Asa Gray

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Gray, Asa,

1810–88, one of America's leading botanists and taxonomists, b. Oneida co., N.Y. As professor of natural history at Harvard from 1842, he was the teacher of many eminent botanists. Through his voluminous writings in periodicals and his well-known textbooks, he helped popularize the study of botany. With John Torrey he explored the W United States and helped to revise the taxonomic procedure of Linnaeus on the basis of a more natural classification. Gray's Manual of Botany was edited by M. L. Fernald (8th centennial ed. 1950); it is a standard reference work for the flora of the United States E of the Rocky Mts. He initiated the quarterly Gray Herbarium Card Index, listing all the vascular plants of the Western Hemisphere described since 1873. Among his many other writings, which are still highly valued, are Structural Botany (6th ed. 1879) and The Elements of Botany (1887).


See his letters (ed. by J. L. Gray, 1893, repr. 1973); biography by A. H. Dupree (1968).

Gray, Asa


Born Nov. 18, 1810, in Paris; died Jan. 30, 1888, in Cambridge, Mass. American botanist.

Gray became a professor at Harvard University in 1842 and created one of the world’s richest herbaria there. He was one of the most important investigators of the flora of North America and author of a number of textbooks and guides in the field of botany. Together with C. Lyell, he persuaded C. Darwin (1858) to hasten publication of his theory of the origin of species. He participated actively in the dissemination and defense of Darwin’s ideas.


Dupree, A. H. Asa Gray: 1810–1888. Cambridge (Massachusetts). 1959.

Gray, Asa

(1810–88) botanist; born in Sauquoit, N.Y. He received his M.D. in 1831, but relinquished medicine after a year's practice to pursue his interest in botany. He taught high school science in Utica, N.Y. (1832–35), making botanical expeditions to southern New York and New Jersey during his summers. He moved to New York City to join his friend and fellow botanist John Torrey (1836), published his first textbook, Elements of Botany (1836), and collaborated with Torrey to publish the first two (and only) volumes of their projected multivolume Flora of North America (1838, 1843). He accepted a position to be professor of botany at the new University of Michigan; when this did not materialize due to the institution's financial difficulties, he relocated to Harvard (1842–73). There he created Harvard's department of botany and brought it to international prominence, while educating many students who became the next generation's leaders in plant science. And as the author of over 350 books, monographs, and papers, he both popularized and professionalized the study of botany in America. By replacing the classical rigid Linnaean system with a more natural classification of plants by type specimen, Gray became the leading taxonomic botanist in the U.S.A. Charles Darwin so admired Gray's work that he shared his theory of natural selection in a letter to Gray (1857) before the theory was published; while Gray had some reservations about the theory, he became an ardent Darwinist, championing natural selection and refuting ideas that Darwinism could not coexist with Protestant Christianity. After retirement, Gray continued to take charge of his specimen collection in Harvard's Gray Herbarium. Among his many writings is the classical treatise, Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States (1848, still known as "Gray's Manual.")