Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/January 1889/Sketch of Moses Ashley Curtis
THE Rev. Moses Ashley Curtis, D. D., presents the example of a clergyman who, doing hard pioneer missionary work in the mountains of North Carolina, and caring actively and efficiently for the wants of his parish, brought the botany of his State to a full development. Making that study his pastime and recreation, "he found pleasure in the quiet of the fields and forests, and, without ever a thought of becoming a scientific botanist, amassed a wealth of knowledge and won an exalted position among the botanists of the world." His services to science have, nevertheless, been unaccountably overlooked. Although he was in constant co-operation with the most distinguished specialist in the world on fungi, although he contributed more than any other man to the knowledge of the botany of North Carolina, and particularly of its mountain-region, and was continually consulted and relied upon for information by Dr. Gray and other American botanists, his name does not appear in any cyclopædia or publicly circulated work. Our data for the present account of his career are derived from a sketch of his botanical work prepared by Dr. Thomas F. Wood, of Wilmington, N. C, and read by him before the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society of the University of North Carolina, in 1885.
Dr. Curtis was born in Stockbridge, Mass., May 11, 1808, and died in Hillsborough, N. C., in 1872. He was graduated from Williams College in 1827, and in 1830 became a tutor in the family of Governor Dudley, at Wilmington, N. C. He returned to Massachusetts in 1833, and spent two years in studying for the ministry, under the Rev. William Croswell. He returned to the South in the latter part of 1834, was married in December of that year, and, having continued his theological studies under the Rev. Dr. R. B. Drane, was ordained a clergyman in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1835. He immediately entered upon mission-work in western North Carolina, from Charlotte to the mountain country as far north as Morganton. Leaving this work at the end of 1836, he was engaged as a teacher in the Episcopal school at Raleigh during 1837 and 1838 and till May, 1839. During 1840 he performed missionary work about Washington, in Beaufort County; then, in 1841, became settled in Hillsborough for six years; removed, in 1847, to Society Hill, S. C, where he resided for nine years; and returned, in 1856, to Hillsborough, which was his home for the remainder of his life.
The first mention of Mr. Curtis's field studies in botany is associated with his residence and tutorship in Wilmington, where he devoted his leisure hours to the examination of the flora of the region. Especially on Saturdays he made excursions among the sand-hills and savannas near the village (it was then), close up to whose borders the pine-forests reached, "abounding with a flora rich and novel to the enthusiastic young botanist." In a little more than two seasons he made collections of 1,031 species, equivalent to about one fourth of the phenogamous flora of the United States as then known; most of the plants having been found within about two miles' radius of Wilmington, with a number of maritime species discovered at Smithville and several from Rocky Point. The results of these studies were given to the public as an "Enumeration of Plants growing spontaneously around Wilmington, North Carolina, with Remarks on some New Obscure Species," which appeared in the "Boston Journal of Natural History," September, 3, 1834. Most of the first edition of the publication was burned; but it was reprinted, with additions and emendations. Dr. Gray mentions this work as one of the first in America in which the names are accented; and Dr. Darlington commended Mr. Curtis, even at this beginning of his scientific career, as a careful observer and sagacious botanist. At this time the literature of American botany consisted chiefly of florulas or local floras, of which the best known were those of New York, by Dr. Samuel L. Mitchel and Major John le Conte; Boston, by Dr. Jacob Bigelow; Washington, by Dr. J. A. Brereton; and Lexington, Ky., by Prof. C. W. Short. In North Carolina, Prof. Elisha Mitchell and the Rev. Dr. L. De Schweinitz had been studying the plants; Mr. H. B. Croom and Dr. H. Loomis printed a catalogue of plants found growing in the neighborhood of Newbern, at nearly the same time that Mr. Curtis's work saw the light; Dr. James F. McCree, Sr., was cultivating botany at Wilmington, and, the two having learned to co-operate with each other, added several species to the catalogue, thirty-four in notes and a number in the catalogue proper; Dr. Cyrus L. Hunter had prepared a list of plants found in Lincoln County; while the Rev. Dr. Bachman, Mr. H. W. Ravenel, and Mr. Leitner were looking after the plants near their homes in South Carolina and Georgia.
"If there is such a thing as a scientific instinct," says Dr. Wood, "Mr. Curtis possessed it. He was habitually accurate in his studies, and the results were early relied upon by his correspondents. Coming into a new field of botanical study, it was quite natural that he should have directed his attention to the very local Dionæa muscipula. Saturday after Saturday he would visit the savannas, and, lying at length upon the ground, would watch its peculiarities. The popular description which he gave of it in the 'Enumeration of Plants around Wilmington' has been repeated for the last fifty years, and shows how greatly he possessed the gift of accurate and entertaining description." Dr. Gray says that in this note he "corrected the account of its wonderful action that had prevailed since the time of Linnæus, and confirmed the statement and inferences of the first scientific describer, Ellis—namely, that this plant not only captures insects, but consumes them, enveloping them in a mucilaginous fluid which appears to act as a solvent." The journeys which he had to make in pursuing his mission-work in the mountainous region were turned to the advantage of his botanical studies. He kept a portfolio under the cushion of his sulky, ready to receive any specimen which he might find; so that, when he reached the end of his journey, he had collected a considerable number of specimens to study during his leisure hours, or to mount permanently in his herbarium. Dr. Gray acknowledged himself greatly indebted to him for local information concerning the flora of this region, and said, in a paper in which he sketched the tours of the botanists who had visited the mountains of North Carolina in 1841, that no living botanist was so well acquainted with the vegetation of the Southern Alleghany Mountains, or had explored that of the State so extensively, as he. A half-century after the publication of the Wilmington catalogue, only about fifty species had been added to Mr. Curtis's list. One of these was the true maiden-hair fern (Adiantum capillus-Veneris), which was found by Mr. William M. Canby, of Wilmington, Del., in 1867, at Hilton Ferry. Specimens were immediately sent to Mr. Curtis, and he improved the first opportunity to visit the locality and see the plant in situ for himself.
Dr. Curtis's labors on the fungi began at least as early as 1846, when he became engaged in a correspondence with Mr. H. W. Ravenel, of South Carolina, a large collector in this department. About two years after this he entered into correspondence with the Rev. M. J. Berkeley, of England, concerning which we learn that that very distinguished authority on this subject became greatly attached to him "by reason of the ardor and accuracy with which he pursued the investigation of new species. ... Correspondence between these gentlemen continued for a number of years, and a scientific copartnership was formed which resulted in the addition of nearly five hundred new species (besides more than twelve hundred identified by De Schweinitz, chiefly in North Carolina) to the list up to 1867; and since Dr. Curtis's death a number of new species appeared in 'Grevillea,' under the joint authorship of Berkeley and Curtis." This new field of study was greatly to Dr. Curtis's liking, and he became very skillful in the microscopic work necessary to the determination of species. He became too devoted to it, perhaps, for his health was undermined in consequence of the close attention he gave to it. It was a genuine case of pure love of the work; for the stimuli and temptations to labor for distinction which exist now were wanting in his day; and thus he was led, almost unconsciously, to a very high station among American botanists. Concerning this, he remarked to Dr. Wood: "Nothing surprised me more than to be called a botanist at first. Although I had accomplished the survey of the phenogamous plants of the State, I still felt that I was comparatively not a botanist." Several years later than this—about 1855—he began to give special attention to the edible mushrooms. He finally became a kind of missionary and propagandist of mushroom-eating. In the catalogue of the plants of North Carolina he had indicated one hundred and eleven species of edible fungi known to inhabit the State; and he had no doubt that there were forty or fifty more, in the less explored Alpine regions. He was accustomed to distribute basketfuls of the choicest specimens among his friends, "until the divine art of mycophagy reached a good degree of cultivation, and many of them learned to distinguish for themselves the edible ones. Some members of his family became especially expert in foraging for the table among the mushrooms"; and his son used the knowledge thus acquired in preparing the colored illustrations for the contemplated work on "Edible Fungi." This book was projected during the civil war, when the food-question was a vital one in Southern households, and was intended to make popular the use of mushrooms. In it, Dr. Wood affirms, the author succeeded in divesting himself of every technicality, and indeed in describing minutely about forty of the one hundred and eleven species in language easy to be understood, and in an enticing manner. Illustrations and comparisons were occasionally drawn from foreign authors. The work failed to find a publisher.
Dr. Curtis's studies of plants embraced every feature and relation that he was able to bring under observation. "Just to name a flower and preserve it carefully in his herbarium," says Dr. Wood, "was to him but the beginning of his work. His earliest records show that he studied the relation of plant-life to geologic and climatic surroundings. The study of botanical geography was begun and continued during his whole career as a botanist, extending over thirty-eight years. The account he has given us in his 'Woody Plants' is to-day the best guide to the natural climatological divisions of the State which has ever been given. His studies were also directed to the numerous economic questions which met him in his intimate acquaintance with the treasures of the field and forest. It was this feature of his labors alone which brought him an audience in his adopted State, and with this object in view he brought together the material which he published as a part of the Geological and Natural History Survey, known best by the condensed title given to it by Prof. Emmons as the 'Woody Plants.' This volume, of one hundred and twenty-four pages, was printed by the State in 1860, and at once became a popular manual for the farmer and the woodsman, and for amateur botanists a key to the more conspicuous trees and shrubs useful for their fruit or timber or as ornaments. The key devised to enable one of no botanical knowledge to determine a given plant or shrub was founded upon the character of the fruit and distinguished by the common name. The preface of this little work is an introduction to the geographical distribution of plants in the State, and shows what a thorough acquaintance he had with the vast subject." The essay made prominent the exceptional position which North Carolina holds in respect to climate, soil, and forest products, by calling attention to the existence of a difference in elevation between the eastern and western parts, which gives a difference of climate equivalent to ten or twelve degrees of latitude. The work displays an accurate knowledge of common names, with all the local changes which they undergo. It has been liberally drawn from by subsequent writers, not always with due acknowledgment. In "A Commentary on the Natural History of Dr. Hawks's 'History of North Carolina,'" published in the "University Magazine" in 1860, Dr. Curtis corrected many errors into which the author had fallen by accepting the exaggerated and too highly colored accounts of the old travelers and explorers concerning the plant-growth of the State.
Dr. Curtis's "Catalogue of the Indigenous and Naturalized Plants" of North Carolina was published by the State in 1867 as a part of the Geological and Natural History Survey. At the time of its issue the author asserted that, comprising forty-eight hundred species, it was the most extensive local list of plants ever published in North America. It is claimed to have been the first attempt to enumerate the cryptogamous as well as the phenogamous plants ever made by any botanist in this country. It consisted of one hundred and fifty-eight pages of catalogue, with no scientific description, but a mere statement of the locality of each plant, and was the result of twenty-five years of botanical study over a territory of fifty thousand square miles. Pathological mycology had only begun to be studied in Dr. Curtis's lifetime. An incident related by Dr. Wood suggests that, had he engaged in this branch of investigation, he might have become a master of the subject. A group of doctors were examining some figures of microscopic fungi in Beale's "Microscope in Practical Medicine," and particularly the Oïdium albicans, which was supposed to be a cause of thrush. Dr. Curtis coming in, at once recognized a very familiar fungus, and, showing that the spores could only find lodgment when the soil was prepared to receive them, cautioned his friends against forming too hasty conclusions as to the disease-carrying properties of the fungi. Instead of being the cause of disease, they were as likely to be its result.
Dr. Curtis had an extensive correspondence with American and European botanists, who always recognized the part he took in the progress of the science in this country as important. Dr. Chapman dedicated the first edition of his "Flora of the Southern States" to him. The "American Journal of Science" in 1873, after his death, thus measured his work: "All our associate's work was marked by ability and conscientiousness. With a just appreciation both of the needs of science and of what he could best do under the circumstances, when he had exhausted the fields in phenogamous botany within his reach, he entered upon the inexhaustible ground of mycology, which had been neglected in this country since the time of Schweinitz. In this difficult department he investigated and published a large number of new species, as well as determined the old ones, and amassed an ample collection, the preservation of which is most important, comprising, as it does, the specimens, drawings, and original notes which are to authenticate his work. By his unremitting and well-directed labors, filling the intervals of honored and faithful professional life, he has richly earned the gratitude of the present and ensuing generations of botanists."
The bibliography of Dr. Curtis's writings includes "Enumeration of Plants growing spontaneously around Wilmington, N. C." (1834), twice reprinted with additions and emendations; "New and Rare Plants of North Carolina" (1842); "Contributions to Mycology of North America" (1848); "New and Rare Plants, chiefly of the Carolinas" (1849); "Contributions to Mycology of North America" (Berkeley and Curtis, 1849); "New Fungi collected by the Wilkes Exploring Expedition" (1851); "Geological and Natural History Survey of North Carolina; Part III, Botany, containing a Catalogue of the Plants of the State, with Description and History of the Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines" (1860); "A Commentary on the Natural History of Dr. Hawks's 'History of North Carolina'"(1860); "Esculent Fungi" (1866); "Geological and Natural History of North Carolina; Part III, Indigenous and Naturalized Plants" (1867); "Edible Fungi of North Carolina" (1839). The first of these works was published in the Boston "Journal of Natural History," and the last in the "Gardener's Chronicle," London. The others were published either in "Silliman's Journal" or as separate publications.