Bridging the Disjunction: Asa Gray and the Botanical Exchanges between East Asia and North America

Kuang-chi Hung History of Science, Harvard University 2010-2011 Dissertation Research Fellow Bridging the Disjunction: Asa Gray and the Botanical Exchanges between East Asia and North America My research interest is the history of plant geography, with particular focus on Harvard botanist Asa Gray’s thesis on the similarities between the flora of East Asia and that of eastern North America. Originally published in 1859, Gray’s diagnosis of such unexpected connections between North America and East Asia offered solid grounds for Charles Darwin to develop the notions on the distribution and divergence of species, incited Gray’s famous debate with Louis Agassiz, cultivated a generation of naturalists who paid close attention to the possible evolutionary connections between two continents, and in many respects shaped the ways in which the societies of the United States, Japan, and China contemplated their mutual relationships through an evolutionary lens. I am interested in the origin, evolution, controversies and legacies of Gray’s disjunction thesis. My dissertation will begin with Gray’s involvement in the botanical surveys of the American southwestern frontier, move to his role in the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition, trace Gray’s correspondence with Darwin and Joseph D. Hooker regarding the origin and distribution of species, revisit Gray’s debate with Agassiz, and finally conclude with American naturalists’ surveys in Japan and Manchuria. The collections at the American Philosophical Society (hereafter APS) and the Academy of Natural Sciences (hereafter ANS) dramatically enrich my understandings of all these aspects. The following sections will outline the collections particularly relevant to my research. First, both the APS and the ANS house rich collections about botanists of the nineteenth century (for example, Asa Gray, John Torrey, William J. Hooker, Joseph D. Hooker, Charles Wilkins Short, to name only a few). Taken together, these collections demonstrate how botanists at the time associated themselves with each other, debated critical ideas, secure specimens and information from the field, and made a living. For example, in the Asa Gray’s Papers at the APS, I found valuable letters about Gray’s appointment as Botanist to the U.S. Exploring Expedition and about Gray’s first visit to Europe. Considered as a whole, this particular collection helps me contour Gray’s far-reaching corresponding network and the ways in which Gray maintained and maneuvered such a network. The Gray’s Correspondence at the ANS, on the other hand, reveals other aspects of Gray’s career as a botanist. This collection chiefly documents Gray’s role as Corresponding Secretary of American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In it I found plenty of letters proving how the career of a nineteenth-century botanist was benefited by his association with a scientific organization and vice versa. Another interesting collection pertaining to my research is the Charles Wilkins Short Correspondence at the APS. Short was one of Gray’s best botanical friends, and I found that this collection contained some letters relevant to my research. For example, in a letter to Short, renowned naturalist Increase Allen Lapham of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, expressed his concern about the delayed publication of Torrey and Gray’s Flora of North America. Lapham said that he just read Joseph Henry’s Programme for the Smithsonian Institution and was impressed. As far as the publication of the Flora of North America was concerned, he noted, the Smithsonian Institution should take over the project, instead of leaving it to men of science like Torrey and Gray. Also noteworthy is the Correspondence of American Botanists at the APS. The collection consists of numerous microfilms of the letters from American botanists to botanists at Royal Botanical Garden at Kew. In it I found a surprising number of letters from Asa Gray to William J. Hooker, Joseph Hooker, and George Bentham, covering the topics ranging from the management of the botanical garden to critical issues in botany to exchanges of botanical specimens. Second, regarding Gray and Agassiz famous debates regarding the origin and distribution of species in 1859 and 1860, a very relevant collection is Louis Jean Rodolph Agassiz Papers at the APS. Together with other collections such as S. G. Morton Papers also at the APS, this particular collection maps out Agassiz’s changes in the view about the origin of species upon his arrival in the United States in 1846 (of importance was that Agassiz began to regard that mankind comprised of several distinct species). The Louis Jean Rodolph Agassiz Papers also brought my attention to the life and career of Leo Lesquereux, a Swiss naturalist who came to the United States with Agassiz. I found Lesquereux to be an important character in my research for he was a close friend to Gray and to Gray’s botanical circle. Shortly after his arrival in the United States, Lesquereux served as Gray’s curator at Harvard. He then moved to Columbus, Ohio, and became the assistant of Gray’s good friend, William S. Sullivant. It was during his stay in Columbus that Lesquereux developed strong interests in the fossil flora of North America. In the mid-1850s, while Gray became interested in evolutionary botany and prepared to launch an attack against Agassiz’s species theory, it was Lesquereux who supplied rich paleobotanical information for Gray’s research. The APS houses a number of collections about Lesquereux (for example, Leo Lesquereux Autobiography and J.P. Lesley Papers). In them I found rich information about Lesquereux’s paleobotanical studies, contemplations about plant evolution, and his observation about the tension between Gray and Agassiz. Among those that particularly interests me is a letter from Lesquereux to J. P. Lesley about the conflicts between Gray and Agassiz over the issues of the National Academy of Sciences: “Gray is somewhat autocratic of character like Agassiz. He well knows that he is a prince of science and if he does not openly dispise small men and poor things, he keeps his whole regards for high standing subjects. But he is certainly frank and honest and dispises every kind of duplicity.” Third, regarding the development of biogeography after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the collection that I found very valuable is the John Thomas Gulick Papers and Correspondence at the APS and the ANS. John Gulick was a Hawaiian naturalist who studied in the United States and Britain and devoted a significant portion of his life in Japan and China as a missionary. In the history of evolutionary biology, Gulick is important for his studies on the snails of the Hawaii Islands reveal the complex mechanism about the divergence of species and the role of geographical isolation in creating new species. The collections about Gulick at the APS and the ANS document Gulick scientific and religious activities around three continents (what I found particularly inspiring is a full set of Gulick’s correspondence with a remarkable Darwinist George Romanes). As far as my research is concerned, I consider Gulick as a figure who brought evolutionary botany to a new level and who disseminated Darwinism among different societies during the post-Origin-of-Species period (Gulick was an enthusiastic advocate of Darwinism during his stay in East Asia). In this regard, another noteworthy collection is the Thomas Meehan Papers at the ANS. Meehan was a prominent nurseryman in Philadelphia and for a while took charge of the Botanical Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences. He corresponded with Gray intensively and at times provoked serious debates with Gray about plant evolution. Meehan held a rather Lamarckian view toward evolution, which angered Gray greatly. The Thomas Meehan Papers at the ANS offers some biographical details about Meehan’s careers both as a botanist and a horticulturalist. Finally, I should not forget mentioning the voluminous Benjamin Smith Lyman Papers at the APS. Lyman was a geologist and mining engineer who came to Hokkaido in the 1870s to help the Meiji government carry out a geological survey there. The Lyman Papers at the APS contains remarkable correspondence between Lyman and his Japanese collaborators. I found this collection useful for my research, because Lyman made significant contribution in revealing the geological past of Hokkaido, a place that played a crucial role in Gray’s thesis on the similarities between the flora of East Asia and that of eastern North America. In fact, I am now in Sapporo, Hokkaido, and devote myself to studying in the archives of the Hokkaido University. Among those goals that I manage to achieve is to gain a whole picture of Lyman’s geological survey in Hokkaido. Naturally enough, I repeatedly come back to read my notes and pictures taken when I studied the Lyman Papers. I find the Lyman Papers to be an essential guidance for my study here in Hokkaido. What I list above is but those archival materials with which I have consulted. In fact, during my study at the APS and the ANS, I also gather a remarkable amount of information from rare books, journal articles, and proceedings, as well as from my conversations with the staff at these two remarkable institutions (for example, I for the first time learned Benjamin Franklin’s interests in China!). Here I would like to express my gratitude to the staff at the APS and the ANS. Without their professional and efficient assistances, indeed, I could not have accessed to so many relevant collections during my one-month stay in Philadelphia.