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Asa Gray's Visit to Ann Arbor

Asa Gray
The Michigan Alumnus 483

Asa Gray’s Visit to Ann Arbor
By Frank E. Robbins, Ph.D.
Assistant to the President of the University

Famous Botanist Was First Professor Appointed to Michigan's Faculty by Board of Regents

he first professor to be ap
pointed by the first Board of the University of Michigan was Dr. Asa Gray, the famous botanist. His appointment was made on July 17, 1838, and was terminated by his resignation, which was accepted with regret on May 28, 1842, before he had ever taught a class in the infant 
university, but nevertheless not before he had done
 Michigan invaluable service in purchasing abroad the 
books that still form the foundation of its library. It
 seems to have escaped the notice of many who have 
delved into the history of our beginnings that Dr. Gray 
paid a visit to Detroit and Ann Arbor in 1838, and, in 
his letters (Letters of Asa Gray. Edited by Jane Loring 
Gray, in two volumes. London: MacMillan &
 Co., 1893.) has left an interesting account of the people
 and things he saw. The records of this time are not so 
voluminous or easy of access that 
a repetition of what he then wrote 
is out of place today.

It is a pity Dr. Gray could not 
have stayed in Ann Arbor. He was
 a scientist of the very highest rank, 
 and also a man of most lovable 
character and enterprising spirit. He
 was born November 18, 1810, in
 Paris township, Oneida County, New York, of New England ances
try, "Scotch-Irish" on the father's 
side, and received a medical educa
tion in the old Fairfield Medical
 School, supplemented by study in 
the offices of country doctors. His
 interest in botany began during his
 stay at Fairfield. Between that time
 and his visit to Michigan, Dr. Gray taught and botanized, and, in particular, became the assistant of the well-known botanish, Dr. John Torrey of New York. Dr. Torrey was
 a friend of Major (later Judge, and ex-officio Regent) Charles W. Whipple, a Detroit law
yer and the first Secretary of the Board of Regents, 
and his opinion had been taken in 1837 when the purchase of Baron Lederer's cabinet of minerals was dis
cussed by the Regents. Dr. Gray quite probably owed
 his appointment at Michigan to this connection. 

On Tuesday evening, August 7, 1838, Dr. Gray left 
New York, and early in the morning just one week 
later he arrived in Detroit—which is somewhat dif
ferent from getting on a train at five o'clock one day 
and finding yourself in Detroit the
 next morning at seven. He break
fasted at a hotel and sought out 
Major Whipple, whom he found 
"thoroughly good natured." Together they went to see Dr. Zina
 Pitcher, one of the first Regents, 
 who was not at home, and Dr.
 Douglas Houghton, who likewise
 was away, but whose "extensive col
lections" they admired. Neither was 
Governor Stevens Thomson Mason
 at the State House, but they inspect
ed that building and enjoyed "a 
most beautiful view" from its cu
pola. Next they visited the branch
 of the University in Detroit where
 a public examination was going on. 
 In the evening they met Governor
 Mason and his sisters, but soon adjourned to Major Whipple's office where the Regents were to meet. There was no quorum, 
 however, and they adjourned. (
To meet, as Dr. Gray says, the next Thursday, but as the Regents'
 Proceedings, 1837-1864, p. 55, show, on Saturday, August 18. Dr. Gray 
says that Edward Mundy was expected back from New York on Thurs-
day, the 16th, but the Regents' Proceedings, pp. 82-83, show that he was 
still in New York, or near by, at that time, conferring with Alexander 
J. Davis, the architect, and trying to straighten out the misunderstanding
 with another architect, Ammi B. Young, of Vermont. Dr. Gray, however, 
 writes that the meeting of Thursday evening did not materialize because 
of Mr. Mundy's non-arrival.)

On Wednesday, August 15, Dr. Gray met Dr. 
Houghton, "a very energetic little fellow" who had
 "slept in a house not more than a dozen nights since the 
commencement of his surveys that season." On
 Thursday evening he talked with Major Whipple, And 
as the subject of their conversation was the plan for the 
buildings at Ann Arbor I will quote his words:

"We compared notes fully about the University and everything about the matter we could think of. I obtain
ed all the information he could afford me about what 
they were doing, and contemplated doing. I told him
 fully what I wished to do, and in everything I believe 
we understood each other and agreed wonderfully. 
 This is important, because Whipple, although secretary 
of the board, is not a member; yet he is the moving 
spirit of the whole, and throws his whole energy into 
the work. We owe the plan adopted as to the arrange
ment of buildings, etc., to him, and he carried it over
 considerable opposition. As I know it is just what will
 please the doctor (Dr. Torrey, The letter was written to Mrs. Torrey)
 I mention it here. It is to have the 
professors' houses entirely distinct from both the university building and the dormitories of the students. 
The grounds arc nearly square, and are to be entirely 
surrounded by an avenue. Me proposes to have a university building for lecture rooms, library, laboratory, 
 etc., but to contain no students and no families; to have 
two lateral buildings for students and the tutors who 
have the immediate charge of them. Then to build professors' houses on the other side of the quadrangle, 
 fronting the main building, each with about an acre 
of land for yard and garden, by which the houses will 
not only be away from the students, but at sufficient
 distance from each other to render them retired and
 quiet. It is quite a point with him that the professors
 shall have retired, comfortable houses, so that they shall
 be subject to no annoyance."

This is important, though not easy to explain. The 
Regents' Proceedings do not show that the arrangement
 of buildings was discussed before Alexander J. Davis'
 plans were adopted on September 16, 1838. They had, 
 however, taken the important step, on June 7, 1837, of 
choosing the Rumsey farm, the site of our present
 Campus, in preference to the Nowland farm on the
 brow of the hill overlooking the Michigan Central rail
road tracks, which was the first choice of their com
mittee; they had appointed a building committee, and 
on July 18, 1838, they had passed the resolution which
 established wide avenues along the four sides of the 
Campus, had taken steps to make the Campus a square 
tract, and had determined to buy building materials. 
I think it may be inferred from what Dr. Gray says
 that a general plan "for the new buildings and their location had been agreed upon informally before Mr.
 Davis was consulted, and that his proposals no doubt
 were based upon what the Regents had indicated that 
they wanted. More important, these early discussions 
already included the "professors' houses," which were
 actually built, in their scope, and Mr. Davis is quite 
likely to have made them part of his plan. We cannot 
quite prove, from our present records, that Alexander 
J. Davis was the architect of these houses, including the 
still extant President's House, but I believe that this
 statement of Asa Gray raises considerably the degree
 of probability that he did. 

The same evening Dr. Gray met Chancellor Elon 
Farnsworth for the first time, and two days later 
went alone to Ann Arbor, "thirty miles of railroad and 
ten (the road not being completed) by stage coach." 
Of the town he said, "The location is really delightful, 
 and in a very few years it will be the prettiest possible 
place for a residence." The Campus, too, was "very 
prettily situated," the only possible fault of the grounds
' being that they were too level. Dr. Gray busied himself
 with planning an arrangement of the grounds " which
 gives satisfaction to the members of the board here, and
 I think will suit all." He met Chief Justice William A. 
 Fletcher, Judge Ross Wilkins, and Dr. Samuel Demon, 
 all Regents, and on Sunday, the 19th, attended the
 Presbyterian Church, of which the pastor, "an amiable
 and very pious old man, was to preach his last sermon 
today, the people having grown too wise for their teachers."(O. W. Stephenson (Ann Arbor—The First Hundred Years, p. 370)
 says that Rev. John Beach was pastor of the Presbyterian Church from
1832 until February, 1838, after which the Church was without 3 regular
 minister until 1843) But there was too much roast pork in the diet of 
Ann Arbor, for one thing, to suit Dr. Gray, and on 
Monday, the 20th, he was back in Detroit, whence, ap
parently, he departed for the East within a few days, 
 after a few more conversations with members of the 
board about the grounds, the water supply, and the appropriation for books and apparatus which was later 
made. Very shortly thereafter he sailed for Europe. 

Dr. Gray mentions the fact that Mr. Davis was soon 
to visit Detroit, which is substantiated further by Lieu
tenant Governor Mundy's statement that he had conveyed such an invitation to him. (Regents' Proceedings, 1837-1864, pp. 82-83) It appears therefore 
that the decisions about building matters which are re
corded on September 16 were made after consultation
 with Mr. Davis, and perhaps even with him in attendance at the meeting of the Regents. 

Dr. Gray's letters occasionally mention the which he was buying for the University of Michigan 
during his European journey, and in his fragmentary 
autobiography he tells us that George P. Putnam, of 
the firm of Wiley and Putnam, (book (The well-known publisher. George Palmer Putnam, founder of the 
firm G. P. Putnam's Sons, father of George Haven Putnam, present 
head of the firm, and of Herbert Putnam. Librarian of Congress.) then resident in London, was his agent for their purchase. A letter to his 
father, written November 5, 1839, in New York, speaks 
of his arrival the evening before in the ship "Toronto,"'
 bringing "nearly the full amount of my purchases of 
books for the Michigan library, a large collection." The 
next two years were trying ones for him, for the Mich
igan professorship did not materialize and no salary
 was forthcoming. Harvard, however, could offer him 
the position, which he occupied for so many years there