The Extraordinary Life of Asa Gray, 1810-1888

Some ten years ago I spent, by invitation, an evening at [Asa Gray’s] house, in order to unfold to him a little of the story of our common ancestors in Worcester […] He was canny, absorbed, analytic, comprehensive, religiously consecrated

– Rev. A. L. Perry, Professor of History and Politics at Williams College from 1854 to 1905

Asa Gray was born in 1810 in Paris, New York. His family were descendants of Matthew Gray, one of the first Scotch-Irish arrivals to Massachusetts in 1718.

Gray trained to become a medical doctor, obtaining his MD from Fairfield College in 1831 – but the very next year he was invited to teach a number of sciences, including botany, at the Utica Gymnasium, and botany was always his first love. He was to become “the most accomplished botanist in the world”, according to his relative Arthur Latham Perry, and eventually published of its time the only complete and comprehensive guide to North American flora. He also knew Charles Darwin, and is credited with bringing Darwinian theory to America for the first time as one of his earliest and most enthusiastic supporters. His 1876 work Darwiniana is a collection of essays on evolutionary theory.

Gray’s work at the New York Lyceum of Natural History led Jeremiah Reynolds to invite him to join the scientific team of the U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1836. The expedition was supposed to explore the Pacific Ocean and South Seas, but was delayed largely due to political circumstances. In 1838 Gray resigned from the expedition and accepted a professorship in botany at the University of Michigan. The University sent him to Europe the same year, ostensibly to obtain new books for the University syllabus and library – but Gray used the opportunity to network, building a rapport with many leading European scientists.

In 1842 Harvard University offered him a permanent place as Professor of Natural History thanks to the Fisher fund of $30,000.

By the mid-1840s he was a respected and honored member of the most highly regarded scientific and historical societies in the world, including the Royal Society of London and the French Institute.

From 1844 until his death at the age of 79, Asa Gray lived in Cambridge, MA, in a house on Garden Street which is now a National Historic Landmark. Such is Professor Gray’s legacy that although the house is officially recorded as the ‘Garden House’, it is better known as the ‘Asa Gray House’.

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Sources: 

Rev. A. L. Perry, The Scotch-Irish in America. Library Ireland, 2018. Available at: https://www.libraryireland.com/articles/ScotchIrishNewEnglandCongress1890/index.php

“Asa Gray”, Perry’s Perennial Pages. University of Vermont, 2018. Available at: http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/agray.html 

“Botany at Harvard, 1805-1840s”, Bicentennial Celebration of Asa Gray. Harvard College, 2010. Available at: http://botlib.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/Gray_Bicent/harvard_professor.html 


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