John Torrey

By Nicole Tarnowsky

Apr 19 2019

John Torrey (1796-1873) is considered one of the most influential American botanists of the 19th century, training a generation of botanists including Asa Gray, collaborating with botanists from every region of North America, and amassing a personal herbarium of 40,000 specimens which are now housed in the Steere Herbarium.

Torrey taught botany and chemistry at several colleges in the New York area including West Point, NYU, Princeton and Columbia College (now University). Later in his career he donated his herbarium and library to Columbia and continued to be the curator. He started giving informal botany seminars which eventually became the Torrey Botanical Club, still in existence today as the Torrey Botanical Society.

Torrey's career spanned the age of exploration for a young United States, with numerous government sponsored expeditions to explore the continent, including the Mexican Boundary Survey led by William Emory, Pacific Railroad Surveys to to create a transcontinental railroad and John Charles Frémont expeditions mapping routes for settlers to move west. These expeditions included botanists, and they were all sending their collections to John Torrey. Local botanists in every corner of the country were also collecting specimens and collaborating with Torrey, resulting in a herbarium that contains many of the earliest collections of plant species in North America.

Though several European botanists had published floras on parts of North America, Torrey, along with his student and then life long collaborator Asa Gray, set out to be the first American botanists to write a Flora of North America. This was to cover the entire continent and be organized in the Natural Classification System of the time. Torrey and Gray consulted these early collections and used them as the basis for their species descriptions, they are listed in Torrey and Gray's A Flora of North America.

To commemorate of the life long collaborations of Torrey and Gray, botanist and explorer Charles C. Parry named two adjacent peaks in Colorado for them, Torrey's Peak and Gray's Peak. In 1872, 11 years after it was named for him and just one year before his death, Torrey took a trip to Colorado, collecting specimens on both peaks.

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