Harvard Professor


King Louis XVI of France is credited with planting the seed of botany at Harvard in 1785 when he offered the College plants from his royal preserves. The College did not respond, but members of its Corporation were inspired to raise funds to establish a garden. In 1805 Harvard College and the General Court of Massachusetts appointed naturalist William Dandridge Peck as the first Massachusetts Professor of Natural History. Peck's first task was to visit Europe to collect plants, seeds, and books, and to hire a competent gardener. Peck also visited prominent naturalists and established important relationships for the struggling natural sciences in America.


Peck returned to Cambridge in 1807 with William Carter, an experienced gardener from Yorkshire, England. Together they set out to establish a garden on the seven acres acquired for it "about a mile from the college on the highway to the Great Swamp just north of the original Cow Common." By 1810 they had succeeded in establishing a garden designed "along the lines of smaller London establishments." Peck also assumed his teaching duties and moved with his wife, Harriett, into the house designed by architect Ithiel Town constructed on the garden grounds. As the years passed the garden flourished and Peck taught many young men who became distinguished naturalists, but as early supporters lost interest, their financial support declined. When Peck died suddenly in 1822, Harvard found itself without sufficient funds to name a new Massachusetts Professor of Natural History.


Harvard president John Thornton Kirkland named Thomas Nuttall, the English naturalist and explorer, as the "curator" of the Garden. Nuttall served Harvard for eleven years. He was well-liked by the natural history community and popular with students, but he considered himself to be "vegetating in Cambridge" because Harvard lacked a botanical library and herbarium to support his research. He resigned in 1834 to join the Second Wyeth Expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River.


The Garden drifted for the next decade. Natural history courses were taught by Augustus Addison Gould, a local physician with an interest in zoology, and Thaddeus William Harris, the Harvard librarian. Harris, a student of Peck, aspired to the professorship, and came nearer by securing the librarianship in 1831. Prospects improved in 1833 when Harvard received a $20,000 bequest from Beverly physician Joshua Fisher for the natural sciences. The College chose to invest the money until it could support an average annual salary of $1,500. The goal was finally reached in 1842 and, although Harris managed the natural sciences faithfully and well, Harvard and the local natural science community turned to Asa Gray, a young botanist from upstate New York.


By 1842 Gray had attained international prominence in the field of botany through his teaching, research, publications, and communications with the most prominent naturalists of the period. The New York native trained to be a physician but took every opportunity to turn his career toward botany. In 1832 he was offered the chance to teach chemistry, botany, zoology, mineralogy, and geology at the Utica Gymnasium. He encouraged his students to study nature out-of-doors and was free to travel and collect plants between terms. That same year he went to New York and met John Torrey who became his mentor. Torrey supported Gray's field trips, and collaborated on research and publications. Permanent positions in botany were unheard of at the time so Torrey helped Gray find a teaching position at Hamilton College, and later, a curatorial position at the New York Lyceum of Natural History.

Gray's early writings brought both acclaim and controversy. He became a regular contributor to the American Journal of Science, often interpreting European ideas for American botanists, and criticizing conventional notions. Gray's years in the classroom motivated him to write a botanical textbook to supplant the standard American texts he deemed to be of little scientific value. His Elements of Botany was published by G. & C. Carvill and Company in 1836. It was the first in a series of editions and texts that would be used continuously in high schools and colleges for more than a century.

Gray's textbook and his work at the Lyceum brought him to the attention of Jeremiah N. Reynolds who was lobbying in Washington for a government-sponsored scientific expedition to explore the Pacific Ocean and South Seas. Gray accepted his invitation to join the scientific team of the U.S. Exploring Expedition in the fall of 1836. Politics, incompetence, and indecision delayed the expedition for years. Gray continued to work at the Lyceum, but he also searched for stable employment. In 1838 he resigned from the expedition and accepted a professorship in botany at the newly founded University of Michigan. He was the university's first permanent faculty member. The appointment coincided with the publication of Torrey and Gray's first volume of the Flora of North America.

The university sent Gray on a tour of Europe to observe educational systems and to purchase books for the new library. Gray sailed from New York on November 1, 1838, and used the year abroad to accomplish not only the university’s goals, but also to establish relationships with leading botanists, to study in all of the major herbaria and botanical libraries, and to buy botany books for his own library. He gained relationships and knowledge that shaped the rest of his career. Gray realized that European herbaria held few specimens representing the flora of western North America and returned to New York in 1840 determined to explore the West.

Michigan was pleased with Gray's success, but found itself without the funds to support his salary. He shipped 3,700 books to Ann Arbor to form the nucleus of Michigan's library and stayed in New York until prospects in Michigan improved. He continued his research and writing with his expanded network of collaborators including some influential men in Boston.


By 1841 Harvard's Fisher fund neared $30,000, enough to support a professor's salary. Thaddeus William Harris still gave instruction in the natural sciences, and was an excellent entomologist, but he had no real claim on botany if a "first-rate botanist" could be found to teach and oversee the garden. The position was first offered to Francis Boott, a London physician, but he refused to teach zoology so the offer was withdrawn. Gray's travels had connected him to Boott's circle so he soon learned of the position at Harvard. In December of 1841 he contacted a Boston colleague, Benjamin D. Greene, for advice. Greene invited him to visit Boston to explore the opportunity and to meet his father-in-law, who happily turned out to be Josiah Quincy, the president of Harvard. Gray arrived in Boston in January,1842 and met President Quincy and a circle of local botanists at a dinner party arranged by Greene. The visit was such a great success that a formal offer was extended by Quincy in March. Gray quickly resigned from the University of Michigan to become the Fisher Professor of Natural History. This turning point ended the uncertainty in his life. The Fisher professorship marked the real beginning of continuous study in botany at Harvard and Gray had more resources for science than anyone else in the United States.

The 31-year old Gray arrived in Cambridge in July and envisioned the dilapidated botanical garden as his laboratory for propagating new plants to exchange with his colleagues in Europe. He set up lodgings in a boarding house, describing one small dark room as the place he would use for his herbarium. He also explored the local libraries and drew up a list of books needed to support his work to present to President Quincy.

Gray met his first Harvard students on Friday, March 3, 1843. He sent an account to Mrs. Torrey:

...Yesterday afternoon I met the first two sections of my class of Freshmen for recitation. It went off very well. I am pretty good at asking questions. The lads were well prepared. Next Tuesday I meet the third and fourth sections; and on Thursday, the ides of March, I give my first lecture on Botany. If I succeed well, I am sure no one will be more pleased and gratified than yourself, and that of itself is enough to incite me to effort. If I don't altogether succeed, neither satisfying myself nor others, I shall not be discouraged, but try again, as I am determined to succeed in the long run. Nil desperandum. I shall have the president to hear me; but he is said always to fall asleep on such occasions, and to be very commendatory when he awakes...


Gray became a popular lecturer and adapted quickly to intellectual life in Cambridge and Boston. He was already a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was invited to join the Boston Society of Natural History. He also organized a scientific club of mainly college faculty and joined the Congregational Church. John A. Lowell invited him to give a series of lectures at the new Lowell Institute which he gladly accepted.

While he laid the foundations for a career at Harvard he called on his American colleagues to send seeds and specimens from every corner of the continent so he could grow them in his garden and exchange them with European botanists. His scheme was so successful that he was soon tied to the herbarium, abandoning fieldwork to keep up with his extensive correspondence and to identify the thousands of new specimens that poured in. He and John Torrey, along with George Engelmann in St. Louis as the gatekeeper to the west, built a network of collectors and botanists.

Gray's personal library and herbarium grew rapidly. He moved into the Garden House in 1844 and a new wing was added in 1847 to house his important collections.


Dupree, A. H. 1988. Asa Gray, American botanist, friend of Darwin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Graustein, J. E. 1950. Nuttall's travels into the old west. Chron. Bot. 14: 1-88.
Graustein, J. E. 1958. Harvard's only Massachusetts Professor of Natural History. Harvard Alumni Bull. 1958: 242-243; 257-258.
Gray, Asa. 1893. Letters of Asa Gray. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.
The Harvard book. 1875. Cambridge: Welch, Bigelow, and Co.
Robinson, B. L. 1911. The removal of an old landmark. Harvard Graduates Mag. 75: 418-421.
Warnement, J. A. 1997. Harvard's botanists and their libraries. Taxon 46: 649-660.