“My Dear Mr. Darwin”
With over 5 millions plant species dried and mounted, pickled and preserved and precisely catalogued, the Harvard University Herbaria are among the largest in the world. For much of this collection, we have Victorian era botanists and explorers to thank – especially Asa Gray.
This fall marks the 200th birthday of one of America’s greatest botanists. Back in 1842, when Asa Gray became professor of natural history at Harvard, there were few (if any) botanical collections at Harvard. Also, plant science education had yet to mature.
Within his first 5 years at Harvard, Dr. Gray published what would become a classic, the Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, from New England to Wisconsin and South to Ohio and Pennsylvania Inclusive (otherwise known as Gray’s Manual). He had intended this treatise to be a “vade-mecum in herborizations” and a “convenient manual of reference at home.” But his original 350-page manuscript quickly doubled in size in the year before it went to the printer.
Gray befriended and educated some of America’s foremost botanists. But his long friendship and correspondence with British naturalist, Charles Darwin, is perhaps one of his most remarkable contributions to the natural sciences, as he helped Darwin with research that supported the theory of evolution. Gray not only wrote Darwin’s first U.S. reviews, he also edited and arranged for the publication of the first U.S. edition of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
Dramatic times in history
As part of Harvard’s celebration of Gray’s bicentennial, a dramatization is being presented of the 30-year correspondence between Darwin and Gray, based on the archives amassed by the Darwin Correspondence Project. If you can’t make it to Cambridge, Massachusetts by 21 October, it’s well worth browsing through the letters online, as the men compare plants found in American versus Europe and discuss dramatic times in U.S. history, including the problems of the Southern rebels and slavery in 1861, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln’s murder.
Asa Gray was a devout Congregationalist who not only understood Darwin’s theory but who also promoted the idea that religious belief and evolution were not mutually exclusive; he argued Darwin’s case among scientists. Just four days after reading the original Origin of the Species, Dr. Gray writes to their mutual friend, Joseph Hooker, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, saying, “It is done in a masterly manner, – it might well have taken 20 years to produce it. It is crammed full of most interesting matter – thoroughly digested – well expressed – close, cogent – and taken as a system it makes out a better case than I had supposed possible.”
Asa Gray Bicentennial festivities will be organized by Harvard University throughout the Fall. The events will include a lecture on Darwin by Prof. William “Ned” Friedman, the newly appointed director of the Arnold Arboretum, a presentation by Assistant Prof. Charles Davis on the 160 years of Harvard University’s climate research at Walden Pond – from North America’s first climatologist, Henry David Thoreau, to today – and a walking tour of the impressively landscaped national landmark, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, where Gray is buried. Most events are free of charge, though you may have to RSVP due to limited space.
Start exploring the world of Harvard Herbaria’s databases – with botanists, publications, specimens – and the International Plant Names Index. It’s just part of Asa Gray’s legacy to gardeners today.
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