. 60, pp. 311-322.

Picture Attributions

John Bartram: Public domain. A controversial portrait, it is not universally accepted as one of John; and if it is of John, it may nor may not be from life. Nevertheless it has inscribed on the back, in an apparent 18th-century hand, “Portrait of John Bartram of Darby died 1777 … C.W. Peale Artist. Property of Isaac Bartram 1795.” (Slaughter, op. cit.).

William Bartram portrait: Public domain.

John and William Bartram home and garden: “Jtfry at English Wikipedia”, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

John Dalton: Public domain.


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