Torrey was the son of William Torrey, a New York merchant of New England ancestry who had fought in the American Revolution. His mother was Margaret Nichols, the daughter of a successful cabinetmaker and owner of real estate. The family lived on the eastern side of the tip of Manhattan. They attended the Presbyterian church, of which John remained a member throughout life. He attended public school in New York and for one year in Boston.
John Torrey first became interested in botany in 1810, when he befriended the scientist Amos Eaton, who was in a prison administered by young Torrey’s father, William Torrey. At the time that Torrey’s interest in botany first developed, the Linnaean system of classification was still in use in the United States, and the collecting activities of botanists had not as yet exhausted the novelties found even in the environs of New York City. By the time that Torrey’s career ended in 1873, a natural system of classification was in use by American botanists, and the range of his own herbarium encompassed the entire North American continent.
Torrey intiated, with the first volume of his Flora of the Northern and Middle Sections of the United States (1824), the practice of gathering together in one work all that was known of North American flora. He led American botanists in the adoption of the natural system of classification, developed by Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and A. P. de candole. He edited an American edition of John Lindley’s Introduction to the Natural System of Botany (1831) and planned a work to be titled the Flora of North America, based on the new system. After his protégé Asa Gray joined him as a partner in 1836, he published several fascicles of the Flora of North America. He stopped publication in 1843, however, because Gray, who had accepted a position at Harvard College, was no longer in New York, and because both of them were inundated with botanical specimens as a result of western explorations.
In 1843 Torrey published Flora of the State of New York, in two volumes, as a part of the New York survey. This work, the most polished and finished to come from Torrey’s hand alone, represents him at the height of his powers of taxonomic and nomenclatural discrimination. Between 1843 and his death in 1873 Torrey wrote no fewer than eighteen reports on the dried specimens brought back by explorers, mostly collectors with the topographical engineers, from the western United States. Torrey’s herbarium, which went to Columbia College after his death, must be counted as one of his major scientific contributions; it became the foundation for the herbarium of the New York City Botanical Garden. During a period in the 1860’s Torrey had in his possession the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, so that his taxonomic work is also embedded in the foundations of the United States National Herbarium.
Torrey wrote few textbooks and did not express himself on the great issues of biology surrounding the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The limitations preventing a well-rounded career in biology stem from Torrey’s incomplete solution of the problem as to what constituted the professional role of a scientist in early-and mid-nineteenth-century America. His research was in botany, but his degree was in medicine (1818), and his teaching was in the fields of chemistry and mineralogy. In the 1820’s he taught chemistry at West Point, the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, and, for brief periods, at Williams College, New York University, and before general subscription audiences. From 1830 to 1854 he was a professor at Princeton, but he taught there only during the summer term, spending the winters in New York.
In 1851 Torrey began to reorganize his whole pattern of living; he sold his house in Princeton and, a few years later, resigned his teaching posts. In 1853 he became assayer of the United States Mint in New York, which received in those years large shipments of gold from California. In 1856 he became a trustee of Columbia College and in 1860 moved to the campus, to a house that he received in return for his herbarium of 40,000 species and library of 600 volumes. Thus he continued to earn his living teaching chemistry, and to make contributions to science by spending every spare moment on his botanical studies.
Torrey’s influence must include his friendships with many of the builders of the American scientific community, beginning with Amos Eaton. Torrey was close to Joseph Henry and played an important role in his appointment to Princeton in 1832. His protection and encouragement gave Asa Gray the status of professional botanist, a status that Torrey himself never achieved. Yet he remained able to work as a peer with his younger colleague to the very end, when Gray edited Torrey’s report of the Wilkes expedition from northwestern North America as its author lay dying.
The two major sources on John Torrey are Andrew Denny Rodgers III, John Torrey: A Story of North American Botany (Princeton; 1942); and Christine Chapman Robbins, “John Torrey (1796–1873). His Life and Times,” in Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 95 (1968), 515–645. Both have lists of Torrey’s works and extensive bibliographies. Robbins has a useful chronology. Extensive MS collections and the Torrey herbarium are at the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York.
A. Hunter Dupree
American Botanist and Chemist 1796-1873
John Torrey was one of the major botanists in the United States in the nineteenth century. As a youth he chose medicine as a career and in 1816 entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. Before graduation he joined with his professors to become one of the founders of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York (now the New York Academy of Sciences). In 1818, he received his medical degree (M.D.). His first academic position was as an Assistant Surgeon and Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy at West Point, New York. A few years later he was invited to return to his alma mater, and there he taught chemistry from 1827 to 1855. He also taught at Princeton from 1830 to 1854.
From 1820 until his death in 1873, Torrey was recognized as the major botanist of the innumerable plant collections by the many military expeditions sent by the U.S. government into the western lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Torrey assorted, arranged, named, diagnosed, and described new species by thousands. His life is in many ways a bibliography of early North American botanical exploration and discovery.
Torrey's first expedition papers analyzed plants collected during the Major Long Expedition in 1820 to the Platte River. Torrey's third paper on the tundra plants of the Rocky Mountains used the Natural System of classification, which had been recently introduced from Europe and had jarred many American traditionalists who still followed the Sexual System of classification as developed by Linnaeus. This shift was a major step forward in the American scientific community.
In 1832, Torrey met Asa Gray, a medical doctor. They commenced on a fruitful working relationship, and eventually Gray became one of America's greatest botanists, and, ultimately, Torrey's successor. "Torrey and Gray" were soon a kind of botanical statement as today "Watson and Crick" are.
In 1839, Torrey was named State Botanist of New York, and in 1843 he published the first Flora of New York State.
Retired from Columbia College in 1855, Torrey, then a trustee of the college, offered the administration his huge, well-known herbarium, asking to remain on campus as the curator. The college accepted and he lived on the campus until his death in 1873. Also a known mineralogist, Torrey was hired as the assayer of the New York Mint, which he continued until his death.
In 1860, with the looming danger of the Civil War, Torrey volunteered to take temporarily the Smithsonian Herbarium to his New York Columbia Herbarium, where it was assumed to be safer. Torrey kept the materials for nine years, greatly increasing the number of specimens and working hard to improve the collection. The National Herbarium owes much to Torrey.
In 1867, a Manhattan botanical club, which was assisted by Torrey and which held its meetings in his herbarium, was renamed The Torrey Botanical Club (now Society). Today it is a national scientific society and holds its meetings in the New York Botanical Garden's Torrey Room. Torrey's herbarium is now the heart of the world-class Herbarium of the New York Botanical Garden.
see also Gray, Asa; Linnaeus, Carolus; Taxonomist; Taxonomy, History of.
Lawrence J. Crockett
Rodgers, Andrew Denny III. John Torrey: A Study of North American Botany. Originally published in 1942. New York: Hafner Pub. Co., 1965.
American botanist and chemist
John Torrey was the preeminent botanist in the United States during the nineteenth century. Born in New York City and trained as a physician, chemist, and mineralogist, he taught at West Point, the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, and Princeton University. Torrey became the central figure in classifying the thousands of new plants discovered by explorers during the period of westward expansion, and he wrote numerous scientific monographs on the flora of the American West.
Torrey introduced to the United States the natural system of classification developed by his European contemporaries Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and Augustin de Candolle, overthrowing the sexual system of classification of Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. In 1833 Torrey began his work with American botanist Asa Gray, first as teacher and later as partner, and by 1843 Torrey and Gray had published two volumes of the Flora of North America.
Throughout his life, Torrey developed a large and significant herbarium, housing thousands of plant specimens. His collection is the heart of the herbarium of the New York Botanical Garden. Torrey's name is found in a genus of evergreen trees, Torreya, as well as numerous plant species names. The Torrey Botanical Society is a national scientific organization promoting interest in and understanding of botany.
see also Gray, Asa; Linnaeus, Carolus
Isely, Duane. One Hundred and One Botanists. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994.