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Asa Gray
(18 Nov 1810 - 30 Jan 1888)

American botanist who extensively studied North American flora. He was an early and strong supporter in the U.S. for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Asa Gray.

By Charles Reid Barnes
Professor of Plant Physiology in the University of Chicago.

from 'Some Great American Scientists', The Chautauquan, (1907).

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[p.89] A SMALL man with a kindly face framed in gray, his dark eyes twinkling in humor or penetrating in earnestness, used to bustle about the library and herbarium rooms in the Botanical Garden at Cambridge. When his cheery whistle and rapid step were no more heard, the rooms seemed desolate indeed, and those from whose lives he passed felt not only the loss of a great man of science but above all the loss of a great companion and a real friend.

The life of Asa Gray (1810-1888) marked an era in the development of botany in America. Before his day many collections of living and dried plants had been sent to the gardens and herbaria of Europe. These were mostly from the eastern seaboard, though a few came from the western coast. But toward the middle of the last century the extension of settlements in the great Mississippi valley and the overland explorations westward brought to notice hosts of new plants to be named and pigeon-holed with their known relatives as the first step toward their utilization or their further study. All botanists, the world over, were doing this; it was indispensable; and so necessity determined the lines along which Asa Gray should work if he would study plants. But how did he become a botanist at all?

Gray’s childhood was scarcely different from that of hundreds, who, in the sparsely settled valleys of New York, early shared in the tasks of the farm or the mill. His father, who lived at Sauquoit, near Utica, had been apprenticed to a tanner and currier, and he seems to have been still working at his trade when this eldest child was born, for the little house which was his home stood on the tannery premises and had once been a shoe-shop. Shortly [p.90] after his birth his parents removed to Paris Furnace—a little settlement about a smelting furnace which long ago disappeared—where his father established a tannery. Here one of the tasks of the small boy was to feed the bark-mill and drive the old horse that turned it—“a lonely and monotonous occupation,” he said of it. Withal he had schooling. It began at the age of three; at six or seven he was a champion speller in the “matches” that enlivened the district school. Later he attended for a year or two a “select” school at Sauquoit, and when nearly twelve he was sent to the grammar school at Clinton.

To the formal instruction of the schools he added an eager interest in books. As messenger for a small circulating library, he took toll of the books, lying by the roadside on his round from house to house. Being found one day reading when he should have been hoeing a patch of corn, he elected to read all day in the hot sun rather than finish his task and read in comfort—a choice which convinced his father that while he might make a scholar he never would make a farmer.

After two years at Clinton he went to Fairfield Academy, where he might have been prepared for college. But his father, who had turned his attention to farming and was buying up land, wished him to begin at once the study of medicine, and when he was barely sixteen he entered the “College of Medicine and Surgery of the Western District of New York,” located at Fairfield, then the most important medical college in the country. Its courses in chemistry he had attended the year before while he was in the Academy, and thus he had his first instruction in science from Dr. James Hadley, the grandfather of the president of Yale University. The annual sessions of the medical school were very short, the students devoting half the year to study and observation with preceptors. The spring and summer of 1827 Gray spent with Dr. Priest of Sauquoit, returning in the autumn to Fairfield.

From that winter dates his interest in plants, awakened [p.91] by reading the article on Botany in Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopedia. He bought Eaton’s Manual and sallied forth early, found the spring-beauty in bloom, and learned its name by the help of the keys, little dreaming how many thousand young Americans in later days would get their first knowledge of plants from the books he should prepare.

From this time on, young Gray’s leisure was devoted to the study of plants, and his rides about the country around Bridgewater with Dr. Trowbridge, who for three years was his preceptor, gave him abundant opportunity to observe and collect. In 1830, when he went to New York commissioned to buy medical books for Dr. Trowbridge, he carried with him a bundle of plants and a letter of introduction to Dr. John Torrey, then the leading American botanist. He did not meet him, but left the package, and in the winter Dr. Torrey wrote, naming the plants. Thus began a correspondence and collaboration which was only interrupted by Torrey’s death in 1873. In the spring of 1831, several months before he was twenty-one, Gray received his M. D. It was destined to give him a title, but not to initiate a career.

The nature of that career was forecast by the fact that almost immediately upon his graduation he began to give lectures in botany as a substitute for Dr. Beck; he was at once appointed instructor in chemistry, mineralogy, and botany in a private school in Utica; he gave a six-weeks’ course of lectures before the medical college in the early summer of 1832; and a little later he gave a course in mineralogy and botany at Hamilton College. Thus his predilection showed itself; and it is noteworthy that he spent his vacations and his money in excursions to various parts of New York and New Jersey for the purpose of collecting minerals and plants. His interest in chemistry and mineralogy was considerable; indeed his first scientific paper (1834), was on new mineral localities in northern New York; and minerals of his early collection are still in the Harvard museum.

[p.92] To the American Journal of Science, in which this paper was published, he continued to contribute for over fifty years, for thirty-five of them as associate editor. Through his hands there passed almost all the botanical work issued in this period, and of it he wrote critical notices, distributing praise with discrimination and censure with kindness. Herein, too, he published for many years an annual necrology, evaluating labors of those botanists who had passed away within the year. None of his many-sided works shows more clearly than these reviews and biographies the discernment of a penetrating intellect and the charity of a kindly heart.

In the autumn of 1834, Gray, on furlough, became Dr. Torrey’s assistant in chemistry in the medical college at New York. He lived with the Torreys, and Mrs. Torrey’s sane, sweet, Christian character was a wholesome and permanent influence in the life of the young man. All his spare time was devoted to the herbarium. The grasses and sedges, two particularly difficult groups, had long attracted him, and he issued this winter sets of one hundred named specimens, which still exist in the larger herbaria of the world. In December, 1834, he read his first botanical paper, a monograph of certain sedges, before the New York Lyceum of Natural History.

In February or March he returned to school work at Utica, but spent the summer with his parents and in collecting, with the expectation of returning to New York in the fall. To this end he had resigned from the school; but the autumn brought a letter from Dr. Torrey saying that the prospects of the medical college were so poor that he could not afford an assistant. Nevertheless Gray went to New York and fortunately was appointed curator of the collections of the New York Lyceum.

As his duties were light, he assisted Torrey as he had opportunity, issued the second century of grasses, and completed the manuscript of his first book, “Elements of Botany,” which he had planned and partly written the summer [p.93] before. This book was the first of a series which has never been equalled in any country. Some of these texts are addressed to children, some to youths, and some to college students; each is adapted with admirable skill to its audience, and all are characterized by such lucidity of style and aptness of phraseology as is rarely combined with accuracy of statement. By these books, used by generation after generation of youths, Gray impressed himself uniquely upon every student of botany for fifty years. It is impossible that such a condition should recur, and it is fortunate that this early impress was scientifically so excellent.

In the summer of 1839, Gray was appointed botanist to a government expedition which was fitting out to explore the South Pacific; but exasperating delays and final reduction of its scope and equipment caused him to abandon the position for a professorship of natural history in the newly founded University of Michigan (1838). The institution was not ready for students and he was given leave to make a visit to Europe. Such a visit had become necessary for, in the two years of suspense, he had been actively at work with Dr. Torrey, who had invited him to undertake the joint production of a Flora of North America. Into this project Gray entered with vigor. He soon saw that they must compare certain American plants with earlier collections in various foreign herbaria, and for this purpose he must spend a year abroad.

The visit to Europe was most important to him scientifically, for it gave him the opportunity not only of studying many type specimens in European herbaria, but of coming into personal relations with almost all the foremost English and Continental botanists. In many cases the acquaintance thus begun, and renewed on subsequent visits, ripened into life-long friendship. The letters home form almost a journal1, and give in a most vivacious way his [p.94] first impressions of art and scenery, now become familiar to many Americans. In later years he made five visits to Europe, once in a winter between two seasons of hard work going up the Nile; but these journeys, except the last in 1887, were mainly devoted to scientific work, with only incidental relaxation.

With the knowledge gained in the course of his first journey, he took up the Flora with vigor upon his return in November, 1839, and the parts of the first two volumes appeared rapidly. Then came a slackening, due partly to the preoccupation of Dr. Torrey and partly to Gray’s removal to Harvard. In this interval collections came pouring in from newly explored and newly acquired territory at such a rate as to make it evident that the undertaking was premature. The work ceased, therefore, with these two volumes. Thirty-six years later Dr. Gray resumed it alone. Of his “Synoptical Flora of North America” two volumes appeared before his death, and he was busily engaged upon the “Vitaceae” when paralysis intervened in November, 1887. So was cut short the second attempt to prepare a description of all the flowering plants of North America.

Dr. Gray never became actively a member of the faculty of the University of Michigan; for before their plans matured he was called to Harvard (1842), where he remained Fisher professor of natural history until his death. For thirty years he devoted much time to active teaching, all the while carrying on research and literary work; and the latter he continued for fifteen years after he abandoned to others the instructional duties of the professorship.

The work to which he was called at Harvard was engrossing and time consuming. The botanical garden was such in hardly more than name; he developed it into efficiency. The instruction had been of little value and no inspiration; he provided charts and material, planned his lectures with such skill and gave them with such enthusiasm as to awaken interest even outside the college. There were [p.95] almost no buildings except the residence in the Garden. Greenhouses were erected; in 1864 the herbarium and library, which had long overflowed the house, was provided with fireproof quarters and modest income. All the while a steady stream of technical papers appeared in various journals, numberless reviews and notices were written, local scientific societies were invigorated by his contagious enthusiasm and boundless energy, addresses and lectures were delivered—all with the quiet efficiency of a capable scholar.

Gray’s relations to Darwin are especially significant. On his first journey he casually met Darwin, and again in 1851. A correspondence began by inquiries from Darwin, who was then marshalling the facts for his theory of natural selection, and Gray was able to give many helpful hints. Two years before the simultaneous presentation of this theory to the Royal Society by Darwin and Wallace, Darwin wrote an outline of his theory; and this letter successfully established Darwin’s priority in the matter. Gray, with his accustomed perspicacity, saw the value of Darwin’s ideas and the cogency of the reasoning. In a prompt review of the “Origin of Species” he became in America the exponent of this new form of evolution. After the fight waned his numerous essays, reviews, and discussions were brought together into a volume entitled “Darwiniana.” Darwin wrote:

“I declare that you know my book as well as I do myself, and bring to the question new lines of illustration and argument in a manner that excites my astonishment and almost my envy.” …
“As Hooker lately said in a note to me, you are, more than anyone else, the thorough master of the subject.”

And it was by his thorough mastery of the subject, presented in his clear and graceful style, that Darwinism was delivered in this country from the intense and bitter opposition that well-nigh overwhelmed its doughty champion, Huxley, in England.

Doubtless no small factor in mitigation of the conflict [p.96] here was Gray’s well-known religious position. This he himself describes in these terms:2

“I am scientifically and in my own fashion a Darwinian, philosophically a convinced theist, and religiously an acceptor of the creed ‘commonly called the Nicene’ as the exponent of the Christian faith.”

If a man so anchored philosophically and religiously could be scientifically a Darwinian, Darwinism might safely be examined. And lo, it has become well-nigh as valuable to theology as to biology!

A man engrossed in research, busy with teaching, burdened with innumerable demands which insidiously steal away his precious hours, may well be forgiven if he seeks to withdraw himself. This Gray never did. To his personal friends and scientific colleagues he was an enthusiastic guide and counselor, though at the same time an unrelenting critic. Rothrock relates that he rewrote his first scientific paper “at least six times. … But my critic was merciless. I mentally resolved each time that I would not rewrite it; but I did rewrite it; and I was obliged to continue doing so until he thought it might be allowed to pass. … It was the most helpful lesson I ever received in the art of putting things.”

Many who had but slight claim upon his time or attention received help in generous measure; and often not the least help was the keen criticism that stimulates but does not discourage.

Gray’s unselfish goodness and helpfulness to students and acquaintances alike, endeared him to a wide circle. When on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday it was suggested by letter to American botanists that they unite in some testimonial of affectionate regard, gifts poured in upon the committee. “In token of the universal esteem of American botanists,” there was fashioned a silver vase, wrought with characteristic American plants, and most prominent among them the plants associated particularly with his name.

[p.97] So faithfully did the artist execute his task, that, kneeling before the vase, Dr. Gray exclaimed over the accuracy of the representation, and named the various plants as readily as their originals. A silver salver, “bearing the greetings of one hundred and eighty botanists of North America to Asa Gray on his seventy-fifth birthday, November 18, 1885,” accompanied the vase.

“Dr. Gray was exceedingly touched and delighted, as well as overwhelmed with surprise. And the day, with pleasant calls and congratulations from friends and neighbors, gifts of flowers with warm and kindly notes, was made a memorable one indeed.” 3

An official letter of congratulation came from the Senate of the University of Michigan, for whose library he had made in Europe the first purchases, nearly fifty years before.

Lowell wrote:

“Just Fate, prolong his life, well spent,
Whose indefatigable hours,
Have been as gaily innocent
And fragrant as his flowers.”

For forty years his triumphs and trials were shared by Mrs. Gray, to whom as Jane Loring, daughter of a well-known Boston lawyer, he was married in 1848. They had no children; but upon those of their relatives and neighbors they showered such love and interest as made a visit to the Garden House a day to be remembered. Christmas festivities were nowhere more joyous than there; and Dr. Gray made himself a child among the children—a better “bear” even than the hugest “Teddy bear” of today.

The last journey to Europe was, with all its sadness of obvious farewells, something of a triumphal march. At the Manchester meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, there was a notable gathering of botanists who united to do him honor. The universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, and Cambridge all conferred upon him [p.98] honorary degrees. Dr. Sandys, of Cambridge, in eloquent Latin, presented him for the degree thus:

“And now we are glad to come to the Harvard professor of natural history, facile princeps of trans-Atlantic botanists. Within the period of fifty years, how many books has he written about his fairest science; how rich in learning, how admirable in style! How many times has he crossed the ocean that he might more carefully study European herbaria, and better know the leading men in his own department! In examining, reviewing, and sometimes gracefully correcting the labors of others, what a shrewd, honest, and urbane critic has he proved himself to be! How cheerfully, many years ago, among his own western countrymen was he the first of all to greet the rising sun of our own Darwin, believing his theory of the origin of various forms in a Deity who was created and governs all things! God grant that it may be allowed such a man at length to carry to a happy completion that great work, which he long ago began, of more accurately describing the flora of North America! Meanwhile, this man who has so long adorned his fair science by his labors and his life, even unto a hoary age, ‘bearing,’ as our poet says, ‘the white blossom of a blameless life,’ him, I say, we gladly crown, at least with these flowerets of praise, with this corolla of honor. For many, many years may Asa Gray, the venerable priest of Flora, render more illustrious this academic crown.”

But it was not so to be. Scarcely had he returned and taken up as vigorously as ever his work on the Flora, when, in late November, paralysis put an end to his labors. He lingered until January 30, 1888. A simple stone, bearing a cross, marks his grave in Mount Auburn.

1 See Letters of Asa Gray, edited by Jane Loring Gray, 2 vols., Boston; Houghton Mifflin & Co. 1893.
2 Preface to Darwiniana.
3 Letters, p. 776.

From Charles Reid Barnes, ‘Some Great American Scientists’, The Chautauquan, (1907), 89-98. (source)

See also:
  • Science Quotes by Asa Gray.
  • 18 Nov - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Gray's birth.
  • Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin, by A. Hunter Dupree. - book suggestion.
  • BooklistBooks by Asa Gray.

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