Gray, John Edward, 1800-1875

Alternative names
Birth 1800-02-12
Death 1875-03-07

Biographical notes:

John Edward Gray was an English naturalist and was the Keeper of the Zoological Department at the British Museum of Natural History for many years.

From the description of Papers, 1783-1884. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122523596

John Edward Gray (1800-1875) was an English naturalist and the Keeper of the Zoological Department at the British Museum of Natural History from 1840 until 1874. He endeavored to make the British Museum’s collections “the most extensive, the best known, the best exhibited, the most freely available and only catalogued exhibition of its kind.” Gray attributed his success to “a catholic taste” for all groups of animals. In his lifetime Gray published in excess of eleven hundred papers. His List of Specimens of British Animals in the British Museum (1845) provided an updated list of British fauna. Other major publications included Illustrations of Indian Zoology with General Hardwicke (1832-34) and the privately published Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley (1846).

Gray was born in Walsall, Straffordshire on February 12, 1800, the second son of Samuel Frederick Gray, a naturalist and pharmacologist and Elizabeth Forfeit, the daughter of a picture dealer from Convent Garden. After his father got a job with the metallurgist Charles Hatchett, the family moved to London. He had an unorthodox upbringing, since he had no formal education, but was taught to read and write by his parents at home, and generally educated himself by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. He assisted his father in his Wapping pharmacy, located in borough of London. After the pharmacy failed, he assisted a physician in Shoreditch before finding work in the laboratory of a wholesale chemist. As an adolescent, Gray befriended the entomologist J.F. Stephens, accompanying him on weekend trips into the countryside.

Sometime in 1816 young Gray was also introduced to Dr. William E. Leach, Keeper of the Zoological Department of the British Museum, when it was situated in its first home at Montagu House in Bloomsbury Square. Gaining access through Leach, Gray spent all of his free time as a volunteer, naming and arranging the zoological collections. Through Leach he also gained access to the Museum’s Banksian Library and met other naturalists, who encouraged him to shift his interests from botany to zoology. After Leach’s retirement in 1821, Gray was unsuccessful in his efforts to gain employment as an assistant at the Museum, and worked instead at temporary assignments such as editing the Mechanics Weekly Journal and working briefly with the naturalist illustrator James Sowerby on his great Mineral Conchology of Great Britain.

In his late teens and early twenties Gray assisted his father with several published works, such as Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia (1818) and A Natural Arrangement of British Plants (1821). In the latter work the elder Gray criticized Linnaean system, favoring other European methods of classification instead. The response to the work was quite critical, and the younger Gray, who was responsible for the synoptic portions of the work, developed a very defensive attitude as a result. Gray’s connection with the Natural Arrangement and his failure to mention Sir James E. Smith in a reference to Sowerby’s English Botany were alleged reasons for his exclusion from the Linnean Society to which he applied in 1822.

Gray’s father encouraged him to enter the medical profession, and to this end he attended lectures at St. Bartholomew’s and Middlesex hospitals, at the City Dispensary, and at classes conducted by John Taunton and William Salisbury elsewhere in the city. A revulsion to surgery and a failed application for an assistantship at the British Museum caused Gray to suffer a nervous breakdown in 1822, forcing him to abandon plans for a medical career. Maria Emma Gray, the widow of his cousin Francis Edward Gray and her circle of friends nursed him back to health, and he later married her in 1826.

In December 1824, after assisting John G. Children, the Keeper of the Zoological Collection, with the Museum’s shell collection, Gray was given another temporary assignment, compiling a catalog of reptiles at 15 shillings per day. That year he completed Children’s shell catalog published as the Genera of Shells (which brought its author [Children] the editorship of the Zoological Journal), and published thirty papers. Doubtless, he made himself indispensable to Children, since on May 27, 1837 he was appointed Assistant Keeper and upon Children’s retirement in March 1840, became Keeper. Gray held the position of Keeper of the Zoological Collection for over thirty-four years.

Gray’s goal throughout his tenure in the Zoological Collection, as he mentioned to a select committee on the British Museum in 1836, was to make the Museum’s collections “the most extensive, the best known, the best exhibited, the most freely available and [the] only catalogued exhibition of its kind.” The year he became Keeper, he began the first register of accessions. Afterward, his great interest in the systematics of the catalog led him to produce increasing numbers of publications related to the collections. Gray authored many of the catalogs of mammals himself, such as those on seals, whales, monkeys, lemurs, fruit-eating bats, carnivores, pachyderms, edentates and ruminants. He also wrote catalogs of lizards and shield reptiles [i.e. turtles]. When it appeared in 1845, Gray’s List of the Specimens of British Animals in the British Museum represented an updated list of British fauna. His other important publications included Illustrations of Indian Zoology with General Hardwicke (1832-34) and the privately published Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley (1846).

Those who followed Gray as Keeper conceded that the growth of the British Museum’s zoological collections was solely due to his efforts, despite little funding and the opposition of the museum administration. He explained his success in fulfilling his objectives by referring to a “catholic taste” for dealing with every group of animals. He was shrewd and competitive in acquiring multiple reference collections of specimens, among them Gilbertson’s collection of fossils in 1836 and a collection of skins and skeletons of Indian animals from B.H. Hodgson in 1845. One of his competitors was Richard Owen (1804-1892, APS 1845), who was looking for osteological specimens for the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum. However, his contemporaries were not uncritical of his work. Some excused his mistakes as the result of attempts to do too much with too little material, time and assistance. Others blamed a lack of field experience, resulting in “the needless number of genera and species he introduced” which some “thought detrimental to science.” While all of his contemporaries remarked on his incredible energy and enthusiasm, one concluded that “it would have been better, both for zoology and his own future fame, if the outcome. . . had been represented by half, or even a quarter of the literature under Dr. Gray’s name.”

Gray was a founding member of the Zoological Society in 1826 (and its vice-president from 1865-74). He became a member of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830, a member of the Entomological Society in 1833 (serving as its president in 1858-9), a member of the Botanical Society of London in 1836 (its president, 1836-57) and a member of the Palaeontological Society in 1874. In 1832 Gray was elected to the Royal Society. In 1854 he received an honorary doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Munich.

At the age of sixty Gray’s health began to fail. He suffered a number of mild strokes, and periods of near blindness. In May of 1869 he experienced a paralytic stroke from which he never fully recovered. Nevertheless, he continued in his post as Keeper until December 1874. Gray died on March 7, 1875 and was buried at the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Lewisham.

Gray approached natural history as a collector and organizer of knowledge, but he also realized the limitations of his methods, which focused on the external forms of animals to the neglect of internal structures.

From the guide to the John Edward Gray papers, 1783-1884, 1783-1884, (American Philosophical Society)

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)


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