Indiana University Bloomington

Case no. 2: Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz.

Asa Gray (1810-1888), the Fisher Professor of Botany at Harvard University and head of the Harvard Botanic Garden, was Darwin’s most important ally. A thin, short man (he weighed only 135 pounds), Gray always seemed to be running somewhere, perennially late for class or an appointment. A staunch Presbyterian, he was “a constant church-goer, everywhere,” recalled his wife, Jane Loring Gray. “When traveling he always made Sunday a resting-day if possible, and would go off quietly in the morning to find some place of service.” Gray was first and foremost a taxonomist, but he was also a fluent, capable writer, adept at communicating botanical facts to a general audience. Depression and despondence were alien to his temperament; Gray felt that one should turn always, like the leaves of the plants he so loved, one’s face to the sun. American to the bone, Gray was much given to “parlez-vous-ing,” as he found out when he visited Europe. This little man with a medical degree from an undistinguished school who had somehow gotten a chair at Harvard became one of Darwin’s most important interlocutors. Darwin and Asa Gray had begun writing to each other regularly in 1855, four years after they had spent time with each other at Joseph Hooker’s house in Kew Gardens. The glaciologist and zoologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), a Swiss-born immigrant who had come to the United States in 1846 and became the new star at Harvard University’s Lawrence Scientific School, became their joint enemy.