Gray, Asa, 1810-1888

Alternative names
Birth 1810-11-18
Death 1888-04

Biographical notes:

Botanist, ardent supporter of Charles Darwin, first professor appointed to the faculty of the University of Michigan, and Professor of Botany at Harvard University.

From the description of Asa Gray collection, 1871-1885. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 68802268

Asa Gray is an American botanist. He was made Professor of Natural History at Harvard University in 1842 and held that position until 1873. He was the author of several works including Manual of the botany of the northern United States, which was published in 1848.

From the description of Letter to Leander Wetherell, 1848, March 6. (Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens). WorldCat record id: 432728505

Asa Gray was an American botanist who extensively studied North American flora. His book, Manual of the botany of the northern United States, from New England to Wisconsin and south to Ohio and Pennsylvania inclusive (1848), is a standard work in the subject.

From the description of Asa Gray letter, September 19, 18--. (University of Georgia). WorldCat record id: 269782744

Asa Gray was a botanist.

From the description of Papers, 1838-1887. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 154298172

Gray received an honorary degree from Harvard in 1844 and established the discipline of botany at Harvard.

From the description of Papers of Asa Gray, 1840-1880 (inclusive). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 17267266

From the description of Papers of Asa Gray, 1840-1880 (inclusive). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 77069365

Botanist and professor of natural history at Harvard University.

From the description of Asa Gray papers, 1840-1859. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70984411

Gray was born in Sauquoit, N.Y. in 1810 and educated at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Fairfield (Ph.D., 1831). He taught at Utica Gymnasium, 1832-1834; Hamilton College, 1834; University of Michigan, 1838-1842; and Harvard University, 1842-1873. Gray established systematic botany at Harvard; his herbarium became the nucleus of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard; and he also wrote several botanical textbooks such as Manual of the Botany of the northern United States. In 1848 Gray married Jane Loring who accompanied him on most of his travels and chronicled them in her letters to her family. After Gray's death in 1888 she prepared an edition of his letters which was published in 1893. For further information see: A. Hunter Dupree's Asa Gray, 1810-1888 (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1959).

From the description of Papers of Asa Gray, 1830-1953 (inclusive), 1830-1888 (bulk). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 40962720

Asa Gray (1810-1888) was a botanist who collected plant specimens on the J. W. Powell Survey (1871-1894).

Smithsonian Institution Archives Field Book Project: Person : Description : rid_752_pid_EACP749

American botanist.

From the description of Letter, n.d. "Botanic Garden" [Boston?] to Isabel Batchelder James [manuscript]. (University of Virginia). WorldCat record id: 647826871

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Cambridge, [Massachusetts], to George Clinton Swallow, 1848 May 24. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270498896

Gray discusses the naming and labeling of some plants.

From the description of [Letter] 1882 Mar. 23 [to George Lincoln] Goodale / A. Gray. (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 231357786

Charles Babbage was a mathematician and inventor.

From the guide to the Charles Babbage selected correspondence, 1827-1871, 1827-1871, (American Philosophical Society)

Botanist, professor at Harvard University (1842-1873), president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1871).

From the description of Letter, 1866. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 84697914

Biographical Note

  • 1810, Nov. 18: Born, Sauquoit, N.Y.
  • 1825 - 1826 : Attended Fairfield Academy, Clinton, N.Y.
  • 1826 - 1831 : Attended Fairfield Academy College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of New York, Clinton, N.Y., receiving a medical degree
  • 1830: Began to collect and exchange plants with John Torrey
  • 1836: Published Elements of Botany in New York. New York: G. & C. Carvill and Co.
  • 1836 - 1838 : Member, U.S. Exploring expedition under command of Charles Wilkes
  • 1838 - 1843 : Professor of botany, University of Michigan, Detroit, Mich. Published with John Torrey Flora of North America. New York and London: Wiley and Putnam. 2 vols.
  • 1842: Appointed professor of natural history, Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass.
  • 1847: Published Manual of Botany of the Northern United States. Boston: L. Munroe and Co.
  • 1848: Married Jane Lathrop Loring
  • 1858: Published Botany for Young People and Common Schools. New York: Ivison Blakeman, Taylor, and Co.
  • 1873: Retired, Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass., to work on revisions of his book on North American flora
  • 1876: Published Darwiana; Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism. New York: D. Appleton and Co.
  • 1888, Jan. 30: Died, Cambridge, Mass.
  • 1893: Posthumous publication of Letters of Asa Gray, edited by Jane Loring Gray. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

From the guide to the Asa Gray Papers, 1840-1859, (Manuscript Division Library of Congress)

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873, APS 1843) was a zoologist and geologist. A student of Georges Cuvier, Agassiz was renown for his six-volume work Poissons fossils, a study of more than 1,700 ancient fish. Equally important was his Ètudes sur les glaciers (1840). In 1845 Agassiz moved to the United States on a two-year study grant from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to compare the flora and fauna of the United States and Europe. While in the United States he was invited to deliver a course of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston. He took America and New England by storm and as a result in 1847 was appointed professor of zoology and geology at Harvard’s new Lawrence Scientific School.

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in Motier, Switzerland on May 26, 1807, the son of a Protestant minister Rodolphe Agassiz and his wife Rose Mayor. Despite family pressure to enter business, Agassiz early decided to devote himself to the study of nature. At the age of twenty-one he predicted that he would become “the first naturalist of his time, a good citizen and a good son.” His determination gained Agassiz an excellent education in the natural sciences at the Universities of Heidelberg and Munich. He also made important contacts in early life that formed his outlook and provided the basis for his early career. The naturalist Johann B. Spix allowed him to publish on a collection of fish from Brazil that Spix had gathered, while the anatomist Ignaz Döllinger trained him to use the microscope and introduced him to the field of embryology. Philosophically, Agassiz was influenced by the German idealism of Lorenz Okenfuss, who built a system of biological classification based upon increasing complexity of sense organs. Agassiz’s scientific thought and practice was characterized by two separate and often contradictory outlooks. One was exact and pragmatic; the other was transcendental. His approach was clearly influenced by French zoologist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier, who passed on to Agassiz his remarkable collection of fossil fish illustrations. He also impressed the geographer Alexander Humboldt, an adviser to the king of Prussia who arranged an appointment for him at the Collège de Neuchâtel in 1832, where he taught natural history for more than ten years. During these years (1832-42) he studied fossil fish in museums and private collections throughout Europe, resulting in his six-volume Poissons fossils that described more than 1,700 primeval fish, that he analyzed according to Cuvier’s comparative method. The work, which won high praise from major Bristish naturalists Sir Charles Lyell and Richard Owen, provided the basis for Agassiz’s scientific fame and fortune. His natural philosophy was infused with the belief in an all-powerful diety, who planned and created every single living being, plant and animal, undercutting any genetic connection between ancient and modern creatures.

In addition to his work on fish, between 1837 and 1843 Agassiz did ground breaking work on glacial geology, presented in a paper presented to the Sociètè Helvétique des Sciences naturelles (July 1837) and in his book Etudes sur les glaciers in which he theorized that a massive glacier had once covered all of Europe. Although the idea had first been suggested by Swiss naturalist Jean de Charpentier, Agassiz was the first to publicize the idea and to apply it to all of Europe. A prolific writer, who wished to be personally involved with the production of his works, Agassiz developed a publishing house in Neuchâtel, that employed the latest technology in photo duplication and produced bibliographies, dictionaries and monographs by Agassiz and his assistants. In the spring of 1845 Agassiz’s fortunes abruptly shifted. His wife Cécile Braun Agassiz left her husband and Neuchâtel, his printing business closed due to accumulated debts, and he was forced to leave the Collège de Neuchâtel. Just as his luck seemed to run out, he received word of a 2-year grant secured for him by Humboldt from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia for $3,000 to do a comparative study of the flora and fauna of the United States and Europe.

Shortly after the arrival of Agassiz in the United States, John Amory Lowell, manufacturer and head of the Lowell Institute in Boston, invited him to deliver a course of public lectures. New Englanders found the Swiss naturalist, who spoke enthusiastically about primitive fish and prehistoric glaciers, intriguing. New England scientific luminaries such as Harvard botanist Asa Gray and Yale chemist Benjamin Silliman lauded Agassiz as “full of knowledge on all subjects of science.” His lectures created such a demand for speaking engagements, that within less than two years Agassiz was able to repay $20,000 in European debt. In the fall of 1847 Harvard University offered him a chair of zoology and geology at its newly established Lawrence Scientic School. In July 1848, after his wife’s death, he arranged for his children to join him in the United States. These events, together with his 1850 marriage to a bright well-connected Bostonian Elizabeth Cabot Carey, sixteen years Agassiz’s junior, permanently anchored the Swiss scientist in America. Soon afterward Agassiz’s home in Cambridge became a center of intellectual life. As a Harvard professor he badgered the University continually for funds to build a major natural history museum to instruct the public and help to train advanced students. His efforts paid off in November 1859, when the Museum of Comparative Zoology opened its doors. The Museum provided a unique resource for American students to gain unrestricted, first hand access to natural specimens. Many practicing American naturalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were trained by Agassiz and worked in his museum. The Museum testified to Agassiz’s passion for collecting and identifying the “entire natural kingdom all at once,” a desire that quickly filled the repository to overflowing with specimens. From a philosophical perspective Agassiz planned the Museum as a demonstration of the “master plan” that the diety had executed in the creation of the natural world, displaying the “type plan” of different classes and stressing the separate creation of each species. Agassiz’s core belief in the special creation of species by God undergirded his quest to locate new species. However, some colleagues criticized him as “species mad,” arguing that his museum and his methods added little to the conceptual understanding of natural history.

Agassiz’s reputation took a major hit in a series of Boston debates on evolution, after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Agassiz made a poor defense of special creation against Darwin’s defenders Asa Gray and William Barton Rogers. Furthermore, Agassiz’s understanding of special creationism as applied to human beings led him to view various races as distinct species, a rationale quickly adopted by the proponents slavery, who asserted a scientific basis to white supremecy.

Concerned about the decline of his professional reputation in the 1850s, in 1855 Agassiz announced the forthcoming publication of a projected ten-volume entitled Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America. A total of 2,500 subscribers made advanced purchases at $12.00 each. The initial volume entitled Essay on Classification elaborated Agassiz’s views on classification, the philosophy of nature and the species concept. Appearing two years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, the work drew mixed reviews. Many were put off by the author’s dogmatism, others thought his views dated and moribund. Three more volumes appeared, but the publication of the projected set was never completed.

Many years later in 1872 Agassiz did reconsider evolution, trying to understand Darwin’s views by making a trip around South America, retracing Darwin’s voyage. However, he only became more convinced that the concept of evolution was “a scientific mistake, untrue to the facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency.” To the dismay of the scientific community Agassiz authored strident attacks on Darwinism in the popular press, infuriating Asa Gray and James Dana. Consequently, Agassiz was increasingly excluded from the politics of American science.

Agassiz remained at Harvard University until the end of his life. When he died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was deeply mourned by his adopted country.

From the guide to the Louis Jean Rodolph Agassiz papers, 1833-1873, 1833-1873 1833-1873, (American Philosophical Society)

Stephen Bowers (1832?-1907) was a geologist, archaeologist, journalist and Methodist minister, who maintained an interest in southern California, including area fossils and artifacts. His geological and archaeological work was financed by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1997 a California archaeologist and Simi Valley, California resident Arlene Benson published Bowers’ field notes, collected by Smithsonian field ethnologist John Peabody Harrington, under the title The Noontide Sun: The Field Journals of the Reverend Stephen Bowers, Pioneer California Archaeologist.

Bowers was born near Wilmington, Indiana on March 3, 1832 to David and Esther Bowers. One of thirteen children, the family moved to a farm eight miles north of Indianapolis when he was one year old. A studious lad, he walked or rode on horseback several miles to a small rural schoolhouse. Poor health kept him indoors as a child during the winter months. Realizing that he was not cut out to be a farmer, Bowers decided at an early age to pursue the ministry, and at twenty-three was ordained a Methodist minister, affiliated with the Indiana Conference. He was dispatched as a Methodist circuit rider ninety miles west of his birthplace in Lawrence County, Indiana. In November 1856, just ten months after beginning his ministry, Bowers married the seventeen-year-old Martha Cracraft from the farming community of Greencastle. Their first son, Hayden, was named for Bowers’ hero Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden (1829-1887, APS 1860), the leader of U.S. government surveying expeditions to 109 western territories in 1859-60.

From his youth Bowers became a lifelong collector of artifacts and geological specimens. Although he dedicated himself to the pastorate and later also pursued a second career as a newspaper publisher, his primary interest was always archaeology. With the exception of military service with the 67th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War, Bowers spent several decades in pastoral ministry that took him to churches in Kentucky, Oregon and finally (because of his wife’s failing health) to California. In 1874 he moved from his first pulpit in Napa City to the city of Santa Barbara. There Bowers found the lure of the Indian burial grounds on the Santa Barbara channel irresistible.

In the summer of 1875 Bowers accepted an assignment as guide for several survey parties of the Army Corp of Engineers, working on both sides of the Santa Barbara channel. Wheeler’s party included archaeologist Paul Schumacher, botanist Joseph Trimble Rothrock (1839-1922, APS 1877) of the University of Pennsylvania and Henry Wetherbee Henshaw, an ethnologist and ornithologist with the Smithsonian Institution. The Wheeler survey occupied all of Bowers’ time, except Sundays, for three months and Wheeler’s notes make sixteen references to him. It was through Henshaw that Bowers came to the attention of Smithsonian professor Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887, APS 1855), who carried on an extensive twelve-year correspondence with him. Through Bowers’ excavations the Smithsonian would acquire thousands of California and Midwestern fossils and native American artifacts for its collections-seventeen accessions over twenty-nine years.

Since no trained archaeologist had ever visited the native American burial grounds on the San Nicholas and Santa Rosa Islands before Bowers’ 1875 excavation, he was the first to examine the remains of these settlements, and remove the skulls, implements and artifacts for shipment to the Smithsonian and other museums, as well as to private collectors. Most of the skeletons and artifacts were from the Chumash tribe. During his three-year tenure as pastor of the Santa Barbara Methodist congregation at the corner of De la Vina and De la Guerra streets, made one trip after another to the islands, usually accompanied by correspondent Simon Peter Guiberson of the Ventura Free Press and sometimes by his wife Martha and Dr. Lorenzo Yates of Centerville.

Although methods of archaeological excavation were crude at the time, and Bowers was not the only untrained archaeologist doing field work, modern historians and archaeologists, who are familiar with his activities generally regard him as “a meddler who destroyed fully as many artifacts as he preserved-and rendered the site scientifically useless as well.” They find his “flagrant disregard for orderly methods and his failure to preserve sites” inexcusable. It is unclear how many barrels of native American skulls, utensils and implements Bowers sent to collectors in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia, but the Smithsonian alone credits 2,200 to 2,500 of its native American relics to his excavations between 1876-1905. Harvard’s Peabody Museum recorded 826 and hundreds made their way in public and private collections from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

No doubt, Bowers used questionable methods and was generally too impatient to exercise care in his excavations. Dr. Baird of the Smithsonian and Professor Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-1894, APS 1863) of Harvard, two of his primary customers, were probably unaware of Bower’s methods, although the former was definitely impressed by him. Bowers completed his excavations for the Smithsonian in September 1877, and moved to Indianapolis to accept a temporary call. Sometime in 1878 he returned to California and resumed his excavations. But after his wife and son Hayden died within months of each other in October 1879 and April 1880, he could not bear to continue excavations. Instead, he departed from Santa Barbara to launch a new career as a newspaper publisher in Beloit, California; Platteville, Wisconsin; and Falls City, Nebraska. By October 1883 he had returned to California with a new wife Margaret Dickson to become publisher of the Ventura Free Press. Also serving a the Methodist pastor in the nearby town of Santa Paula, he launched another daily newspaper he called the Golden State. As a Prohibitionist and a Republican Bowers became involved in political controversy in his newspapers and in the pulpit, often teetering on the edge of libel. All the while he found time to continue digging artifacts in the Santa Barbara Channel!

In 1899 the aging Bowers was appointed State Mine Examiner by California Governor Henry T. Gage. He had attracted the attention of one of the governor’s aids by some earlier pamphlets he had written for the state mineralogist, as well as reports that made use of some of his geological contributions on rocks, fossils and oil-bearing strata. During his tenure Bowers endured the heat of the San Diego County desert to dig fossils in thirteen different counties and also undertook an assignment from the U.S. Geological Survey to survey fossil around Riverside.

Bowers enjoyed excellent health into his mid-seventies, and was accustomed to delivering two sermons weekly. However, in the final hours of 1906 while on a New Years vigil, he fell ill and three days later suffered a stroke from which he died. He was survived by his wife Margaret, his son DeMoss, and daughters Anna Bailey and Florence Cooper.

The American Philosophical Society’s holdings of his letters show that he corresponded with major nineteenth century American naturalists, including Asa Gray (1810-1888, APS 1848) and Joseph Le Conte (1823-1901, APS 1873), as well as the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Museum of Natural History, the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Geographical Survey. Bowers also received an honorary doctorate from Willamette University in Oregon.

From the guide to the Stephen Bowers correspondence, 1860-1915, 1860-1915, (American Philosophical Society)

Asa Gray (1810-1888, APS, 1848), Physician, botanist, Harvard professor and an early proponent of the Darwinian theory of Evolution in the United States, was the first American to earn a living as a professional botanist. He made important, lasting contributions to the field of botany, to botanical education, and to the institutionalization of American science.

The son of an Oneida county farmer and tanner in central New York, Asa Gray attended the Fairfield Academy and the Fairfield Medical College, graduating in 1831. After briefly practicing medicine in western New York, he abandoned the profession to pursue research in botany. In 1834 he moved to New York City to study, work and (sometimes) live with John Torrey, then the country’s leading botanist. During an 8-year apprenticeship in which Torrey shared his knowledge and contacts with the young student, their relationship gradually changed from one of student and teacher to that of colleagues who collaborated on many projects. Their most important collaboration was the ground-breaking Flora of North America (1838-1843). From 1836 to 1838 Gray was selected to be the botanist for the U.S. Exploring Expedition, also known as the Wilkes Expedition. Numerous and extended delays caused Gray to resign before the expedition departed in August, 1838. In 1842 he accepted a position as the Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, and kept it until his death in 1888.

Along with his mentor and co-author John Torrey, Gray introduced a new system of classification already in use in Europe based upon biological similarities, often abandoning the artificial sorting markers of the Linnaean system in favor of natural “type specifications” for the classification of North American flora. This change in biological classification, championed by Torrey and Gray, was critical for bringing the United States into the world scientific community. Gray’s Manual for the Botany of the Northern United States (1848), constituted a natural flora in one volume that was notable for its ease of use, as well as for high standards of accuracy, inclusiveness, and scientific rigor.

Although a Harvard professor for more than 45 years, Gray had less influence as a botanical pedagogue than he did as the author of botany texts. Few of his students became professional botanists; however, his textbooks, especially How Plants Grow and the Manual, greatly increased the popularity of the subject among the lay public. Gray’s many textbooks, from elementary school through the college level introduced thousands of Americans to botany, making it the science of choice in many schools for much of the 19th century. Gray also trained scores of amateur botanists and collectors, raising the standards for how specimens were gathered, labeled, preserved and documented. His corresponded widely with amateurs and paid collectors, who gladly sent him specimens and observations in return for his help with identifications. Gray’s work benefited from his extensive correspondence with collectors throughout North America by greatly expanding the data from which he drew conclusions. The new information and new observations informed his synthetic works such as the Manual, which went through numerous editions. Also, by carefully instructing collectors about what specimens to gather, how to preserve them, and how to label them, Gray insured the quality of his data while modeling a more professional style of botanical work

Doubtless, Gray’s greatest contribution to American Science was his early promotion of Darwinian theory. He had a long standing relationship with Charles Darwin based upon an extended correspondence. Gray was fascinated by Darwin’s thinking and supported him personally and professionally at critical points in his career. Darwin valued Gray’s insights and support, since the American botanist realized even before the publication of the Origin of Species that the issues were both scientific and theological. When a question arose about whether Darwin or Alfred Russell Wallace had originated the notion of natural selection, Darwin’s letters to Gray proved Darwin’s primacy. Gray actively defended Darwin’s ideas in print, endeavoring to insure a fair reception of his work based upon its scientific merit. Gray’s 1860 review of the Origin of Species in the American Journal of Science (2nd series, 29: 153-84), his debates with Louis Agassiz, and his popular essays in the Atlantic Monthly paved the way for broad acceptance of Darwinian evolution in the United States. Gray’s role as an American defender of Darwin’s ideas has been compared to that of Thomas Huxley in Great Britain. But, while Huxley viewed Darwinism as a victory of science over religion, Gray argued for the compatibility of natural selection and Protestant theology. He used natural theology, especially the “argument from design” to affirm that natural selection offers more proof of God’s work in nature. Although Darwin himself eventually arrived at agnostic conclusions, he profoundly appreciated Gray’s work on behalf of his theory, saying that “No one person understands my views and has defended them so well as A. Gray, though he does not by any means go all the way with me. (Letter to James D. Dana, 30 July 1860).

A shy individual, Asa Gray usually worked quietly and steered clear of politics. He received honorary Doctor of Law degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh and became a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1848. Despite his significance as a botanist and an educator, Gray was little known among historians prior to the publication of A. Hunter Dupree’s major biography Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin . Gray was married to Jane Lathrop Loring, whose social connections brought him into Boston society. The couple were childless. Gray was respected by his peers and fondly remembered as “our greatest botanist” and a “trump of all senses”.



From the guide to the Asa Gray papers, 1838-1887, 1838-1887, (American Philosophical Society)


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