Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/September 1873/The Late Professor John Torrey, M.D. LL.D.



WHEN we proposed to present the portrait of Prof. Torrey in our gallery of eminent scientists, we little thought we should be called to speak of him, in our sketch of his labors, as of the past. For several years his health had been so delicate as to cause anxiety to his family and friends, and he each succeeding winter seemed to be more susceptible to atmospheric changes. Late last winter he had a severe attack of pneumonia, which left him so weak that he was unable to rally, and his death, which was in a measure sudden, occurred on March 10th.

Dr. John Torrey was born in 1796, and was consequently, at the time of his death, in his seventy-seventh year. He was a native of the city of New York, having been born, if we mistake not, in John Street. We recollect hearing him say that, when a boy of some twelve years of age, he was sent of an errand as far as Canal Street, and that he considered it a great hardship to be obliged to go so far into the country after dark. He had in youth a strong liking for machinery, and at one time had the intention of becoming a machinist, but chemistry offered still greater attractions, and he finally concluded to study medicine. His mechanical talent was in after-years of great service to Dr. Torrey, as it enabled him to devise and construct various ingenious forms of apparatus for the illustration of his lectures. While quite a young man he entered the office of Dr. Post, then one of the leading physicians of the city. At that day physicians dispensed their own medicines, and it was the duty of the office-students to prepare the various powders, tinctures, etc., and put up the prescriptions for the patients. The writer has frequently heard Prof. Torrey refer to the great value this experience was to him in after-life, as it gave him an early training in chemical manipulation such as the medical students of the present day rarely acquire.

Dr. Torrey took his degree at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York about the year 1820. He never liked the practice of medicine, and did not try very earnestly to become established in it, and we find him, in 1824, entering upon the duties of Professor of Chemistry at the United States Military Academy at West Point. We may here remark that Dr. Torrey's scientific life was twofold. While he is, perhaps, best known to the world as a botanist, it was as a chemist that he found his remunerative occupation. From the time of his acceptance of the chair at West Point, up to the day of his death, he was engaged either in teaching chemistry or in some position to which his profound chemical knowledge adapted him. In 1827 he was called to the chair of Chemistry in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which he occupied until 1854, and during a portion of this time he was also Professor of Chemistry at Princeton, where he was associated with Prof. Henry.

In 1854 the United States Assay-Office was established in New York, and Prof. Torrey was appointed assayer, a position of great responsibility, which he held at the time of his death. He was also consulting chemist to the Manhattan Gas Company, and was often engaged as adviser to establishments where chemical knowledge was required. In early life Prof. Torrey was an enthusiastic mineralogist, and the first and following volumes of Silliman's Journal contain important contributions made by him to this science. Before he had received his medical degree, Dr. Torrey became one of the founders of the New York Lyceum of Natural History, and was one of the eleven corporators named in the charter of that institution. Early in the history of the Lyceum he was elected president, an office which he filled for several years. In the first number of the Annals we find a botanical paper from him, and the earlier volumes of this publication are enriched by some of his most important contributions to science.

The botanical career of Prof. Torrey commenced while he was yet a student of medicine. His first botanical publication was "A Catalogue of Plants growing spontaneously within Thirty Miles of the City of New York." This was presented to the Lyceum in 1817, but was not published until 1819. This work, which consists of 100 pages, is now exceedingly rare, and chance copies offered at sales of libraries bring fabulous prices. We find quoted in this catalogue the names of those who were distinguished botanists half a century ago, the author acknowledging aid from Mitchell, Nuttall, Rafinesque, Eaton, Eddy, Le Conte, Cooper, and others. When we consider the youth of the author, barely twenty-one, we must regard this catalogue as a remarkable performance. Only those who have undertaken similar works can appreciate the amount of labor necessary to its production, and botanists who go over the same ground at the present day wonder at the completeness of this catalogue. It gives us some idea of the astonishing growth of the city to read in this catalogue some of the author's favorite localities, such as "Love Lane," "Bogs near Greenwich," and "Swamp behind the Botanic Garden," places that have long been covered by paved streets and brick and brown-stone blocks. When we read that one rare plant is found "in sandy fields, above Canal Street," we get a glimpse of what the New York of the author's youth must have been. We have dwelt thus upon this catalogue, as it is the precursor of a list of most valuable botanical publications which we can here only enumerate in chronological order:

1820. "A Notice of Plants collected by Captain N. Douglass around the Great Lakes at the Head-waters of the Mississippi."—(Silliman's Journal, vol. iv.)

1823. "Descriptions of some New or Rare Plants from the Rocky Mountains, collected by Dr. Edwin James."—(Annals of the New York Lyceum of Natural History.)

1824. "A Flora of the Northern and Middle United States, or a Systematic Arrangement and Description of all the Plants heretofore discovered in the United States north of Virginia." Elliott's "Botany of South Carolina and Georgia" was being published in numbers at the time Dr. Torrey commenced this Flora, which, as he says in his preface, was intended as a "counterpart" to Elliott's work. Like Elliott's work, his was issued in numbers, and the first volume was completed in 1824. But one volume of this work was published, and, as a portion of the edition was destroyed by fire, it is now only rarely to be met with. It contains over 500 pages, and includes the first twelve classes of the Limuean system, the species being described with a clearness and minuteness and the synonymy elaborated with a care not heretofore displayed in any work upon American botany. It was the first work in which our Northern grasses were treated in a thorough manner, and students of the Graminaceœ at the present day find this a most useful work of reference. At an early day the author foresaw that the Linnæan system must be superseded by the natural system of Jussieu. This consideration, together with the loss of a large part of the first volume, led him to abandon the work. In order to supply the immediate wants of students, he prepared a compendium, which gave brief descriptions of the plants contained in the first volume of the Flora and of those which would have been included in the second volume.

1824. "Descriptions of New Grasses from the Rocky Mountains."—(Annals of the Lyceum.)

1824. (Joint author with Schweinitz.) "A Monograph of the North American Species of Carex."—(Annals of the Lyceum.)

1826. "Compendium of the Flora of the Northern and Middle States"—a full, concise, and compact work, referred to above.

1826. "Some Account of a Collection of Plants made during a Journey to and from the Rocky Mountains in the Summer of 1820, by Edwin P. James, M. D., Assistant-Surgeon United States Army." This paper was read before the Lyceum in 1826, but was not published until 1828. It is a memoir of some 80 pages, and enumerates 481 plants, many of which were new species. This was, up to the date of its publication, the author's most important contribution to science, and is even now frequently referred to by the student of our Western plants. Besides, it has an especial interest, as it was the first American work of any importance in which the arrangement was according to the natural system. The only earlier publication in which the natural system was used being a list by Abbé Correa, of the genera in Muhlenburgh's catalogue, arranged according to the natural orders of Jussieu.

1831. "A Catalogue of North American Genera of Plants, arranged according to the Orders of Lindley's Introduction to Botany." This was published both in a separate form and as an Appendix to an American edition of Lindley's work.

1836. "A Monograph of the Cyperaceæ."—(Annals of the Lyceum.)

1837. "New Genera and Species of Plants."

1838. "The Flora of North America, by John Torrey and Asa Gray," was commenced and published in numbers, and at irregular intervals, until the year 1843. Dr. Asa Gray, then a young physician in Western New York, who had already shown great acuteness in his investigations of the flora of the part of the State in which he resided, was happily associated with Dr. Torrey in this great undertaking of publishing a "Flora of North America." The work was suspended with the completion of the "Composition," and for sufficient reasons. Just at this time our Government began to explore its Western territory, soon greatly enlarged by the annexation of Texas and the acquisitions by the war with Mexico. New botanical material accumulated at an astonishing rate, and our chief botanists had to choose between continuing the Flora, and allowing these botanical treasures to pass into other hands. They wisely determined to devote themselves to elaborating the new material, knowing that this work would be contributing to the future flora of North America, which, from the enlarged possessions and more thorough exploration of the older territory, must be taken up de novo. Both authors have industriously worked at the collections brought home by the various government and private explorers; those wholly or in large part by Dr. Torrey are here enumerated.

1843. "The Flora of the State of New York," being a portion of "The Natural History of New York." This work is in two large quarto volumes, of over 500 pages each, and illustrated with 161 plates. The descriptions are all redrawn, elaborate, and in a somewhat popular style. It is a most striking testimony to the industry of the author, who, while engaged upon this work, and making important explorations incidental to it, was at the same time discharging his professional duties at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and at Princeton.

1843. "The Report of Nicollet's Expedition" was published this year, with an appendix by Dr. Torrey, containing an account of the plants collected.

1845. "Catalogue of Plants collected by Lieutenant Fremont in an Expedition to the Rocky Mountains;" and, in the same volume, (Fremont's Report) "Descriptions of some New Genera and Species of Plants collected in Captain J. C. Fremont's Exploring Expedition to Oregon and North California, in the Years 1843 and 1844. By John Torrey and J. C. Fremont."

1848. "Appendix to Emory's Reconnaissance," giving an account of the plants, many of which were new, collected in this expedition.

1852. "Catalogue of Plants collected by Captain Howard Stansbury in his Expedition to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah."

1853. "Plantæ Fremontianæ; or, Descriptions of Plants collected by Colonel J. C. Fremont in California."—(Smithsonian Contributions, vol. vi.)

1853. "On the Darlingtonia Californica, a New Pitcher-plant from Northern California.—(Smithsonian Contributions, loc. cit.)

1853. "Observations on the Batis Maritima of Linmeus."—(Smithsonian Contributions, loc. cit.)

1853. "Description of Plants collected in Captain Marcy's Exploration of the Red River of Louisiana."

1854. "Botany of Captain Sitgreaves's Expedition to the Zuni and Colorado Rivers."

1855-'60. These years saw the publication of the Reports of the Pacific Railroad Survey. As the reports were not published in the order in which they were written, we enumerate them in the succession in which they occur in the volumes:

Vol. II. "Botany of Captain Pope's Expedition." "Botany of Lieutenant Beckwith's Expedition." "Botany of Captain Gunnison's Survey." In these three memoirs Prof. Asa Gray was joint author.

Vol. IV. "Botany of Whipple's Expedition."

Vol. V. "Botany of Lieutenant Williamson's Report."

Vol. VIII. "Botany of Lieutenant Parke's Expedition."

1859. "Botany of the Mexican Boundary Survey." This is by far the most voluminous of all the Government Reports.

1861. "Botany of Lieutenant Ives's Colorado Exploring Expedition."

We do not include here the contributions of Dr. Torrey to the memoirs of Prof. Gray and others, for which he frequently elaborated genera and families; nor do we enumerate his minor contributions to the sciences.

Nearly all of these memoirs are illustrated by engravings, and some of them profusely so. Dr. Torrey rarely attempted to give the portrait of a plant, leaving that to the professional draughtsman; but in all the sketches showing minute structure—that which gave the illustrations their greatest value to the botanist—his ready pencil found frequent employment. He drew with great neatness and rapidity, and it was his custom to record his observations by means of sketches of remarkable distinctness and accuracy.

For several years subsequent to 1861 he was engaged in herbarium work. His removal to Columbia College, and the disposal of his most valuable collection to that institution, rendered it necessary that the accumulations of years, including numerous typical specimens, should be put into complete order. He entered into the drudgery of assorting, determining, labelling, and putting into the herbarium the mass of unarranged material, with the same industry and zeal that he brought to more congenial work. No other hands than his could have completed this important task, and botanists have reason to be grateful that he was spared long enough to put this, in some respects, the most important herbarium in the country, in proper condition for study and reference.

This work being completed, we find him, though advanced in life, again contributing to his favorite science, and, in 1870, "The Revision of the Eriogoneæ," the joint production of himself and Prof. Asa Gray, was published in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Upon the return of Wilkes's exploring expedition, the botanical collections were divided between Drs. Torrey and Gray, except the Cryptogamia, which were given to several specialists. In this division Dr. Gray took the extra-American share, while those collected upon our Pacific coast were elaborated by Dr. Torrey. Before his memoir could be published, the civil war came on, and stopped all appropriations for such work. Last winter, the proposition to publish was revived, and the last botanical work of Dr. Torrey was to take up, during a rally from his fatal illness, this long-delayed manuscript of the botany of Wilkes's expedition, and prepare it for the press. Although his mind was as clear and his perceptions as acute as ever, his strength was unequal to the task. It will be published as a posthumous work, under the supervision of his intimate friend and associate of many years, Dr. Gray.

This enumeration of his scientific labors would be incomplete without reference to his great work in educating others in science. In the various professorships he held he was always to the students a loved instructor, and many now eminent in science can trace the commencement of their careers to the teachings of Dr. Torrey. Not only in the class-room, but out of it, was his influence constantly exerted, and he was always surrounded by a circle of young men who never came to him in vain for sympathy and encouragement. He gave to such what was better than pecuniary aid, comfort, hope, and help in its best sense. There is many a chemist, now standing high in his profession, who owes his position to his kindly aid, and scarcely a botanist in the country who has not been a recipient of favors from his ever-open hand.

As trustee of Columbia College and of Princeton, he was largely influential in giving scientific studies their proper prominence in these institutions. It was through his influence, more than to that of any other one person, that the "School of Mines" was established. He always took the liveliest interest in its progress, and its ultimate success was to him a source of great gratification.

A few years ago the botanists of New York and vicinity formed an association, to which they gave the name of the Torrey Botanical Club. The club, from small beginnings, became so large that it was thought best that it should become a chartered body, and an act of incorporation was granted, and Dr. Torrey was elected the first president under the charter. This election took place when he was too ill to attend the meeting of the club, and he never assumed the office.

When we come to speak of Dr. Torrey as a man, aside from his scientific work, we feel embarrassed. Were we to say all that we feel, those who did not know him might regard it as extravagant; and, if we are guarded in our expressions, those who knew him well might think we had not done him justice. Soon after his death, one who had known him long said to us, "He is the only man I ever knew of whom it could be said he was truly lovable." "Truly lovable" expresses his character more completely than any other words. However highly we who knew him well may estimate him as a man of science, there is something beyond and beneath this that we admire; and, when we recall Dr. Torrey, it is not as the patient chemist or the acute botanist, but as the friend. It rarely happens to one to possess the peculiar personal attractiveness that was his. There was something about him that invited confidence, and that in advance promised sympathy. When we come to analyze this influence, we are forced to conclude that it was his perfect unselfishness. It was this that drew to him the affections of persons in all walks of life, for there are few who have so many friends as he had, and we doubt that, in dying, he left an enemy behind him. A devoted Christian, he never obtruded his Christianity, but let it appear in his every relation in life. Belonging to a denomination that is by some considered exceedingly strict, he was most charitable for the opinions of those who believed differently; and, while he followed the injunction to "do good to those of the household of faith," he allowed no sectarian lines to shut others out from his sympathy and aid. His faith in Christianity was too deeply grounded to be troubled by any fear that science might lead astray. He followed science with a devotion second only to that to his religion. Knowing that all truths are compatible, and that the researches of the chemist, the geologist, the physicist, or the botanist, can never reveal any thing that will displace God as the author and controller of all, he kept up with the most advanced scientific thought of the day, and remained until the last a devout Christian scientist.