Asa Gray

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Asa Gray
Asa Gray by John Whipple, 1864.jpg
Asa Gray by John Adams Whipple, 1864.
Born (1810-11-18)November 18, 1810
Sauquoit, New York
Died January 30, 1888(1888-01-30) (aged 77)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nationality United States of America
Fields Botany
Influences Amos Eaton
Charles Darwin

Asa Gray (November 18, 1810 – January 30, 1888) is considered the most important American botanist of the 19th century.[1][2]

He was instrumental in unifying the taxonomic knowledge of the plants of North America. Of Gray's many works on botany, the most popular was his Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, from New England to Wisconsin and South to Ohio and Pennsylvania Inclusive. This book, known simply as Gray's Manual, has gone through a number of editions with botanical illustrations by Isaac Sprague, and remains a standard in the field.

Early life and education[edit]

Gray was born in Sauquoit, New York in November 18, 1810 to Moses Gray (b. February 26. 1786),[a] then a tanner, and Roxanna Howard Gray (b. March 15, 1789) Gray was born in the back of his father's tannery and was the eldest of their eight children. Gray's Scotch-Irish Presbyterian ancestors moved to New York from Massachusetts and Vermont after Shays' Rebellion. His paternal great-grandfather arrived in Boston from Northern Ireland in 1718. His parents married July 30, 1809. Gray was an avid reader even in his youth.[4][5] Tanneries needed a lot of wood to burn and the lumber supply in the area had been shrinking. So Gray's father used his profits to buy farms in the area and about 1823 sold the tannery and became a farmer.[6]

Gray completed Clinton Grammar School from about 1823 to 1825. During this time he read many books from the nearby library at Hamilton College.[7] Then in 1825 he enrolled at Fairfield Academy, switching to its Fairfield Medical College, also known as the Medical College of the Western District of Fairfield, in autumn 1826.[b][8][9][10][11] It was during this time that Gray began to mount botanical specimens. On a trip to New York City, he attempted to meet with John Torrey to get assistance in identifying specimens, but Torrey was not home, so Gray left the specimens at Torrey's house. Torrey was so impressed with Gray's specimens that began a correspondence with Gray. Gray graduated and and became an M.D. in February 1831, even though he was not yet 21 years of age, which was a requirement at the time.[12] Gray did open a medical office in Bridgewater, New York, though he never truly practiced medicine as he enjoyed botany more. Bridgewater is where he had served an apprenticeship with Doctor John Foote Trowbridge while he was in medical school.[8][9][13][14] It was around this time that he began making exploring expeditions in New York and New Jersey. By autumn 1831 he had essentially given up his medical practice to devote more time to botany.[15]

In 1832 he began teaching Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Botany at Bartlett's High School, in Utica, New York and also at Fairfieled Medical School.[16] This was because the school's instructors had died in mid-term. Gray agreed to teach for one year, which included a break from August-December 1832, causing him to cancel his plans for an expedition to Mexico, which at the time included what is now the southwestern United States.[17] Gray first met Torrey in person in September 1832 and they went on an expedition to New Jersey. After finishing teaching in Utica on August 1, 1833, Gray became an assistant to John Torrey of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.[18] By this time Gray was corresponding and trading specimens with botanists not just in America, but Asia, Europe, and the Pacific Islands as well.[19][11] Gray had a temporary teaching position in 1834 at Hamilton College.[20] Due to funding shortages as Torrey's assistant, in 1835 Gray left his job as Torrey's assistant and in February or March 1836 became Curator and Librarian at the Lyceum of Natural History in New York, which is now called the New York Academy of Sciences. He even had an apartment in their new building in Manhattan.[21][22] Torrey's attempt to get Gray a job at Princeton University was unsuccessful, as did other attempts to find a position in science.[23] Despite this departure, Torrey and Gray became lifelong friends and colleagues. It was Torrey's wife, Eliza Torrey, who had a profound impact upon Gray in that his manners, tastes, habits, and religious life manners.[24][25]


Shortia galacifolia, which Gray named and fascinated him

In October 1836 Gray was selected to be one of the botanists on the United States Exploring Expedition, also known as the "Wilkes Expedition", which was supposed to last three years. Gray began getting paid well for preparations and planning for this expedition; even to the point of loading supplies onto a ship in New York harbor. However, the expedition was fraught with politics, bickering, turmoil, inefficiency, and delays. Referring to the Secretary of the Navy, Mahlon Dickerson, Gray wrote of "abominable management & stupidity".[26] Despite this, Gray resigned from the Lyceum in April 1837 to devote full time to the expeditions preparations. By 1838 the expedition was in utter turmoil. The new state of Michigan was starting its university and Gray applied for a professorship in early 1838. He resigned from the Wilkes Expedition on July 10, 1838.[27]

On July 17, 1838, Gray became the very first permanent paid professor at the newly founded University of Michigan, though he never taught classes there. His position was also the first one devoted solely to botany at any educational institution in America.[16][28][29] Appointed the Professor of Botany and Zoology, Gray was dispatched to Europe by the regents of the university for the purpose of purchasing a suitable array of books to form the university's library. Botanist Charles F. Jenkins states that the main purpose of this trip was to examine American flora in Europe's herbariums.[30] He departed on the ship packet ship Philadelphia on November 9, 1838, sailing through The Narrows, nine days before his 28th birthday.[30][31] Gray and the regents were both involved in stocking the university library. Gray admitted he just managed some of the book purchasing and that he delegated the actual buying of books to George Palmer Putnam, who was then living in London. Gray spent a year in Europe.[30] In 1839 the regents purchased a complete copy of Audubon's The Birds of America for the then extraordinary sum of $970.[32] Gray, together with his agents, eventually purchased almost 4,000 books for the University of Michigan library.[16][22]

In 1842, before ever returning to teach a course at Michigan,[16] Gray accepted an appointment as Fisher Professor of natural history at Harvard University, a post he retained until 1873 while living in Asa Gray House.[11][33][34] In 1864 Gray donated 200,000 plant specimens and 2,200 books to Harvard with the condition the herbarium and garden be built. This effectively created the botany department at Harvard and the Gray Herbarium was named after him.[1][35] He was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1872 and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1863-1873.[34] In 1859, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.[36] Gray was also Smithsonian Institution regent from 1874–1888 and a foreign member of the Royal Society of London in 1873.[22][34]

The Elements of Botany (1836), an introductory textbook, was the first of Gray's many works.[25] In this book Gray espoused the idea that botany was useful not only to medicine, but also to farmers.[37] Gray and Torrey published the Flora of North America together in 1838.[11][38] Gray met physician and botanist George Engelmann in the early 1840s and they remained friends and colleagues until Engelmann died in 1884.[1] Torrey was an early American supporter of the "natural system of classification", which relies upon geography and a plant's entire structure and as his assistant, Gray was a proponent of this system too.[39] This contrasts with Linnaeus' artificial classification, which was designed for ease of use and focused on readily observed aspects of a plant, particularly the differences in the flowers.[1][11][22] Gray was so impressed with Wilhelm Nikolaus Suksdorf, a largely self-taught immigrant from Germany that specialized in flora of the Pacific Northwest, that he had Suksdorf come to Harvard to be his assistant and named the genus Suksdorfia after him.[40]

Gray was a leading opponent of the Scientific Lazzaroni, a group of mostly physical scientists who wanted to American academia to mimic the autocratic academic structures of European universities.[41]

Gray received the following advanced degrees: honorary degree of Master of Arts (1844) and Doctor of Laws (1875) from Harvard, Doctor of Laws from Hamilton College (1860), McGill University (1884), and from the University of Michigan (1887).[16]

The "Asa Gray disjunction"[edit]

Gray worked extensively on a phenomenon that is now called the "Asa Gray disjunction", namely the surprising morphological similarities between many eastern Asian and eastern North American plants. While Gray was not the first botanist to notice this (it was first noticed in the early 18th century), beginning in the early 1840s he brought scientific focus to the issue.[42] The phenomenon involves about 65 genera and is not limited to plants, but also includes fungi, arachnids, millipedes, insects, and freshwater fishes. It was believed that each pair of species might be international sister species, but it is now known that this is not generally the case; the species involved are less closely related to one another. There are three possible causes for the observed morphological similarity, which likely developed at different times and via different pathways; the species pairs are: 1) the products of similar environmental conditions, 2) relicts of species that were widely distributed in the early Tertiary but diversified since then, 3) not as morphologically similar as was previously believed.[43]

Travels and research[edit]

Gray traveled to the American west on two separate occasions, the first in 1872 and then again with Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1877.[36] Both times his goal was botanical research; avidly collecting plant specimens to bring back with him to Harvard. On his second trip through the American west, he and Hooker reportedly collected over 1000 specimens. They were accompanied for a time by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, then in charge of the U.S. Geological and Geophysical Survey of the Territories. Gray and Hooker's research was reported in their joint 1880 publication, "The Vegetation of the Rocky Mountain Region and a Comparison with that of Other Parts of the World," which appeared in volume six of Hayden's Bulletin of the United States Geological and Geophysical Survey of the Territories.[1][42]

On both trips he climbed Grays Peak, one of Colorado's many fourteeners. This mountain was named after Gray by the botanist and explorer of the Rocky Mountains Charles Christopher Parry. A nearby peak, Torreys Peak, was named after his mentor and friend John Torrey.[44][45]

In 1880 David P. Penhallow was accepted by Gray as a research assistant. Penhallow aided in Gray's work regarding the distribution of northern hemisphere plants, and in 1882 Gray recommended Penhallow as a lecturer to Sr John Dawson of McGill University in Montreal, Canada.[46]

Relationship with Darwin[edit]

Gray in 1867

Gray and Charles Darwin met at lunch at Kew Gardens in or prior to April 1855, apparently introduced by Joseph Dalton Hooker. Darwin and Gray first corresponded in 1854. From 1854-1881 they exchanged about 300 letters.[47] Darwin then wrote to Gray requesting information about the distribution of various species of American flowers, which Gray provided, and which was helpful in providing information for the development of Darwin's theory. This was the beginning of an extensive lifelong correspondence.[48][49][50]

Gray, Darwin, and Hooker became lifelong friends and colleagues, and Gray and Hooker conducted research on Darwin’s behalf in 1877 on their Rocky Mountain expedition. After Hooker returned to England and reported to Darwin on their adventure, Darwin wrote back to Gray: “I have just... heard prodigies of your strength & activity. That you run up a mountain like a cat!”[51]

When Darwin received Alfred Russel Wallace's paper which described natural selection, Hooker and Charles Lyell arranged for a joint reading of papers by Darwin and Wallace to the Linnean Society. Since Darwin had nothing prepared, the reading included excerpts from his 1844 Essay and from a letter he had sent to Asa Gray in 1857, outlining his theory. The correspondence with Gray was thus a key piece of evidence in establishing Darwin's intellectual priority with respect to the Theory of evolution by natural selection. Neither Darwin nor Wallace attended the meeting. The papers were published by the society as On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.[52]

Gray arranged the first US Edition of On the Origin of Species and negotiated royalties on Darwin's behalf.[53] Darwin held Gray in high esteem: he dedicated his book Forms of Flowers (1877) to Gray and he wrote in 1881 "there is hardly any one in the world whose approbation I value more highly than I do yours".[54] Gray, considered by Darwin to be his friend and "best advocate", also attempted to convince Darwin in these letters that design was inherent in all forms of life, and to return to his faith. Gray saw nature as filled with "unmistakable and irresistible indications of design" and argued that "God himself is the very last, irreducible causal factor and, hence, the source of all evolutionary change."[55] Darwin agreed that his theories were "not at all necessarily atheistical" but was unable to share Gray's belief. "I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton," he wrote.[53]

Notwithstanding, though Gray was a Christian,[56] he was a staunch supporter of Darwin in America, and collected together a number of his own writings to produce an influential book, Darwiniana (1876). These essays argued for a conciliation between Darwinian evolution and the tenets of theism, at a time when many on both sides perceived the two as mutually exclusive. Gray denied that investigation of physical causes stood opposed to the theological view and the study of the harmonies between mind and Nature, and thought it "most presumable that an intellectual conception realized in Nature would be realized through natural agencies".[57]

In 1868 Gray had a year's leave of absence and visited Darwin in England – the first time they had met since they started their correspondence. Darwin had Gray in mind when he wrote that "It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist & an evolutionist."[58]

Personal life[edit]

Gray married Jane Lathrop (or Lothrop) Loring of Boston on May 4, 1848. Her parents were Charles Greely Loring, a member of the Harvard Corporation and a lawyer, and Anna Pierce (Brace) Loring. They had no children. Anna Gray accompanied her husband on most of his expeditions.[36] Gray was a devout Presbyterian and was a member of First Church in Cambridge, where he served as a Deacon.[47][59] When the congregation moved into its present building in 1872, at 11 Garden Street, Gray planted two yellowwood trees in front of the church. They stood until October 2014.[60]


On November 28, 1887, as he was writing Grape Vines of North America, which is in the order Vitaceae, Gray became paralyzed and lingered for nine weeks.[11] He died on January 30, 1888 and was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The cemetery's Asa Gray Garden, with a central fountain and numerous unusual tree varieties, is named in his honor.[61]


The Asa Gray Award, the highest award of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, was established in 1984 to honor a living botanist for career achievements.[62]

Grayanotoxin is named after him.[63]

Gray has two namesake buildings at Harvard University: the Asa Gray House, which is a National Historic Landmark,[33] and the Gray Herbarium.[35]

A residential building is named after him on the Stony Brook University campus.[64]

Two mountain peaks are named after him: Gray Peak in New York and Grays Peak in Colorado. The latter is near Torreys Peak, named after his mentor and friend John Torrey.[44]

In 2011, the US Postal Service released an Asa Gray first-class postage stamp, as part of its American Scientists collection, along with Melvin Calvin, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, and Severo Ochoa. This was the third volume of this series. It features Shortia galacifolia, a flowering plant that fascinated Gray.[65]

A street named after Asa Gray is home to the University Commons of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.[66]

Asa Gray Park in Lake Helen, Florida is named in his honor.[67]

On Gray's 75th birthday, botanists led by editors of the Botanical Gazette presented Gray with a silver vase with the inscription "1810, November eighteenth, 1885. Asa Gray, in token of the universal esteem of American Botanists." An accompanying silver salver had the inscription "Bearing the greetings of one hundred and eighty botanists of North America to Asa Gray on his 75th birthday, Nov. 18, 1885."[11]


  1. ^ Gray's father's name was Moses Gray, whose full name may or may not have been Moses Wiley Gray. Moses Wiley Gray was the younger Moses' father, Asa Gray's grandfather. Asa Gray's father's name is also often reported as Moses Wiley Gray.[3]
  2. ^ This is sometimes mis-reported as 1829, but Gray himself wrote that it was 1826.[8][9]



  1. ^ a b c d e Biographies of Scientists and Explorers 2015.
  2. ^ Love 1998, p. 173.
  3. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 2-4.
  4. ^ Farlow 1889, p. 163.
  5. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 2-5.
  6. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 6-7.
  7. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 7-9.
  8. ^ a b c Farlow 1889, p. 164.
  9. ^ a b c Gray 1894, pp. 12-14.
  10. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 12-14.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Deane 1888, pp. 59-72.
  12. ^ Gray 1894, pp. 14-18.
  13. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica 2013.
  14. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 15, 18-20, 22.
  15. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 23-24.
  16. ^ a b c d e University of Michigan 2015.
  17. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 30-32.
  18. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 33-36.
  19. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 35, 50.
  20. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 39-41.
  21. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 41-43, 56-57.
  22. ^ a b c d Farlow 1889, pp. 164-165.
  23. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 43-44, 47-50.
  24. ^ Dupree 1988, p. 38.
  25. ^ a b Torrey 1988, pp. 221-228.
  26. ^ Dupree 1988, p. 62.
  27. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 59-65, 67-68.
  28. ^ Pitcher 1856, p. 79.
  29. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 67-68.
  30. ^ a b c Jenkins 1942, p. 13.
  31. ^ Dupree 1988, p. 74.
  32. ^ Donnelly 1958, p. 1359.
  33. ^ a b National Park Service 2015.
  34. ^ a b c Darwin Correspondence Project 2015.
  35. ^ a b Gray Herbarium 2015.
  36. ^ a b c Litchfield Historical Society 2014.
  37. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 51-53.
  38. ^ Dupree 1988, p. 57.
  39. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 28-29.
  40. ^ Love 1998, pp. 171–187.
  41. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. ix-xv.
  42. ^ a b Boufford & Spongberg 1983, pp. 423-439.
  43. ^ Wen 1999, pp. 421-455.
  44. ^ a b Gannett 1905, pp. 142, 302.
  45. ^ Harvard University Herbaria 2010.
  46. ^ Zeller 1994.
  47. ^ a b Darwin Correspondence Project 2015a.
  48. ^ Miles 2001, pp. 196–201.
  49. ^ Darwin 1855.
  50. ^ Darwin 1888, pp. 60-61.
  51. ^ Darwin 1878.
  52. ^ Linnean Society of London 2015.
  53. ^ a b Darwin 1860.
  54. ^ Darwin 1881.
  55. ^ Moore 2002, p. 125.
  56. ^ Alexander & Numbers 2010, p. 303.
  57. ^ Gray 1876, p. 21.
  58. ^ Darwin 1879.
  59. ^ Dupree 1988, pp. 43-47.
  60. ^ Herwick III 2014.
  61. ^ Linden 2007, p. 284.
  62. ^ American Society of Plant Taxonomists 2012.
  63. ^ Senning 2007, p. 170.
  64. ^ Stony Brook University 2015.
  65. ^ Harvard Gazette 2011.
  66. ^ University of Michigan Geriatrics Center 2015.
  67. ^ City of Lake Helen, Florida 2014.
  68. ^ "Author Query for 'A.Gray'". International Plant Names Index. 


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