Asa Gray


Botany & Zoology 1837-1842

PROFESSORS ASA GRAY was born at Paris, New York, November 8, 1810, being descended from a Scotch-Irish family which came to this country in the early part of the eighteenth century. After receiving a preparatory education at the Clinton Grammar School and at Fairfield Academy, he entered the Medical College of the Western District of New York and was graduated Doctor of Medicine in 1831. From 1831 to 1835 he was instructor in Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Botany in Bartlett's High School, Utica, New York; meanwhile giving courses of lectures on his favorite subjects in other schools as well. After serving for one year as assistant to the Professor of Chemistry and Botany at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City, he became curator of the New York Lyceum of Natural History. In 1838 he accepted the chair of Botany and Zoology in the University of Michigan, but never did any teaching here. In the same year he travelled in Europe, meeting a number of eminent botanists, and making some lifelong friends. Under a commission from the Regents of the University he purchased nearly four thousand volumes as a nucleus for the General Library, and showed rare judgment in the selections made. In 1842 he resigned his appointment at the University of Michigan to accept the Fisher chair of Natural History in Harvard University, which position he held until his death. He was an indefatigable collector and a voluminous writer on Botany and allied subjects. His series of textbooks in Botany have passed through numerous editions. Harvard University conferred on him in 1844 the honorary degree of Master of Arts, and in 1875 the degree of Doctor of Laws. He also received the degree of Doctor of Laws from Hamilton College in 1860, from McGill University in 1884, and from the University of Michigan in 1887. On his last visit to Europe, in 1887, Cambridge gave him the degree of Doctor of Science, Edinburgh the degree of Doctor of Laws, and Oxford that of Doctor of Civil Law. In 1874 he was appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institution, succeeding Louis Agassiz. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1841, and was its president from 1867 to 1873. In 1871 he presided over the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 30, 1888.

Burke A. Hinsdale and Isaac Newton Demmon, History of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1906) pp. 220.


The Michigan Alumnus, April 12, 1930, Page 483

By Frank E. Robbins, Ph.D.

Assistant to the President of the University

Asa Gray’s Visit to Ann Arbor

Famous Botanist Was First Professor

Appointed to Michigan's Faculty by Board of Regents

          The first professor to be appointed by the first Board of Regents of the University of Michigan was Dr. Asa Gray, the famous botanist. His appointment was made on July 17, 1838, and was terminated by his resignation, which was accepted with regret on May 28, 1842, before he had ever taught a class in the infant university, but nevertheless not before he had done Michigan invaluable service in purchasing abroad the books that still form the foundation of its library. It seems to have escaped the notice of many who have delved into the history of our beginnings that Dr. Gray paid a visit to Detroit and Ann Arbor in 1838, and, in his letters (Letters of Asa Gray, Edited by Jane Loring Gray, in two volumes. London” MacMillan & Co., 1893.)  has left an interesting account of the people and things he saw. The records of this time are not so voluminous or easy of Access that a repetition of what he then wrote is out of place today.

It is a pity Dr. Gray could not have stayed in Ann Arbor. He was a scientist of the very highest rank, and also a man of most lovable character and enterprising spirit. He was born November 18, 1810, in Paris township, Oneida County, New York, of New England ancestry, " Scotch- Irish" on the father's side, and received a medical education in the old Fairfield Medical School, supplemented by study in the offices of country doctors. His interest in botany began during his stay at Fairfield. Between that time and his visit to Michigan, Dr. Gray taught and botanized, and, in particular, became the assistant of the well-known botanist Dr. John Torrey of New York. Dr. Torrey was a friend of Major (later Judge, and ex officio Regent) Charles W. Whipple, a Detroit lawyer and the first Secretary of the Board of Regents, and his opinion had been taken in 1837 when the Regents discussed the purchase of Baron Lederer’s cabinet of minerals. Dr. Gray quite probably owed his appointment at Michigan to this connection.

          On Tuesday evening, August 7, 1838, Dr. Gray left New York, and early in the morning just one week later he arrived in Detroit-which is somewhat different from getting on a train at five o'clock one day and finding yourself in Detroit the next morning at seven. He breakfasted at a hotel and sought out Major Whipple, whom he found "thoroughly good natured." Together they went to see Dr. Zina Pitcher, one of the first Regents, who was not at home, and Dr.Douglas Houghton, who likewise was away, but whose "extensive collections" they admired. Neither was Governor Stevens Thomson Mason at the State House, but they inspected that building and enjoyed "a most beautiful view" from its cupola. Next they visited the branch of the University in Detroit where a public examination was going on.  In the evening they met Governor Mason and his sisters, but soon adjourned to Major Whipple’s office where the Regents were to meet. There was no quorum, however, and they adjourned.  (To met, as Dr. Gray says, the next Thursday, but as the Regents’ Proceedings, 1837-1864, p. 55, show, on Saturday, August 18.  Dr. Gray says that Edward Mundy was expected back from New York on Thursday, the 16th, but the Regents’ Proceedings pp. 82-83, show that he was still in New York, or near by, at that time, conferring with Alexander J. Davis, the architect, and trying to straighten out the misunderstanding with another architect, Ammi B. Young, of Vermont.  Dr. Gray, however, writes that the meeting of Thursday evening did not materialize because of Mr. Mundy’s non-arrival.)

On Wednesday August 15, Dr. Gray met Dr. Houghton, "a very energetic little fellow" who had "slept in a house not more than a dozen nights since the commencement of his surveys that season." On Thursday evening he talked with Major Whipple, and as the subject of their conversation was the plan for the buildings at Ann Arbor I will quote his words:

          “We compared notes fully about the University and everything about the matter we could think of. I obtained all the information he could afford me about what they were doing, and contemplated doing. I told him fully what I wished to do, and in everything I believe we understood each other and agreed wonderfully. This is important, because Whipple, although secretary of the board, is not a member; yet he is the moving spirit of the whole, and throws his whole energy into the work.  We owe the plan adopted as to the arrangement of buildings, etc., to him, and he carried it over considerable opposition. As I know it is just what will please the doctor:' (Dr. Torrey.  The letter was written to Mrs. “Torrey.) I mention it here. It is to have the professors' houses entirely distinct from both the university building and the dormitories of the students.  The grounds are nearly square, and are to be entirely surrounded by an avenue. He proposes to have a university building for lecture-rooms, library, laboratory, etc., but to contain no students and no families; to have two lateral buildings for students and the tutors who have the immediate charge of them. Then to build professors' houses on the other side of the quadrangle, fronting the main building, each with about an acre of land for yard and garden, by which the houses will not only be away from the students, but at sufficient distance from each other to render them retired and quiet. It is quite a point with him that the professors shall have retired, comfortable houses, so that they shall be subject to no annoyance."

This is important, though not easy to explain. The Regents' Proceedings do not show that the arrangement of buildings was discussed before Alexander J. Davis' plans were adopted on September 16, 1838. They had, however, taken the important step, on June 7, 1837, of choosing the Rumsey farm, the site of our present Campus, in preference to the Newland farm on the brow of the hill overlooking the Michigan Central railroad tracks, which was the first choice of their committee; they had appointed a building committee, and on July 18, 1838, they had passed the resolution which established wide avenues along the four sides of the Campus, had taken steps to make the Campus a square tract, and had determined to buy building materials. I think it may be inferred from what Dr. Gray says that a general plan for the new buildings and their location had been agreed upon informally before Mr. Davis was consulted, and that his proposals no doubt were based upon what the Regents had indicated that they wanted. More important, these early discussions already included the "professors' houses," which were actually built, in their scope, and Mr. Davis is quite likely to have made them part of his plan.  We cannot quite prove, from our present records that Alexander J. Davis was the architect of these houses, including the still extant president’s House, but I believe that this statement of Asa Gray raises considerably the degree of probability that he did.

The same evening Dr. Gray met Chancellor Elon Farnsworth for the first time, and two days later went alone to Ann Arbor, “thirty miles of railroad and ten (the road not being completed) by stage coach.”  Of the town he said, “The location is really delightful, and in a very few years it will be the prettiest possible place for a residence.”  The Campus, too, was “very prettily situated,” the only possible fault of the grounds being that they were too level.  Dr. Gray busied himself with planning an arrangement of the grounds “which gives satisfaction to the members of the board here, and I think will suit all.”  He met Chief Justice William A. Fletcher, Judge Ross Wilkins, and Dr. Samuel Denton, all Regents, and on Sunday, the 19th, attended the Presbyterian Church, of which the pastor, “an amiable and very pious old man, was to preach his last sermon today, the people having grown too wise for their teachers.” (O. W. Stephenson (Ann Arbor-The First Hundred Years, p. 370) says that Rev. John Beach was pastor of the Presbyterian Church from 1832 until February, 1838, after which the Church was without a regular minister until 1843.)  But there was too much roast port in the diet of Ann Arbor, for one thing, to suit Dr. Gray, and on Monday, the 20th, he was back in Detroit, whence, apparently, he departed for the East within a few days, after a few more conversations with members of the board about the grounds, the water supply, and the appropriation for books and apparatus which was later made.  Very shortly thereafter he sailed for Europe.

Dr. Gray mentions the fact that Mr. Davis was soon to visit Detroit, which is substantiated further by Lieutenant Governor Mundy's statement that he had conveyed such an invitation to him. (Regents’ Proceedings, 1837-1864, pp.82-83.) It appears therefore that the decisions about building matters, which are recorded on September 16 were made after consultation with Mr. Davis, and perhaps even with him in attendance at the meeting of the Regents.

Dr. Gray's letters occasionally mention the book, which he was buying for the University of Michigan during his European journey, and in his fragmentary autobiography he tells us that George P. Putnam, of the firm of Wiley and Putnam, (The well known publisher, George Palmer Putnam, founder of the firm G. P. Putnam’s Sons, father of George haven Putnam, present head of the firm, and of Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress.) then resident in London was his agent for their purchase. A letter to his father, written November 5, 1839, in New York, speaks of his arrival the evening before in the ship "Toronto," bringing "nearly the full amount of my purchases of books for the Michigan library, a large collection." The next two years were trying ones for him, for the Michigan professorship did not materialize and no salary was forthcoming. Harvard, however, could offer hit, the position, which he occupied for so many years thereafter.

of the firm G. P. Putnam's Sons, father of George Haven Putnam, Present head of the firm, and of Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress.