Gray Herbarium and Library

"Dr. Asa Gray has presented to the University his invaluable Herbarium and his Botanical Library; which have been safely transferred to the fire-proof building furnished, at a cost of over twelve thousand dollars, by the generosity of Nathaniel Thayer, Esq., of Boston. A fund has also been raised by subscription, for the support and increase of the collection.... The gift of Dr. Gray cannot be estimated in money, but it embraces the results of many years' labor faithfully given by that distinguished botanist, aided by the generosity of his collaborators and correspondents in various parts of the world."

Annual Report of the President of the University to the Board of Overseers, January 1864



In the beginning...

A handwritten note by Mrs. Jane Loring Gray housed within a folder of documents in the Gray Herbarium Archives says: "When Dr. Gray first came to Cambridge he kept his herbarium in a closet in the Munroe house where he boarded. Finding this too small he applied for the house at the Garden which was granted to him as soon as a house could be erected for Prof. Walker, the present inhabitant."

Asa Gray first arrived in Cambridge in 1842. Starting from the closet of his first room in Massachusetts, his herbarium collection has grown quite a bit since.

In the early 1860s Asa Gray was again in need of a proper place to keep his collections. As we see in the annual report written for the years 1862-1863: "The very valuable collection of plants belonging to Dr. Gray, and deriving great additional value from the fact that the specimens have all been identified by his authority, is now scattered in various apartments of two wooden buildings, and constantly exposed to the danger of fire. Dr. Gray offers to give it to the University, provided the College will put it into a fire-proof building, and provide for its maintenance and increase."

The offer of such a valuable collection as Asa Gray's was impossible to refuse. Just one year later the report from 1863-1864 reports: "Dr. Asa Gray has presented to the University his invaluable Herbarium, and his botanical library, which have been safely transferred to the fire-proof building furnished, at a cost of over twelve thousand dollars, by the generosity of Nathaniel Thayer, Esq., of Boston. A fund has also been raised by subscription for the support and increase of the collection." The following year Mr. John A. Lowell added to Gray's collection with a valuable collection of books from his own shelves, even sending a case in which to store them.

From the American Journal of Science, March, 1865, we find a description of the Herbarium: "The building, to which these treasures are consigned, is 32 feet in front and 56 feet deep, a story and a half high, the walls all hollow and ventilated, for greater security from dampness.... The principal room, for the herbarium, is about 30 1/2 by 35 feet, and 19 feet high to the vaulted ceiling. It is lighted by a domed skylight, and by a large double window in the north-western end. At the height of about 8 feet, an iron gallery, four feet deep, surrounds the apartment, interrupted only by a large window. The space between the floor and the gallery is completely filled by the herbarium-cabinets, except upon one side of the entrance, where a sort of furnace or stove, of soapstone, chiefly in the front room, comes through the partition wall, and supplies warm air by registers. The walls above the gallery are reserved for a second similar tier of cabinets, to be constructed when needed. The cabinets, casings, and all the woodwork except the floors (which are of hard pine, bedded in mortar) are of chestnut wood. The building was constructed by Mr. Edward D. Harris, in a thorough and durable manner, and it is hoped will form a safe and permanent place of deposit for the collections which have been and may hereafter be consigned to it."



In 1879 it was proposed to expand the Herbarium to accommodate the library. "It was thought that the Herbarium-building erected by Mr. Thayer in 1864, and the Laboratory and lecture-room adjoining, the gift of Mr. Hunnewell in 1871 would be sufficient. And it might be so except for the great increase of the botanical classes and the great and permanent extension of the instruction in the department. In consequence of this the rooms in which the botanical library is kept, already too small for this purpose, have become a thoroughfare, to the danger and detriment of the books, and they are much wanted for other purposes". (Herbarium of Harvard University, June 2, 1879).


Sereno Watson, a botanist well-known for his work on the Clarence Kind Expedition to the Great Basin, was appointed curator on June 29, 1874, and remained until 1892, when, upon his death, he was succeeded by Benjamin L. Robinson. Robinson wrote of Watson: "Watson was tall, very erect, had good features, a high-bridged nose, and a carefully tended beard of great length and whiteness. Almost to the end of his life he walked with a brisk elastic step suggesting physical energy remarkable for a man of his years. Though capable and scholarly, Watson was in many ways very unlike Gray, lacking his geniality, wit, and magnetism, and being on the contrary almost painfully shy and reticent. However, he made a capable curator for the Gray Herbarium, patiently perfecting its collections and thriftily building up its resources, the latter end being accomplished by savings from its tiny income rather than by any personal success in soliciting outside aid."

Asa Gray withdrew from teaching at the close of the year 1882-83. His work in teaching was then taken up by George Lincoln Goodale, then an assistant professor. Gray retained his professorship and remained in charge of the Herbarium. From an Annual Report of 1882-1883: "The Herbarium is one of the most interesting and valuable of the scientific collections belonging to the University. It is one of the permanent fruits of Professor Gray's long and diligent life as a systematic botanist, and of his recognized position as the highest authority in the world upon the flora of North America."



'Following Watson's death, B.L. Robinson was appointed curator of the Gray Herbarium on June 20, 1892. According to Merritt L. Fernald in his biography of Robinson, the Gray Herbarium and Library were both in dire straits upon his appointment as curator. Fernald writes: "The Gray Herbarium was housed in the Botanic Garden in a compact brick structure with wooden sheathing and furnishings and already overflowing when Robinson took charge. Reference books were banked in double rows of the library shelves and the specimens were suffering from crowding in their pigeon-holes; and those with latex, essential oils and resins (even though timber-dry) were being riddled and destroyed by grubs and mites. Strenuous measures were imperative to save for future generations the valuable and scientifically irreplaceable Type collections to which monographers will wish constantly to refer."

Fernald went on to describe the financial difficulties of the Herbarium. In 1892 the total income of the Herbarium was $3600, a sum which was meant to support the entire staff of a librarian, assistants, a mounter of specimens, all supplies and publications, as well as building maintenance and repair costs. Needless to say, it was in need of additional funding. The Gray Herbarium was not financed through the College. Robinson appeared to agree with Fernald's statement, writing in a report spanning 1892 to 1935: "In 1892 the Gray Herbarium was in small, crowded, and, in many regards, inconvenient and unsafe quarters."

Robinson then described the library: "The library, already notable from the rarity of many of its works, was sadly cramped in shelving and grown Topsy fashion, books being inserted on the principle of temporary convenience rather than any logical system. The previous librarian, Miss Clark, well trained at the Albany Library School, had sought to bring it into order, but her tenure had been short, the cramped conditions had hampered progress, and she had never been given much freedom in making changes in the shelving. Conditions could not have been very encouraging for a new incumbent."


On January 1, 1893, Miss Mary A. Day was given the position of Librarian, for which the salary was, according to B.L. Robinson, lamentably small (from financial records at the Gray Herbarium Archives this was $600 per year). Robinson described Miss Day as: "of medium height and slight in build, suggested 'wiriness' rather than robust health. Her hair was already graying and without being asked she stated her age to be forty. She conveyed the impression of capability, evenness of temper, and probable industry, with a goodly dash of the 'New England conscience.' Offsetting her inexperience in botany she showed more than ordinary confidence that she could make good if allowed to try and perfect herself in this new field."

It was in 1897 that several important events took place at the Herbarium. After considerable argument, the President and Fellows voted that the establishment be officially called the Gray Herbarium. Up until this point the name had been used unofficially manner. Also in this year the Herbarium was provided with its own Visiting Committee to help raise funds for its survival. The Visiting Committee was made up mostly of personal friends of Gray, or by students who had studied in his classes. From its first recorded meeting in 1897 the Committee wrote: "The Gray Herbarium has been through more than a generation by far the most important one in America, is known throughout the civilized world as the chief representative of descriptive botany in the new world and ought not to be allowed to lose its rank through lack of adequate means of support." During this meeting Dr. Robinson read a letter from a Boston lawyer addressed to the Corporation of Harvard University. The lawyer offered, on behalf of a client who wished to remain anonymous, to give the Gray Herbarium twenty thousand dollars on the condition that the Corporation raise by subscription an additional sum of thirty thousand dollars. This fund was to be called the Asa Gray Memorial Fund and its income to be applied to a descriptive botany professorship, a position which would also serve as the curator of the Gray Herbarium. It was decided in their 1897 meeting that the Committee would henceforth devote its energy to raising the thirty thousand dollars required for the Asa Gray Memorial Fund.

From a booklet describing the Asa Gray Memorial Fund: "It may be safely said that no American has done more than Dr. Gray to encourage a taste for natural sciences, or give pleasure and interest to the amateur in this field. His many botanical works, combining to an extraordinary degree accuracy of statement with simplicity of expression, have for years held the highest rank among books on their subject. Thousands of persons who never had the opportunity of meeting Dr. Gray or experiencing the charm of his genial personality have through his writings come to know, admire and love him. All such persons will surely agree that no form of memorial could be more fitting for Dr. Gray than a permanent fund to assure continued support for the Herbarium, which his untiring efforts brought to its present high plane of scientific efficiency."

The monetary woes of the Herbarium appear to have been widely known in the community. According to an article in the Boston Evening Transcript for May 20, 1899: "The Gray Herbarium, although one of the oldest and most carefully developed scientific establishments connected with Harvard University, has never had endowment at all proportionate to the activity which its scientific prominence imposes. The importance and usefulness of such an establishment are at once apparent. Not only are its publications numerous, embodying the latest results of botanical exploration, but its staff is constantly engaged in answering gratuitously hundreds of botanical inquiries sent in from all parts of the country."


Between 1909 and 1915, through the generosity of the Visiting Committee, the Herbarium was able to rebuild and greatly enhance its quarters. The new structure was built exclusively of incombustible materials and equipped with enameled steel furniture. The building was in the Botanic Garden in Cambridge. From an article in the Christian Science Monitor, March 18, 1915: "Entirely rebuilt in steel and concrete, the Gray Herbarium at Harvard is now ready to house the priceless collection of books and botanical specimens which have made this institution at Cambridge famous throughout the world. The process of rebuilding has been a long one, the work having been started in 1910 and carried forward from time to time according to the contributions made to the project."

Benjamin L. Robinson was instrumental in acquiring funds and expanding the growth of the Herbarium and library during his time in charge. In 1892, there were 210,000 sheets of mounted plants in the main collections of the Herbarium. There were 10,054 books and pamphlets in the library. The total assets of the Gray Herbarium were $31,274.45. When Robinson left in 1934, there were 865,210 sheets of mounted plants, 39,250 books and pamphlets, and total assets of $550,496.90.


A report from the Harvard University Herbarium in 1955 recorded: "The building is modern in design and functions. The ground floor contains lecture and laboratory rooms, storage, sorting, mounting and fumigation areas. The library reading room, offices and stacks occupy most of the second floor. The third and fourth floors devoted to herbarium and offices. The entire building is air conditioned. The clean air and constant temperature afford better care for the books and specimens. Recessed ceiling lights in the herbarium and offices make this the best lighted herbarium. Prior to the move, wooden cases held a portion of the collections of the Gray Herbarium. So that all herbarium specimens would be housed in steel herbarium cases and to allow for future expansion, 440 steel herbarium cases were included in the cost of the building. During April and May of 1954 the Gray Herbarium was completely moved from its former location on Garden Street into the new herbarium building at 22 Divinity Avenue in Cambridge."


Today at the Gray Herbarium

The Gray Herbarium and Library are still housed at 22 Divinity Avenue today. They are now a part of the larger Harvard University Herbaria and Harvard University Botany Libraries. The Harvard University Herbaria includes the collections of the Gray Herbarium, the Herbarium of the Arnold Arboretum, the Economic Herbarium of Oakes Ames, the Oakes Orchid Herbarium, and the Farlow Herbarium. The Harvard University Botany Libraries includes Gray Herbarium and Arnold Arboretum collections, the Economic Botany Library, the Orchid Library of Oakes Ames, and the Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany. The 35,000 volume horticultural library at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain is managed separately, but works in close cooperation with the libraries at 22 Divinity Avenue. The staff at the Botany Libraries also provides access to a wide range of rich archival collections, including the Archives of the Gray Herbarium, The Archives of the Farlow Herbarium, the portions of the Arnold Arboretum Archives, the Economic Botany Archives, the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium Archives, the Archives of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka and the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, the Tina and R. Gordon Wasson Ethnomycological Collection Archives, and the Henry David Thoreau Herbarium.

The Harvard University Botany Libraries are open to the public and welcome all who are interested. They are non-circulating and have closed stacks, but staff are happy to assist researchers and retrieve items from the collections for use in their reading rooms. For archival requests, please make an appointment with the archivist at



A brief account of some of the scientific institutions of Boston and vicinity / prepared by the local committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for distribution to members of the Association, at the Boston meeting, August, 1880. Boston: Published by the local committee, 1880 (Cambridge, Mass.: University Press).

Archives of the Gray Herbarium: Administrative, Employment, Miscellaneous Records and Papers.

Collins, Reed C. "Gray Herbarium." Botanical activities at Harvard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1965-1976.

Fernald, Merritt Lyndon. "Biographical memoir of Benjamin Lincoln Robinson, 1864-1935." Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 1937.

The Development of Harvard University since the inauguration of President Eliot, 1869-1929. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930.

Harvard University Herbarium. American Journal of Science, Volume 39, March 1865.

Howard, Richard A. "The Harvard University Herbarium." Flora Malesiana Bulletin. No. 11, February 1955.

Robinson, B.L. "The Gray Herbarium at Harvard College." Harvard Alumni Bulletin, May 9, 1929.

Robinson, B.L. "Miss Day." Rhodora. Volume 26, No. 303, March 1924.

Warnement, Judith A. "Botanical libraries and herbaria in North America. 3. Harvard's botanists and their libraries." Utrecht, Netherlands, International Bureau for Plant Taxonomy and Nomenclature, 1997.