Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Torrey, John

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Appletons' Torrey John.jpg
Appletons' Torrey John signature.png

TORREY, John, botanist, b. in New York city, 15 Aug., 1796; d. there, 10 March, 1873. His father, Capt. William Torrey, served during the Revolutionary war. The son received his early education in public schools in New York city. In his youth he showed a fondness for mechanics, and at one time determined to become a machinist, but, coming under the influence of Amos Eaton, he was taught the structure of flowers with the rudiments of botany, and a knowledge of mineralogy and chemistry. In 1815 he began the study of medicine with Dr. Wright Post, and was graduated at the College of physicians and surgeons. He opened an office in New York city, and engaged in the practice of medicine, at the same time devoting his leisure to botany and other scientific pursuits. The medical profession was not congenial to him, and on 5 Aug., 1824, he entered the U. S. army as assistant surgeon, serving at the U. S. military academy as acting professor of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology until his resignation, 31 Aug., 1828. In 1827 he was chosen professor of chemistry and botany in the College of physicians and surgeons in New York city, and he continued in that place until 1855, when he was made professor emeritus. He was also professor of chemistry at Princeton in 1830-'54, and of chemistry, mineralogy, and botany at the University of the city of New York in 1832-'3. In 1853, on the establishment of the U. S. assay-office in New York city, Dr. Torrey was appointed assayer, which office he continued to fill until his death. He was frequently consulted by the treasury department on matters pertaining to the coinage and currency, and was sent on special missions at various times to visit the different mints. In 1856 he was chosen a trustee of Columbia, and in 1860, having presented the college with his herbarium, numbering about 50,000 specimens, he was made emeritus professor of chemistry and botany. On the consolidation of the College of physicians and surgeons with Columbia in 1860, he was chosen one of its trustees, and his emeritus professorships continued. His advice was frequently sought on scientific subjects by various corporations. Dr. Torrey's earliest publications in the “American Journal of Science” treat of mineralogy. In 1817 he became one of the founders of the New York lyceum of natural history (now the New York academy of science), and one of his first contributions to this body is a “Catalogue of Plants growing spontaneously within Thirty Miles of the City of New York” (Albany, 1819). Its publication gained for him the recognition of foreign and native botanists. He undertook in 1820 the examination of the plants that had been collected around the head-waters of the Mississippi by Prof. David B. Douglass, and during the same year the collections made by Dr. Edwin James, while with the expedition that was sent out to the Rocky mountains under Maj. Stephen H. Long, were submitted to him. His report was the earliest treatise of its kind in this country that was arranged on the natural system. Dr. Torrey, in the mean time, had planned “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,” and in 1824 began its publication in parts, but it was soon suspended owing to the general adoption of the natural system of Jussieu in place of that of Linnæus. In 1836, on the organization of the geological survey of New York, he was appointed botanist, and required to prepare a flora of the state. His report, consisting of two quarto volumes, was issued in 1843, and no other state in the Union has yet produced a flora to compare with it. He began in 1838, with Asa Gray, “The Flora of North America,” which was issued in numbers irregularly until 1843, when they had completed the “Compositæ,” but new botanical material accumulated at such a rapid rate that it was deemed best to discontinue it. Subsequently Dr. Torrey published reports on the plants that were collected by John C. Frémont in the expedition to the Rocky mountains (1845); those gathered by Maj. William H. Emory on the reconnoissance from Fort Leavenworth, Mo., to San Diego, Cal. (1848); the specimens secured by Capt. Howard Stansbury on his expedition to the Great Salt Lake of Utah (1852); the plants collected by John C. Frémont in California (1853); those brought back from the Red river of Louisiana by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy (1853); and the botany of Capt. Lorenzo Sitgreaves's expedition to the Zuni and Colorado rivers (1854); also memoirs on the botany of the various expeditions for the purpose of determining the most practicable route for a Pacific railroad (1855-'60). He also reported on the “Botany of the Mexican Boundary Survey” (1859), that of the expedition upon the Colorado river of the West under Lieut. Joseph C. Ives (1861), and, in association with Asa Gray, the botanical collections of the Wilkes exploring expedition. The last was in his hands at the time of his death, its publication having been delayed by the civil war. The Torreya taxifolia, an ornamental shade-tree in the southern states, was named in his honor, and the Torreya Californica of California, the Torreya nucifera of Japan, .and the Torreya grandis of northern China, bear his name. The association of botanists that originally met at his residence were chartered as the Torrey botanical club, and he was its first president. Besides being the last surviving charter-member of the Lyceum of natural history, he held its vice-presidency for several years, and was president in 1824-'6 and 1838, holding the same office in the American association for the advancement of science in 1855, and he was one of the original members of the National academy of science, being named as such by act of congress in 1863. The degree of A. M. was conferred on him by Yale in 1823, and that of LL D. by Amherst in 1845. His bibliography is extensive, including contributions on botanical subjects to scientific periodicals and to the transactions of the societies of which he was a member. A sketch of his life by his pupil and life-long associate, Asa Gray, was contributed to the “Biographical Memoirs” of the National academy of sciences (Washington, 1877).