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Asa Gray 75th Birthday Celebration, November 1885

 

 

Oft-times it haps the singer's voice is dumb
When most is needed eloquence of song;

And oft the heart, though stirred by passions strong,
Can make no sign, nor will fit language come
The depth of its affection to make known:

So it is with myself. I fain would pay
Some tribute worthy one whose wealth is shown

In kindness to others -- Asa Gray!
But my full heart refuses to express

Its affluence of love. I can but praise
A feeble voice and wish him happiness

On this birthday, when friends have come to praise
His virtues and his works. To such as he
There cometh certain immortality!

George E. Davenport
Lines on Dr. Gray's Seventy-fifth Birthday
November 18th 1885.

 

With Dr. Gray's 75th birthday fast approaching a gift committee was quickly formed. This committee consisted of three botanists; Joseph Charles Arthur (1850-1942) an American botanist known for his investigations into rusts and the first head of the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology Purdue University; Charles Reid Barnes (1858-1910) a nationally recognized authority on the taxonomy of mosses and the first professor of plant biology at the University of Chicago; John Merle Coulter (1851-1928) head of the department of botany at the University of Chicago and founder and editor of the Botanical Gazette.

They printed and distributed circulars to all the botanists that came to mind. By October 31, 1885 they had received many repliies and donations and were estimating a fund of about $300 (approximately $7,070 in adjusted dollars). They contacted a local company, Bigelow, Kennard & Company to design a silver vase.

John Bigelow, was born 26 May 1802 at Westminster, Massachusetts. He moved to Boston as a young man, around 1824, and was soon joined by his brothers Alanson and Abraham. He was engaged as a dealer in watches and jewelry, and with his brothers formed Bigelow Brothers Co.. This was later called Bigelow, Kennard, & Co. The company maintained an excellent reputation as importers and dealers in watches and jewelry until it closed in 1922.

A vase of solid silver with floral designs was submitted to the committee on Novermber 3, 1885. After consulting as many Cambridge botanists as possible a few modicications were made and a final design was approved. The vase was very quickly made and, only two weeks later the vase and its pedestal were completed.

 

1885 Photograph of the vase and tray
Archives of the Gray Herbarium

 

2010 Photograph of the vase
Photograph by Tessa Updike

The vase, on its pedestal, was presented to Asa on the morning of the 18th. The cards and notes of congratulations from Gray's colleagues were presented on a silver tray. Gray was thrilled. That same day he crafted a letter to the committe but also to "the numerous Botanical Brotherhood represented by them". He wrote:

As I am quite unable to convey to you in words, any adequate idea of the gratification I received on the morning of the 18th inst. from the wealth of congratulations and expressions of esteem and affection which welcomed my seventy-fifth birthday, I can do no more than to render to each and all, by this circular letter, my heartiest thanks. Among fellow-botanists - more pleasantly connected than in any other pursuit by mutual giving and receiving, - some recognition of a rather uncommon anniversary might naturally be expected. But this full flow of benediction from the whole length and breadth of the land whose flora is a common study and a common delight, was as unexpected as it is touching and memorable. Equally so is the exquisite vase which accompanied the messages of congratulations, and is to commemorate them, and upon which a few of the flowers associated with my name or with my special studies are so deftly wrought by art, that of them one may almost say, 'The art itself is Nature.' "

 

Selected Tributes to Asa Gray

James Russell Lowell

TO A. G.
On his Seventy-fifth Birthday.
Just Fate, prolong his life well-spent
Whose indefatigable hours
Have been as gaily innocent
And fragrant as his flowers!

 

Charlotte Fiske Bates

TO DR. ASA GRAY.
November 18th, 1810-1885.

Over the earth is reachless, living light
In flaming marvels that defy the sight;
Under the earth are brilliant things, but dead;
Who toil among them are disquieted.

The world of green
That moves between-
With sweets and colors, flowering turf and height-
Comes close with health aud beauty as with bread,
Touches us fondly, foot and hand and head,
Till we are glad and healed as well as fed.

The child, the feeble, and the lusty man,
Each finds a mother in the green earth's plan.

Thou who art wise with searching all her looks,
And givest ages wisdom through thy books;
The secrets of her breath are in thy hold-
In years and science only art thou old.

The flowers' faces
Have sent such graces
Into thine own, as bless their native nooks.

Ferns, grasses, ancient trees of mighty mould
Whose mazy roots run deep, whose aim is bold,
Their varied forces in thy life have told;
For, while intent on flower or tree or sod,
Thy soul's full eye hath been upturned to God.

 

Congratulatory Address, adopted by the Senate of the University of Michigan, November 9, 1885.

To Professor Asa Gray,

The Senate of the University of Michigan, mindful of the approach of the seventy-fifth anniversary of your birth, take great pleasure in sending you their greetings on the occasion. We congratulate you that life and health and usefulness have been prolonged till three-quarters of a century have passed over your head. We entertain the hope that many years of activity yet remain.

With our congratulations we beg to give expression to a lively sentiment of gratitude for services rendered to your chosen science during a long and devoted life. You found the science of botany barred by a hedge of technicalities against the approach of the common student. You have made it the delight and inspiration of the youth of the land. You have subjected the science of botany in its higher departments to lucid and masterly exposition. Many of the comprehensive and critical reviews of the American flora have proceeded from your pen. The botanical pages of the American Journal of Science reveal labors sufficient in volume and value to fill and honor a lifetime. And those labors are yours. We hail you as the Nestor of American botany. Few of us there are who do not feel gratefully proud to testify our personal obligations to you for aid and inspiration in our earlier studies; and none of us fail to appreciate the services and honor which you have rendered to education and cultivated scholarship. We recall the catholic spirit and breadth of view with which you have treated questions of the interpretation and philosophy of science. We thank you for your acute but just and conservative criticisms and estimates of the doctrine of evolution through natural selection, at a time when the doctrine was new and rising into overshadowing importance which filled many honest minds with apprehension. We thank you again for stepping to the defense of fundamental religious truth through the power of the very philosophy which so many thought sent into the world to destroy religion. But for all that you have done we do not release you from service. We expect you to serve yet many years the cause of education and sacred truth; and we expect to concede you the highest honors of all for the labors which, we trust, are to adorn the last quarter of your century.

With us the pleasure of these congratulations is quite peculiar, since we can hail you as an ex-professor in our University. Your memory readily reverts to the crude infancy of this institution, when your name was chosen to stand first in its list of professors. You recall your actual participation in the labors of our early organizers; and we trust that while your recognized gifts of mind and heart found early employment in a broader field than was offered in Michigan, you have never ceased to entertain an interest in the University which you aided to inaugurate, and have some personal satisfaction in seeing the slender shoot of 1838 grown to the dimensions of the sturdy oak of 1885.

Accept, Respected Sir,
Our Kind Remembrance
And Our Cordial Greeting.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.,
November 20, 1885.
Prof. W. H. Pellee, Secretary of the Senate of the University of Michigan:

DEAR SIR:

I can not well say how deeply I was touched and gratified by the Congratulatory Address from the Senate of your University, which I found on my table on the morning of my seventy-fifth birthday, accompanied by your official and friendly note. I was particularly impressed with the breadth of its survey of the labors of my life, and with the discriminating reference to some of them which would escape ordinary notice. I beg you to conveyto the Senate my grateful acknowledgement of the very kind notice thus taken of my endeavors. I recognize, moreover, the fitness of its intimation that I should make the most of the few years that may perhaps remain. I am happy to be able to declare that my appetite for work is as yet unabated; also that labor is still attended with joy rather than with the sorrow which the Psalmist contemplates.

I am much pleased that, although a deserter from the ranks before the war began, I am generously recognized as an ex-professor of the University of Michigan. I suppose that the only direct service I ever rendered it was that of getting together, when in Europe in 1838-9, the books which were the small foundation of its library. I well remember the gratified feeling with which, long afterwards, I incidentally heard that the first President of the University, on viewing this slender collection, expressed the opinion that the books had been well selected for the purpose.

I have never ceased to be particularly interested in the University in which I expected to pass my life. I regret that circumstances have hitherto almost wholly prevented me from personally verifying the impressions which I have received of the amplitude of its appliances for the higher education and of the worthy and efficient use that is made of them. I am, indeed, glad that I have lived to see the acorn which was planted in my youth develop into " the long-surviving oak," vigorous and beneficent in its youth, and rich in the promise of future years. May its leaf never wither nor its fruitage fail.

Please convey to the Senate my heartiest thanks for such "kind remembrance and cordial greetings," and believe me to be Very truly yours,
Asa Gray

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