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COLLECTION Identifier: gra00026

Asa Gray papers

Scope and Contents

The Asa Gray papers date from 1830-1953 (bulk 1830-1888) and document his career in botany. The collection primarily contains correspondence, travel journals, manuscripts, drafts of published works, notes for lectures, certificates, and original artwork.

This collection is divided into 6 series which are largely a reflection of how the materials were stored over the years. The series are: biographical materials, correspondence, botanical manuscripts, publications, writings, and certificates.


  • 1830-1953
  • Majority of material found within 1830-1888


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available by appointment for research. Researchers must register and provide valid photo identification. Please contact for additional information.


8 linear feet (17 document boxes, 3 oversize boxes, 8 oversize folders in flat file, 1 scrapbook volume)

Biographical note

Often called the “Father of American Botany,” Asa Gray was instrumental in establishing systematic botany as a field of study at Harvard University and, to some extent, in the United States. His relationships with European and North American botanists and collectors enabled him to serve as a central clearing house for the identification of plants from newly explored areas of North America. He also served as a link between American and European botanical sciences. Gray regularly reviewed new European scientific works and was an early proponent of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Asa Gray was born in Sauquoit, New York, on November 18, 1810, to Roxana Howard Gray and Moses Wiley Gray. He attended grammar school in Clinton and continued his education at Fairfield Academy, enrolling in Fairfield’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1829. Gray’s interest in botany developed during this time and he began corresponding with botanists Lewis Caleb Beck and John Torrey.

Gray completed his M.D. in 1831 and accepted a teaching position at a boys’ school in Utica, New York. For the next few years he divided his time between teaching, collecting, and working as Torrey’s assistant. His first publications appeared in the winter of 1834-1835. In 1836 he became curator at the New York Lyceum of Natural History. He also began work on a North American flora with Torrey. The first volume of “Flora of North America”was published in two parts in 1838.

Gray was appointed botanist of the United States Exploring Expedition under Charles Wilkes in 1836 but withdrew after the expedition was delayed. In 1838 he accepted an appointment as Professor of Botany at the University of Michigan on condition that he first be allowed a year of study in Europe. He departed in November 1838 and spent the next 12 months visiting herbaria and meeting prominent botanists in Great Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria. Complications at Michigan prevented Gray from starting the professorship there. Instead he returned to New York to work on the second volume of “Flora.”

In 1842 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to accept the newly endowed Fisher Professorship at Harvard. He remained in that position for the rest of his life. In addition to teaching Gray assumed responsibility for the Harvard Botanical Garden and built a herbarium and library. He was a prolific correspondent and writer. His 1848 “Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States” became the standard field manual for botanists in the Northeast and his textbooks were used in classes across the U.S.

In 1848 Gray married Jane Lathrop Loring. She assisted him in his work and accompanied him on trips to Europe, the Allegheny Mountains, and to the American West.

Gray died in Cambridge on January 30, 1888.


Deane W. 1888. Asa Gray. Bull. Torrey Bot. Club. 15(3):59-72.

Farlow WG. 1895. Memoir of Asa Gray. 1810-1888. Biogr. Mem. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 3:161-175.

Gray A. 1894. Autobiography. In: Gray JL. Letters of Asa Gray. Boston (MA): Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

A chronology of Gray's life follows:
1810 November 18
Born in Sauquoit, New York
Studied at Clinton Grammar School under Orlando Kirkland
Circa 1824-1825
Studied at Fairfield Academy (one year)
Starting autumn 1826
Studied at College of Physicians and Surgeons, Fairfield, New York
1831 January
Received degree of doctor of medicine from College of Physicians and Surgeons, Fairfield, New York
Began exchange of plants with John Torrey
1832 May-July, 1833 January-July, and 1834 January-July(?)
Taught science at Utica Gymnasium
Collected for Torrey (summer 1833); worked for him in his house (fall 1833)
1834 summer
Taught at Hamilton College
Visited Philadelphia with Torrey and collected in New Jersey for him (September 1834); returned to Torrey's house
Worked on “Elements of Botany” in New York; finished April 1836
1836 February or March
Made librarian of New York Lyceum of Natural History
1838 July
Planned to participate in United States South Seas Exploring Expedition but delays led him to withdraw
Appointed professor of botany at newly formed University of Michigan
1838 November-1839 November
Traveled to Europe to buy books for University of Michigan and to visit herbaria
Began correspondence with George Engelmann
Appointed professor at Harvard
1847 December
Finished “A manual of the Botany of the Northern United States"
First volume of “Genera of the Plants of the United States” published
1847 May
Engaged to Jane Lathrop Loring
1848 May 4
Married Jane Lathrop Loring
1848 June
Wedding trip to Washington, D.C.
1850 June-1851 September
Traveled to Europe
Revised 1850, 1853, 1858
“Botanical Text-book”
1855 late summer
Traveled to Europe for 21 days
Published 1856
Second edition of “Manual”
“First Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology”
“How Plants Grow”
Starting 1859
Involved in defense of Darwin
“Field, Forest and Garden Botany”
1868 September-1869 November
Traveled to Europe
1872 June-August
Traveled to California and came back by way of Dubuque, Iowa
“How Plants Behave”
Gift of Ignatius Sargent and H.H. Hunnewell allowed him to retire to work on North American flora
1875 March-April
Traveled to southern United States
1876 August-September
Traveled to southern Allegheny Mountains
1877 July-September
Traveled to California with Hooker
1879 June
Traveled to southern Allegheny Mountains
1880 September-1881 October
Traveled to Europe, received LLDs from Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh Universities
1882 August
Traveled to Montreal for meeting of British Association for the Advancement of Science
Traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, May 1884 and to Virginia, September 1884
1885 February-May
Traveled to Mexico and southern California
November 18, 1885
Received silver vase and plate in honor of his 75th birthday
1887 April-October
Traveled to Europe
1888 January 30
Asa Gray passed away

References -- life:

Dupree, AH 1959. Asa Gray, 1810-1888. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Gray, JL. 1893. Letters of Asa Gray. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Includes autobiography, 1810-1843.

Sargent, CS. 1886. Asa Gray. Reprinted from the "Sun" newspaper of Jan. 3, 1886. 2 copies bound together, second has corrections written in by Gray.

References -- works:

[Goodale, GL et al.] 1888. List of the writings of Dr. Asa Gray. Chronologically arranged with an index, [New Haven, 1888]. Am. J. Science. 36:Appendix.

Sargent, CS ed. 1889. Scientific papers of Asa Gray. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Series description

Series I. Biographical materials, 1838-1888. This series contains the manuscript of Asa Gray’s autobiography, travel journals based on his letters to the Torreys for his first European trip (1838-1839) and on his wife's letters to her sister for most of the following trips, background on Gray's early life, personal reminiscences, materials about artifacts, summaries of Gray's life published before and after his death, sympathy letters to Mrs. Gray, and Jane Gray's edition of the letters of Asa Gray. Also includes an Isaac Sprague original illustration of the Gray House from 1854.

Series II. Correspondence, 1809-1887. This series includes a portion of Gray's correspondence: letters from scientific societies, correspondence with Harvard administration, communications pertaining to the Wilkes Expedition, and copies of a number of letters from Gray, prepared for his wife's edition of his letters.

Series III. Botanical manuscripts, 1834-1887. This series contains published and unpublished manuscripts of Gray’s botanical works. There are a few fragments of botanical manuscripts as well as a number of notebooks containing Gray's notes on specimens in different herbaria, mostly European.

Series IV. Publications 1850, undated. This series includes items pertaining to his published works: miscellaneous proof sheets, lists of subscribers to the “Illustrations of the Genera of Plants of the United States” which was published as “Genera florae Americae boreali-orientalis illustrata : the genera of the plants of the United States illustrated by figures and analyses from nature,” records of expenses, etc. pertaining to the “Flora of North America.”

Series V. Writings, 1845-1891. These materials were originally all housed together in the Manuscript Case of the Gray Herbarium and were later transferred to the Library. This series includes writings for scientific audiences as well as popular audiences, reviews, personal notes and lectures.

Series VI. Degrees and certificates of membership in various societies, 1830-1888.

Other Finding Aids

There is an item level paper inventory of the degrees and certificates. Each folder of degrees and certificates contains a copy of the inventory that pertains to that folder.


The collection came to the archives from several sources. Much of the collection was likely left at the Gray Herbarium after Asa Gray’s death. Additional material was given to the Herbarium by Jane Gray, Walter Deane, and other friends and colleagues. Photographs and other papers were given to the Herbarium on June 27, 1984, by Jane Gray’s niece, Susan Loring.

Related Materials

Other related material at the Botany Libraries, Harvard University Herbaria:

  1. Asa Gray correspondence files
  2. Administrative correspondence of the Gray Herbarium and Harvard University Herbaria
  3. Alice A. Gray collection of Asa Gray papers and artifacts
  4. Botany Libraries photograph collection
  5. Jane Gray autograph collection
  6. Jane Loring Gray correspondence

Separated Materials

Much of Gray’s correspondence was separated into the Asa Gray correspondence files. This part of the collection was previously called the Historic Letters File and includes correspondence dating from 1832-1892.

Artifacts owned by Gray have been incorporated into the Botany Libraries artifact collection. They include his collecting implements and vascula, spectacles, vest, objects from his desk, and other personal effects.

Gray’s portraits as well as his collection of portraits of other botanists and naturalists have been incorporated into the Botany Libraries photograph collection.

Processing Information

Processed by Lynn McWhood, November 1982

Gray, Asa, 1810-1888. Asa Gray papers, 1830-1953, bulk 1830-1888: A Guide.
Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries. The Gray Herbarium Library specializes in the identification and classification of New World plants with emphasis on North American plants. The Archives of the Gray Herbarium houses unique resources including personal papers, institutional records, field notes and plant lists, expedition records, photographs, original artwork, and objects from faculty, curators, staff, and affiliates of the Gray Herbarium.

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