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John TorreyJohn Torrey

classifier of plants

John Torrey was born in New York City on August 15, 1796. When he was 15 or 16 his father was appointed Fiscal Agent of the State Prison of New York at Greenwich, and it was while living there that he met noted natural historian Amos Eaton, who encouraged his studies in botany, mineralogy and chemistry.

Torrey began the study of medicine in 1815, and obtained his degree in 1818. He opened a practice in New York, and continued to practice medicine alongside his botanical interests the rest of his life. In 1824, he assumed the Chair of Chemistry and Geology at West Point, but gave up that position to become Professor of Chemistry and Botany at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (New York) in 1827. He was appointed State Botanist of New York in 1836, and Chief Assayer at the United States Assay Office in 1853; he spent the rest of his working life in the latter position.

Torrey's botanical work began with publication of his Catalogue of Plants growing spontaneously within Thirty Miles of the City of New York in 1819. In 1824 he published Flora of the Northern and Middle States, in which he used a classification system developed by John Lindley in which plants are arranged by families -- one of the first American botanists to use the system. In 1831 he supervised publication of an American reprint of Lindley's Introduction to the Natural System of Botany, to which he appended a catalogue of North American genera arranged according to Lindley's system. He published Flora of the State of New York in 1843.

In addition to his medical practice and other positions, Torrey was also responsible for describing and cataloging specimens collected by the expeditions of Major Stephen Long, Joseph Nicollet, John Frémont, William Emory, L. Sitgreaves, Howard Stansbury, and Randolph Marcy and Charles Wilkes, as well as during surveys for the Pacific Railroad and U.S.-Mexico boundary. In his lifetime Torrey was considered the leader of botanists in America. By 1860 his collection had become large enough to warrant being donated to Columbia College.

John Torrey died in New York City on March 10, 1873. He is honored by having a genus of pines, Torreya, named for him.

Joseph Nicollet
John Frémont

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This page was last updated on 07/12/2017.