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 Structural 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.)