Asa Gray, Father of American Botany, Born (1810)

When John Muir embarked on his one-thousand-mile walk from Indiana to Florida in 1867, most of the space in his pack was taken up by a single book—Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, from New England to Wisconsin and South to Ohio and Pennsylvania inclusive.  That manual generally goes by a shorter title, Gray’s Manual, written by Asa Gray.  Through eight editions and to the present day, Gray’s Manual continues to be an essential resource for American botanists, well earning Asa Gray recognition as the “Father of American Botany.”

Asa Gray was born on November 18, 1810 (died in 1888), in Oneida County, New York.  With seven younger siblings, Gray grew up working on the family’s farm and becoming an avid naturalist, especially interested in minerals. His interest in botany began while at school, causing his father to enroll him in a local medical school.  He graduated in 1831 and opened a medical office—but that was the beginning and end of his medical career.

While in medical school, he had spent his spare time exploring the countryside and collecting plants, developing a sizable herbarium.  He became acquainted with John Torrey, a chemistry professor and botanist at Columbia University.  Shunning medical practice, he joined Torrey as his chemistry assistant—but they both pursued botany as their true avocations.  When Torrey’s funds ran out, Gray drifted among various teaching positions over the next 15 years, but never stopped exploring the northeastern United States, gathering plant specimens, developing his herbarium, classifying new species and publishing papers on his findings.

Asa Gray in 1864, at the age of 54 (photo by John A. Whipple)

In 1848, Gray was appointed to Harvard University as the first full-time professor of botany in the nation.  He virtually created a botanical presence at Harvard, building a herbarium (now named for him), accumulating a botanical library and planting botanical gardens.  He traveled widely throughout the United States and Europe (there he investigated specimens of American plants in European collections).  In 1848, he published the monumental work mentioned above, the 800-page Gray’s Manual.  That book was accompanied by many more, both fundamental science and more popularized works for the educated public.

His Manual became instantly popular (and remains so) for the clarity of its presentation, the accuracy of its taxonomic organization and the completeness of the treatment.  As his 1889 obituary in the National Academy of Sciences read in part:

“Botanists themselves needed some one who could bring together the scattered materials of the early explorers and harmonize the writings of earlier botanists into a compact and comprehensive whole; one who could settle authoritatively doubtful points of nomenclature; who could describe species tersely and clearly so that there might be a good general account of the flora of North America comparable with similar floras of Europe. The public needed some one to tell them what botany itself was and what botanists were doing…. Combining the power of original research with a talent for popular exposition, he was just the man for the time.”

Drawing of Aesculus pavia (red Buckeye), prepared for Asa Gray’s book on the flora of American forests.

Gray became so popular and authoritative that he wielded substantial influence in philosophy, politics and religion.  This became important when Charles Darwin’s work on natural selection and evolution started a scientific and cultural revolution (learn more about Darwin’s work here).  Gray and Darwin were constant correspondents during this time, exchanging more than 300 letters.  Darwin shared with Gray more than with any other scientists or friends.  Gray was a devout Christian, but he held the belief that Darwin’s discoveries were wonderful and instructive—they showed the mechanisms that his Creator had put into place to organize the world.  Gray had much to do with the eventual acceptance of Darwin’s ideas in the United States.

And Gray has had much to do with the development of botany and biodiversity coonservation in the country.  He discovered and named hundreds of species.  He published the first comprehensive treatment of the distribution of plants, establishing an understanding of how habitat conditions affect an area’s flora.  He explored California with John Muir (learn more about Muir here).  He bequeathed all his materials—herbarium and library—and all his royalties to Harvard University; today Harvard’s botanical collections remain one of the world’s largest and best.  He was an original member of the National Academy of Sciences and other prominent scientific organizations.  His nickname as Father of American Botany is well earned, but wouldn’t it be simpler to just call him “The Stamen”?

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Asa Gray, American Botanist.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Asa-Gray.  Accessed October 30, 2018.

Farlow, W. G.  1889.  Memoir of Asa Gray.  National Academy of Sciences, April 17, 1889.  Available at:  http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/gray-asa.pdf.  Accessed October 30, 2018.

NNDB.  Asa Gray.  Available at:  http://www.nndb.com/people/269/000102960/.  Accessed October 30, 2018.

Sierra Club.  Asa Gray.  Available at:  https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/people/gray.aspx.  Accessed October 30, 2018.

University of Cambridge.  Asa Gray.  Darwin Correspondence Project.  Available at:  https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/asa-gray.  Accessed October 30, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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