John Torrey: The Daily Life of a Botanist

Darlingtonia californica, type specimen from NYBG

The bulk of John Torrey’s papers are at the New York Botanical Garden. He had donated them to Columbia University, along with his herbarium, and both collections eventually made their way to NYBG. I consulted these archives when I was investigating the relationship between Torrey and the Pennsylvania botanist William Darlington (1792-1863). Darlington was a physician and also a leading citizen of West Chester in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania. He was an avid botanist, and in 1826 became one of the founding members of the West Chester Cabinet of Natural Sciences, which housed natural history collections including his herbarium. Darlington wrote a flora of Chester County (1837) that was considered a model for such publications, and he corresponded with botanists in the US and in Europe. His letter books reveal how he cultivated correspondents. He would write to an illustrious botanist such as Augustin Pyramus de Candolle of Geneva and offer to send North American plants in exchange for European ones. Some of these requests were ignored or simply answered with polite but noncommittal replies. Others, as with de Candolle, were fruitful, in this case bearing not only 77 specimens but also the honor of having a genus of mimosa named after Darlington (Overlease, 1992). In addition, Darlington received specimens and books from William Jackson Hooker, and they continued to correspond.

Needless to say, I found letters from Darlington in the NYBG Torrey archive, but for Torrey’s end of the communications, I had to turn to the Darlington archives at the New York Historical Society. Not surprisingly, Gray also traded letters with Darlington, and also wrote to Torrey about him. Here a combination of the Torrey archives and those of Gray at Harvard, which are all online, yielded interesting material. And the Smithsonian provided letters from Torrey to Brackenridge. I cannot claim to have investigated these sources extensively. I was interested in a span of a few years in the early 1850s, but in looking for information on how Torrey came to name a California pitcher plant after Darlington: Darlingtonia californica, I also got a sense of Torrey’s passion for botany. Sometimes the letters between Torrey and Gray were very frequent as if they were frustrated at not being able to work at adjacent desks as they had years before.

Often it was Torrey who received the specimens and then sent them on to Gray. On October 24, 1851 Torrey wrote of an “agreeable surprise” he had the night before: a visit at his laboratory from his “old friend” Dr. Gilbert Hulse. This suggests that Torrey used his evening hours to catch up on botany and was pleased when Hulse “on the table laid a little chubby parcel of plants” he had collected in California. Among them were two surprises, one was a good specimen of a plant he had just named after Darlington to replace the early one named by de Candolle which had been synonymized by George Bentham. Unfortunately, Torrey had used a rather meager and damaged specimen for his descriptions, and this better example indicated that the plant was not a new genera, but a styrax. Torrey’s hasty work on this plant, using inferior material, suggests how frantic the “race” was to name American species. The competition was not so much from compatriots but from what Darlington termed the “invidious” Europeans, using the adjective specifically to describe George Bentham, who had renamed the first Darlingtonia.

Offsetting this disappointment were flowering specimens of the California pitcher plant Brackenridge had collected in 1841, but without a flower. Torrey had been anxious to describe the plant because the pitcher has a unique form: hooded, with two leaf-like appendages hanging from the hood’s edge. However, without a flower, publication wasn’t possible; the only thing close to flower material was the flower stalk. Torrey had complained to Brackenridge about the overall quality of the material collected in California. The latter resented this, writing that Torrey had no idea how difficult it was to find, collect, and press plants while dealing with poor supplies, rough terrain, and bad weather. Torrey, a perfect example of what was termed a “closet botanist” who avoided the field, wrote Gray that he didn’t think much of Brackenridge’s excuses since Frémont had brought back much better plants and “far more numerous specimens.” Charles Pickering, also on the Wilkes Expedition, came in for even greater scorn: he “seemed to look for the most starved and ill-looking specimens and then took merely one of each kind.” Not collecting multiples left Torrey without specimens to distribute to other botanists, a particular problem in cases where he needed help in identifying the plant.

Now, ten years after the original collection, there were, thanks to Hulse’s pitcher plant flowers to be examined, and Torrey set about the task immediately. He also sent a specimen to Gray asking him to pass it on to the artist Isaac Sprague to prepare an illustration. By October 30 he had already had a letter from Gray complaining that the specimen was damaged in transit. Torrey wrote: “I regretted not having defended the specimen better—but I was in haste, and knew how pleased you would be to see it.” There was only one flower left, and he would send it on to Gray once he had finished studying it. He was already working to obtain more specimens. Hulse had stopped by and Torrey had drawn a rough sketch of the flower. Hulse was going to send it “at once to an intelligent friend of his (Mr. Reading—now a candidate for the office of Governor of California) who has long resided within 15 miles of the locality of the plant and who has many Indian servants.”

This telling passage says a great deal about plant collecting at the time. It was the pastime of many men in all walks of life, including politics. Often these men were wealthy, as the number of Mr. Reading’s servants suggests. That servants would be the ones doing the collecting is not surprising. Indigenous peoples were often involved in plant collecting, though this was not always mentioned by those who took credit for the collections. Torrey’s words also indicate how anxious he was to get more specimens quickly. As it turned out, additional examples of this species weren’t discovered for another ten years. In the next post there will be more on Torrey’s work with this plant and his other botanical endeavors.

References

Darlington, W. (1837). Flora Cestrica. West Chester, PA: Siegfried.

Overlease, W. R. (1992). A short history of the William Darlington Herbarium with an annotated list of plant collectors represented. Bartonia, 57, 82–94.

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