The news has been so filled with disaster stories these past weeks that it’s hard to decide which of them to worry about first. But probably the one that tells us about the greatest threat to the world is the story of disastrous climate change. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us about how changing weather conditions may affect the food supplies of millions of people. Scientists and governments will have to work together to help people make changes that may save many of us from starvation.

Sometimes we forget that science has always been international. The search for knowledge about the natural world and the forces that control it has ignored national boundaries and spread to governments and people worldwide. Some of the best examples of scientific cooperation came about a couple of centuries ago when America was seen, from the European viewpoint, as a new country. Botanists were among the early explorers who discovered and described the plants and animals that Native Americans had long known about but were unknown in other counties. Last year, I wrote a post about David Hosack, an early botanist who shared his knowledge and his plants with scientists across Europe.

Botany was recognized as an important science because at that time most medical treatments depended on using medicines derived from plants. Fortunately, it was also a science that did not require expensive equipment or training. One of the earliest American botanists was a woman who lived and died years before the United States was formed.

Jane Colden

Jane Colden was born in Orange County, New York, in the Hudson River Valley in 1724. Her parents had emigrated from Scotland and the family lived on a large estate where they observed many plants and animals unfamiliar to them. Jane was an intelligent and curious child and even though women were not generally encouraged to embark on serious studies, her father helped her to study and draw the plants that surrounded them. He also taught her the system developed by the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, to classify plants.

Jane soon began corresponding with botanists in both Europe and America. She was a skilled illustrator and developed a technique for making ink impressions of leaves. Between 1753 and 1758, she catalogued more than 300 species of plants that she found in the area near her home. She also asked Native Americans and some of the Dutch settlers in the region about medicinal uses for these plants and was able to share that information with other scientists. Her scientific work was cut short when she married and a few years later died, apparently in childbirth, at the age of 42. Unfortunately, few of her letters have been preserved and we know about Jane Colden mainly through comments about her written by better-known botanists. Her only remaining manuscript is at the British Museum in London.

Jane Colden drawings

It is inspiring to read about the way Jane Colden and other 18th century scientists exchanged information and specimens across national boundaries. Without these exchanges, difficult though communication was in those days, science would not have enriched the lives of so many people. Have we lost the ability to do that just when global cooperation is most urgently needed?

Now that we have established lightning-fast communication that allows information to flow across the globe, it is time for many countries to work together even more than in the past. The threats brought by global warming require worldwide cooperation. Let’s hope the scientists and private citizens will be able to keep the work going without allowing political struggles to build walls between countries. Tariffs and secrecy may protect corporations but they often work against the welfare of ordinary people who depend on shared knowledge to maintain their wellbeing. We have to remember that we’re all in this together on one small, troubled planet.