Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/August 1872/Sketch of Prof. Gray

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 1 August 1872  (1872) 
Sketch of Prof. Gray
PSM V01 D506 Asa Gray.jpg
President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


WHEN we enumerate the few great living botanists, the list must include Dr. Asa Gray, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University. To the average reader, this may not imply any great distinction, as a botanist is too commonly looked upon as merely one who can call plants by name. Making specimens and naming plants no more make a botanist than taking an altitude makes an astronomer.

It is not our purpose to show here the scope of botany, nor to consider its claims to an equal rank with other departments of science.

Suffice it to say that it affords exercise for the keenest observation and the most skilful diagnosis; that the closest reasoning, the most thoughtful weighing of evidence, the acutest application of the logic of facts, in short, those qualities of mind that are required in any other scientific pursuit, are demanded of one who would take a high rank as a botanist. We would not be understood as speaking disparagingly of the humbler laborers in botany, for each one in his way does something for the general good. In all sciences the units are accumulated by patient workers whose isolated facts seem to have but little importance of themselves, but, when brought by some master-mind into relation with other facts, they often prove to be the missing links to a heretofore incomplete chain.

Prof. Gray was born at Paris, Oneida County, New York, November 18, 1810, and took the degree of M. D. at Fairfield College in 1831, but relinquished the medical profession for the purpose of prosecuting the study of botany. He was appointed botanist to the United States Exploring Expedition, in 1834, but, in consequence of the delay of that enterprise, resigned his post in 1837. He was elected Professor of Botany in the University of Michigan, but, before that institution went into operation, he took the position of Fisher Professor of Natural History in Harvard University, in 1842, where he now is.

One of the earliest if not the very first contribution of Dr. Gray to botanical literature is his "North American Gramineæ and Cyperaceæ." Two volumes of this were published in 1834-35, each containing a hundred species, illustrated by dried specimens. Several new species were described in these volumes, and much was done toward revising the characters and synonymes of the older ones. The work was published by subscription, and, from the labor involved in its preparation, only a limited edition could be sent out. It is now a very rare work, but one which must be quoted by whoever would write upon the grasses or sedges of North America.

A paper was read before the New York Lyceum of Natural History, in December, 1834, entitled "A Notice of Some New, Rare, or Otherwise Interesting Plants from the Northern and Western Portions of the State of New York, by Asa Gray, M. D." This first brought its author prominently before the botanists of the day. It was a matter of no little surprise that a young man, working in a field heretofore thought to be well explored, should not only bring to light several new species, but clear up the confusion that surrounded many which had long been kept in a state of uncertainty by the older botanists.

In 1838, the first part of the "Flora of North America" appeared under the joint authorship of John Torrey, M. D. and Asa Gray, M. D. It proposed to give "abridged descriptions of all the known indigenous and naturalized plants growing north of Mexico." This was published in numbers from time to time, and was suspended at the end of Compositæ. The value and thoroughness of this work, the faithfulness with which it embodied all that was known of our plants up to the time of publication, can only be appreciated by those who have had occasion to use the work. It is so frequently quoted as "Torrey and Gray," that had these two eminent coworkers made no other contributions to the science, they would still be accorded the title of our first botanists. The union of these botanists upon the Flora was most fortunate, as each had special fondness for certain parts of the work, and thus, the labor being divided, the whole became more complete than if either had undertaken the entire task. If we mistake not, the Compositæ of the Flora was mainly the work of Dr. Gray—a task the difficulties of which can only be appreciated by working botanists. The relations between the authors of the Flora have been charming to those whose pleasure it has been to know of them, and are most touchingly expressed by Dr. Gray in the dedication of his Manual in 1867, in which he writes: "To John Torrey, LL. D. Almost twenty years have passed since the first edition of this work was dedicated to you—more than thirty since, as your pupil, I began to enjoy the advantage of being associated with you in botanical pursuits and in a lasting friendship. The flow of time has only deepened the sense of gratitude due to you from your attached friend." We have said thus much about Torrey and Gray, for it is not possible to speak of the botanical career of one without reference to the other.

It was stated that the "Flora of North America" was suspended with the completion of the Composite Family. When the work had reached this point the phrase "growing north of Mexico" had a widely-different meaning from that expressed by the same term when the work was commenced. The annexation of Texas, the acquisition of California and other territory by the Mexican War and, later, the Gadsden Purchase, changed not only our geographical but our phytographical boundaries. Individual and government explorations were pushed not only into the newly-acquired Territories, but our older possessions were more thoroughly examined, and materials came in at such a rate that to continue the Flora as then commenced would require an appendix larger than itself. Each of its authors then occupied himself with studying the new materials as they came to hand, and in giving their results to the scientific world. This interruption of the Flora was followed by the publication, by both Dr. Gray and Dr. Torrey, of a series of most valuable botanical memoirs, sometimes conjointly, but oftener separately. These may be found in the various Government Reports, and in the transactions of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the Smithsonian Institution, and other learned bodies.

The most conspicuous of these contributions to our North American Botany by Dr. Gray are, "Plantæ Lindheimerianæ" giving an account of the plants collected in "Western Texas, by F. Lindheimer; in this memoir he was aided by Dr. George Engelmann; "Plantæ Fendlerianæ Novi-Mexicanæ" a description of the plants collected in New Mexico, by Aug. Fendler; "Plantæ Wrightianæ Texano-Neo-Mexicanæ" describing the extensive collections of Charles Wright, A. M. This paper is in two parts, and illustrated. Another memoir, "Plantæ, Nbvæ Thurberianæ" though shorter than those already named, is important as describing an unusual number of new genera and species. These contributions are not confined to the working up of the materials of the particular collections of which they treat, but in many cases whole genera are elucidated and rearranged in a masterly manner.

These memoirs are mentioned out of their chronological sequence, as they may be considered, as well as those published by Dr. Torrey, as material accumulated for the use of whoever may undertake that Flora of North America for which botanists are hopefully looking.

In 1848 appeared the first volume of "Genera Floræ Americæ Boreali-Orientalis Illustrata" or, as it is best known, under its shorter title, "Gray's Genera." The object of this work was to give a typical specimen of one or more species of each genus of North American plants, with accurate analyses. The drawings for this work were made by Isaac Sprague, and for accuracy of detail and neatness of execution have not been excelled. Two volumes, containing one hundred plates each, were published, when, to the regret of all American botanists, the publication was suspended for the same reasons that we have given for the discontinuance of the "Flora."

The most voluminous and in some respects the most important of Dr. Gray's contributions to science relate to extra-American botany; we refer to the "Botany of the United States Exploring Expedition." All the various collections made by the expedition of Commodore Charles Wilkes, during the years 1838-1842, save those collected upon our own Pacific coast, were placed in Dr. Gray's hands for elaboration. The collection comprised plants from widely-separated, insular, and continental floras, and the work was one which a less able botanist would have hesitated to undertake. How well the task was performed, two elegant volumes, which are better known in Europe than they are with us, stand as abundant evidence.

In this brief résumé of his labors, in systematic botany, we can but merely allude to a host of opuscula, or minor contributions—minor only in reference to their size, but of the highest value in their relations to science. These exist in the form of contributions to scientific journals, and to the proceedings of societies or academies. Some are devoted to the clearing up a knotty point in physiology or in classification; some contain the revision of a whole family or genus; while others are devoted to the working up of smaller collections than those comprised in the memoirs already referred to. Nor must we overlook the contributions which for years have appeared in almost every number of the American Journal of Science and Arts, of which Dr. Gray has long been one of the editors. In these notes the American reader has been kept au courant with all the best work of European botanists.

Such is an imperfect enumeration of our first botanist's contributions to the science; but there remains a greater than these to mention—his elementary works. However we value his labors in the higher departments of science, we render him our gratitude when we look upon what he has done to open a welcome door, through which not only the student, but the reader of average intelligence, and even the child, can enter the heretofore exclusive domain of Botany. Those who now take up the study of botany can have little idea of the difficulties that beset us of a generation or so ago. Where we groped and guessed, doubtful whether we were on the right path or the wrong one, the way is now made clear. The old rubbish is brushed aside, and the student now can walk in pleasant paths, guided by the clearest light of modern science. It is his untiring efforts to popularize science (in the true sense of the word) that has given Dr. Gray a lasting claim upon all who are interested in education and culture. As early as 1836, he published the "Elements of Botany," which grew into the "Structural and Systematic Botany," or "Botanical Text-Book," of the present day, a work that, through its various editions, has kept pace with discovery, and at each issue has stood as the best exponent of the state of vegetable physiology in any language.

In 1848 appeared the "Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States," in which our Flora was presented in a compact volume, with concise descriptions. This admirable work has passed through several editions, each one an improvement upon its predecessor, and it now stands unequalled as a local Flora.

When this work first appeared, distinguished botanists abroad thought it either a waste of time or beneath their dignity to be engaged upon popular works; but of late years we find that the most eminent of them are putting out their "Hand-books" and "Popular Floras."

As highly as we value the "Text-Book," we think that in books of this character his "First Lessons" is not only a superior work, but the best work upon elementary science of any kind that we are acquainted with. It is indeed a wonderful attempt at popularizing science. What are considered abstruse points in physiology are told with such a matter-of-fact simplicity, that the reader is charmed as with a tale, and, after reading it, is in possession of more of the philosophy of botany than he could obtain from a dozen more pretentious volumes. We can only just allude to his charming works for young people, "How Plants Grow" and "How Plants Behave," works which, though written for children, will be found to contain bits of wisdom for older heads.

The work that we have indicated implies a great amount of labor, and Dr. Gray is essentially a worker. No mechanic goes to his daily task more faithfully or continues at it with more assiduity than he. Very few, who are not familiar with the laboratories and studios of scientific men, have any idea of the amount of labor performed in them. Their work is by the many looked upon as a sort of half play, not to be compared, in its demand upon the physical and mental resources, with the daily task of the book-keeper or cashier. There are not many who work harder than Dr. Gray, but, when work is over, few more keenly enjoy the relaxation. One of our pleasantest recollections of him is seeing him, after a hard day's work, engaged in a rough-and-tumble frolic with an enormous Newfoundlander.

It is supposed by many that a student's life diminishes bodily vigor. We can name several striking illustrations to the contrary, and eminent among them is the subject of our sketch. We have not tried a walk with him for several years, but we venture to say that few young men of twenty could take an afternoon's tramp with him and not feel a sense of relief when the excursion was ended.

Outside of the domain of botany, Prof. Gray's contributions to literature are not a few, but, as these were contributed to the North American Review and other magazines anonymously, their authorship is not known outside of a small circle. Some of his reviews are remarkable specimens of acute criticism, in which the subject could forget the sharpness with which he was flayed, in admiration at the dexterity of the operator. The estimation in which Dr. Gray is held by his scientific compeers is attested by the fact that he has for several years been the president of that distinguished body of scientists, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is for the current year the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.