Perry's Perennial Pages-- Famous Perennial Persons

Asa Gray
by Alexis M.

Dr. Asa Gray lived during the 19th century (1810-1888) as one of America's leading botanists. He is often accredited with bringing Darwinism to America as one of Darwin's strongest and earliest supporters. He was only the third scientist to be told of Darwin's theories. Many of his own theories have provided the basis for important research today. He took Darwin's theory and used his own studies of flora to support it. He also proposed that Asia and North America had once been geographically continuous, before the discovery of plate tectonics.

During his career he  received his MD at Fairfield College in 1831, was a teacher at Bartlett's High School  in NY for 1832-35, had a medical practice in Bridgewater, was Curator at the New York Lyceum of Natural History during 1835-1838, professor of botany at the University of Michigan and a professor of natural history at Harvard from 1842 until he retired from teaching in 1873. He studied under John Torrey and was one of the professors for Joseph LeConte.  A poor fundraiser, he still succeeded in establishing what became the Gray Herbarium.

One of his greatest adversaries in the world of debate was his fellow colleague at Harvard, Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a stubborn debater often referred to as a showman, while surprisingly, Gray was quite shy and yet always held his own in their discussions. His key publications were Flora of North America (1838-1843) and Darwiniana (1876: collection of essays on evolutionary theory). He also wrote many botanical textbooks.

In Flora of North America he collaborated with his former professor, John Torrey to undertake this task. It was the first attempt ever to classify and describe all of the known native plants to be found in North America. The publication of this book also established the final break with the Linnaean natural classification system, Jussieu and Candolle natural system of classification taking its place. The two worked together for over thirty years analyzing specimens from western expeditions sent to them at Harvard University. Only two volumes of the book ever got completed and published. Overall, Gray did more work than any other taxonomist or botanist to unify the taxonomic knowledge of the North American region.

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