American Medical Biographies/Gray, Asa

Gray, Asa (1810–1888)

The parents of this celebrated botanist were Moses and Roxana Gray, the father hailing from Londonderry, Ireland, and the mother from Kent, England.

Born in Paris, Oneida County, New York, on November 18, 1810, one of Asa's earliest occupations was to feed the bark mill and drive the horse at his father's tannery. He was a reader almost from childhood. Though he graduated M. D. at the College of Medicine and Surgery, Fairfield, New York, in 1831, he never practised medicine. Two years before this his interest in botany was roused by an article in "Brewster's Edinburgh Encyclopedia" and he watched eagerly for the first spring flower which he found to be the little Claytonia Virginica, named after Dr. John Clayton (q. v.), the botanist. The correspondence he had with Dr. Lewis C. Beck (q. v.) in regard to specimens led to a lasting friendship with Dr. John Torrey (q. v.), and in 1833 he became his assistant professor of chemistry and botany in the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons and issued the first century of the "North American Gramineæ and Cyperaceæ." A second century followed but the work was never finished.

Gray's next post was the curatorship of the New York Lyceum of Natural History and his "Elements of Botany," 1836, prepared the way for his larger work, the "Botanical Text-Book." He declined two valuable appointments and continued working with Dr. Torrey on parts one and two of the "Flora of North America." Then followed visits to all the leading European botanists and after that a single-handed grappling for a time with the other numbers.

In 1842 he accepted an invitation from President Quincy to become Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard and under him grew the vast herbarium, library and garden which at the time of his going to Cambridge were still in their infancy. The library contains over 8,000 books and pamphlets.

Always at work, 1848 saw the "Americas Boreali-Orientalis Illustrata," beautifully illustrated by Isaac Sprague. The two volumes had 186 plates, but unfortunately the work was not continued.

Perhaps the memory of his own pleasures and difficulties with botany when a boy made him write two charming little books—"How Plants Grow," 1858, and "How Plants Behave," 1872. "Field, Forest and Garden," 1868, proved a wonderful help to plant lovers. "His First Lesson in Botany," 1857, reappeared, revised, in 1887 under "Elements of Botany," the two volumes being the alpha and omega of an overcrowded but fiery burning life. How much he did in the way of collecting and writing can only be estimated by those who knew how he kept in constant correspondence with old pupils and scientific friends. Those who are curious relative to the friendship between Gray and Darwin will find it all in "Darwiniana," 1876, and will note that Gray, while accepting Darwin's theory, was a firm theist.

He wrote many biographical sketches, among them being lives of Jacob Bigelow, John Torrey and Jeffries Wyman. For many years he was one of the editors of the American Journal of Science.

Gray was relieved from active duties in the college in 1872 and gave more time to literary work. When he was seventy-five the botanists of North America gave him a silver vase and a silver salver in token of their universal esteem.

Jane L. Loring, daughter of the Hon. Charles G. Loring of Boston, was the name of Gray's wife, a devoted companion and assistant. They made five trips to Europe, working with De Candolle, Sir William Hooker, and with European botanists. Once they went up the Nile as far as Wady-Halfa, but "a land," said Gray, "which had been cultivated five thousand years is a poor land to botanize in."

There was scarcely a society of note which did not claim Gray as active, honorary or corresponding member or give him honors. He held the Edinburgh LL. D. and the Oxford D. C. L., the Harvard A. M. and LL. D.

He made three trips to California with congenial friends, taking in Mexico; the last trip being in 1879 when they visited Roan Mountain and the place where grows the Shortia Galacifolia, whose romantic history and connection with Gray and Dr. Short should be read.

On the twenty-eighth of November, 1887, while working on "The Grapevines of North America," he had an attack of paralysis and for nine weeks lingered between life and death. On the thirtieth of January, 1888, he quietly passed away. His influence on the science of American botany can hardly be overestimated, and hundreds regretted sorely that death closed the book before the "Synoptical Flora" was all written.

A Notice of Asa Gray by W. Deane, 1888.
Bull. Torrey Botanical Club, March, 1888.
Life and Letters of Asa Gray. Pop. Sci. Mon., 1894–5.
Am. Acad. of Arts and Sci., Cam., 1888.
Proc. Roy. Soc. of London, 1889, vol. xlvi.
Nat. Acad. of Sci., Wash., 1895, vol. iii.
Some Amer. Med. Botanists, H. A. Kelly. 1914.
There is a portrait in the Surg.-gen.'s Library in Wash., D. C.