Asa Gray

  • American

Asa Gray was a notable American botanist active in the 19th century. - AsNotedIn

Notable Position Organization From To
Member Saturday Club (Boston)
Works about Asa Gray


Y/M/D Description Association Composition Place Locale Food Event
Y/M/D Description Association Composition Place Locale Food Event
1828/00/00 While attending medical college, Gray reads The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia's article on botany during the winter of 1827-28. The article greatly stimulates his botanical interest, especially as it said that much needed to be done in North American botany. Education
1842/00/00 Asa Gray moves into the Harvard Botanical Garden housewhen he becomes Massachusetts Professor of Natural History at Harvard. Mr Gray will live her until his death. Home Asa Gray House Cambridge, MA
1848/05/04 Jane Lathrop Loring, daughter of Charles G Loring and Anna Pierce Loring, marries Asa Gray. The reception is held in the Harvard Botanic Garden. Groom Asa Gray House Cambridge, MA Marriage of Jane Loring and Asa Gray


Born of parents of English and Scotch-Irish background in Sanquoit, New York, in 1810, Gray acquired an interest in botany as a youth. Then, while attending a small medical college, he read The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia's lengthy article on botany during the winter of 1827-28. That article greatly stimulated his botanical interest, especially as it said that much needed to be done in North American botany. Gray's medical studies furthered his appreciation of botany, and before his graduation in 1831 he had already begun to collect plants. An established botanist, John Torrey of New York, learned of the young doctor's botanical work and asked Gray if he would like to be his assistant. Gray assented, and medicine lost a promising adherent.

Gray made rapid progress in his new profession. Largely influenced by recent European developments in botany, Gray boldly adopted the natural system of classification. Briefly, this system sought to establish the relationship of plants according to the similarity of their various parts. He thus rejected the long-used Linnaean system, which identified plants by the number of stamens and styles that each had. In 1836, he published his first book, Elements of Botany. Two years later, in conjunction with Torrey, Gray published the first part of the Flora of North America. This volume, plus the succeeding volumes, gave America its most notable compendium of known plants in the travelled areas of the continent. In the same year that the first volume of the Flora appeared, 1838, Gray accepted a teaching position at the University of Michigan. Fortunately for him, the university sent him abroad for a year, where he visited botanists and botanical collections. While in England he met Darwin, but discerned no greatness in the British botanist at that time.

In 1842, three years after his return to America, Gray, then thirty-two, became Massachusetts Professor of Natural History at Harvard College, a position he held for forty-five years. Gray was not an inspiring teacher. Indeed each student knew his routine, even to the point of knowing when and for what Gray would call on him. In Gray's early days at Harvard, some of his students enlivened classes by setting off firecrackers in the room.

Gray's years at Harvard witnessed his rise to eminence in botany. As expedition after expedition sent new specimens to Cambridge, Gray and his assistants classified them and gave them names. At the same time, Gray produced many books. His two-volume work, no hgui no hgui The Genera of the Plants of the United States, published in 1849, was a brilliant achievement. The work contained plates of plants by Isaac Sprague, which remain models of effective plant illustration, and descriptions of those plants by Gray. In 1858, he published How Plants Grow, a volume that sent many a child into the fields to collect plants. In addition, Gray established an acquaintance, by correspondence if by no other means, with as many American and European colleagues as possible and, in an unusually cooperative manner, readily shared his knowledge with them.

Perhaps Gray's most original contribution to the science of botany was his discovery of the relationship between the flora of eastern North America and east Asia, demonstrated in his Statistics of the Flora of the Northern United States, published in 1856. This discovery led to the rise of a new aspect of botanical study, plant geography.

Gray, in addition to his notable botanical work, ably served science in general when he led the defense in America of Darwin's bitterly attacked Origin of Species. Admirably equipped to do so because of his scientific standing, his personal leadership in his field, and his well-known religious feeling, Gray, who admired Darwin's willingness to acknowledge questions about is work, spoke forthrightly in behalf of truth in science. Reviewing Darwin's book in The American Journal of Science in March, 1860, Gray emphasized the value of science for science's sake. He wrote as if science and religion had no relation to each other. Personally committed to most of Darwin's views, Gray really pled for scientific freedom. Gray began a series of articles in support of Darwin's theories in the Atlantic Monthly of July, 1860. The evolutionist valued Gray's efforts highly and praised his defense of the Origin of Species.

Because of his defense of Darwin, as well as because of his own work in botany, Gray remains one of America's notable scientists. His death on January 30, 1888, ended a chapter in our Country's scientific history that was rich in accomplishment and humanity. - US NRHP

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