Asa Gray: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Asa Gray

Born November 18, 1810(1810-11-18)
Sauquoit, New York
Died January 30, 1888 (aged 77)
Nationality United States of America
Fields Botany
Influences Charles Darwin

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

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.



A devout Christian as an adult [1] Gray had been born in Sauquoit, New York in 1810, and became an M.D. in 1831. However, he relinquished medicine for botany, and in 1842 was appointed professor of natural history at Harvard University, a post he retained until 1873 while living in the Asa Gray House. Through the donation of an immense book and plant collection numbering in the thousands, he effectively created the botany department at Harvard; the Gray Herbarium is named after him. He was President of the AAAS in 1871. In 1859, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

He was a pupil of John Torrey, with whom he worked closely; they published the Flora of North America together. The "Elements of Botany" (1836), an introductory textbook, was the first of Gray's many works.

Gray traveled to the American west on two separate occasions, the first in 1872 and then again with Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1877. Both times his goal was botanical research: he avidly collected 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 1882 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.

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, who was likely a student of Gray's at Harvard.

He died in 1888 and was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The cemetery's Asa Gray Garden, with a central fountain and numerous usual tree varieties, is named in his honor.


Relationship with Darwin

Gray and Charles Darwin met at Kew, introduced by Joseph Dalton Hooker. 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.

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!”[2]

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. Darwin and Wallace did not attend 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.[3].

Gray arranged the first US Edition of On the Origin of Species and negotiated royalties on Darwin's behalf[4]. Darwin held Gray in high esteem: he dedicated his book Forms of Flowers 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" [5] 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. 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.[5]

Notwithstanding, Gray was a staunch supporter of Darwin in America, and collected together a number of his own writings to produce an influential book, Darwiniana. 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.[6] 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"[7]

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"[8]


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.

Grayanotoxin and Gray Peak (New York) are named after him. Also, a residential building is named after him on the Stony Brook University campus.




Further reading

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

GRAY, ASA (1810-1888), American botanist, was born at Paris, Oneida county, N.Y., on the 18th of November 1810. He was the son of a farmer, and received no formal education except at the Fairfield (N.Y.) academy and the Fairfield medical school. From Dr James Hadley, the professor of chemistry and materia medica he obtained his first instruction in science (1825-1826). In the spring of 1827 he first began to collect and identify plants. His formal education, such as it was, ended in February 1831, when he took the degree of M.D. His first contribution to descriptive botany appeared in 1835, and thereafter an uninterrupted series of contributions to systematic botany flowed from his pen for fifty-three years. In 1836 his first botanical text-book appeared under the title Elements of Botany, followed in 1839 by his Botanical Text-Book for Colleges, Schools, and Private Students which developed into his „S'tructural Botany. He published later First Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology (1857); How Plants Grow (1858); Field, Forest, and Garden Botany (1869); How Plants Behave (1872). These books served the purpose of developing popular interest in botanical studies. His most important work, however, was his Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, the first edition of which appeared in 1847. This manual has passed through a large number of editions, is clear, accurate and compact to an extraordinary degree, and within its geographical limits is an indispensable book for the student of American botany.

Throughout his life Gray was a diligent writer of reviews of books on natural history subjects. Often these reviews were elaborate essays, for which the books served merely as texts; often they were clear and just summaries of extensive works; sometimes they were sharply critical, though never ill-natured or unfair; always they were interesting, lively and of literary as well as scientific excellence. The greater part of Gray's strictly scientific labour was devoted to a Flora of North America, the plan of which originated with his early teacher and associate, John Torrey of New York. The second volume of Torrey and Gray's Flora was completed in 1843; but for forty years thereafter Gray gave up a large part of his time to the preparation of his Synoptical Flora (1878). He lived at the period when the flora of North America was being discovered, described and systematized; and his enthusiastic labours in this fresh field placed him at the head of American botanists and on a level with the most famous botanists of the world. In 1856 he published a paper on the distribution of plants under the title Statistics of the Flora of the Northern United States; and this paper was followed in 1859 by a memoir on the botany of Japan and its relations to that of North America, a paper of which Sir J. D. Hooker said that "in point of originality and far-reaching results [it] was its author's opus magnum." It was Gray's study of plant distribution which led to his intimate correspondence with Charles Darwin during the years in which Darwin was elaborating the doctrines that later became known as Darwinism. From 1855 to 1875 Gray was both a keen critic and a sympathetic exponent of the Darwinian principles. His religious views were those of the Evangelical bodies in the Protestant Church; so that, when Darwinism was attacked as equivalent to atheism, he was in position to answer effectively the unfounded allegation that it was fatal to the doctrine of design. He taught that "the most puzzling things of all to the old-school teleologists are the principia of the Darwinian." He openly avowed his conviction that the present species are not special creations, but rather derived from previously existing species; and he made his avowal with frank courage, when this truth was scarcely recognized by any naturalists, and when to the clerical mind evolution meant atheism.

In 1842 Gray accepted the Fisher professorship of natural history in Harvard University. On his accession to this chair the university had no herbarium, no botanical library, few plants of any value, and but a small garden, which for lack of money had never been well stocked or well arranged. He soon brought together, chiefly by widespread exchanges, a valuable herbarium and library, and arranged the garden; and thereafter the development of these botanical resources was part of his regular labours. The herbarium soon became the largest and most valuable in America, and on account of the numerous type specimens it contains it is likely to remain a collection of national importance. Nothing of what Gray did for the botanical department of the university has been lost; on the contrary, his labours were so well directed that everything he originated and developed has been enlarged, improved and placed on stable foundations. He himself made large contributions to the establishment by giving it all his own specimens, many books and no little money, and by his will he gave it the royalties on his books. During his long connexion with the university he brought up two generations of botanists and he always took a strong personal interest in the researches and the personal prospects of the young men who had studied under him. His scientific life was mainly spent in the herbarium and garden in Cambridge; but his labours there were relieved by numerous journeys to different parts of the United States and to Europe, all of which contributed to his work on the Synoptical Flora. He lived to a good age - long enough, indeed, to receive from learned societies at home and abroad abundant evidence of their profound respect for his attainments and services. He died at Cambridge, Mass., on the 30th of January 1888.

His Letters (1893) were edited by his wife; and his Scientific Papers (1888) by C. S. Sargent. (C. W. E.)

<< Gravy

David Gray >>


Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From Wikispecies

Asa Gray

American botanist (18.XI.1810 - 30.I.1888)


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address