Ironically, the scientist most like Louis Agassiz was the man most opposed to him and his ideas. Asa Gray, it has been said, "is to botany what Agassiz is to Zoology, and the two did much toward setting America on the road to eminence in scientific research." Like Agassiz, Gray received a medical degree but never practiced as a physician, preferring the life of the botanist to that of the country doctor. Like Agassiz, too, he was a tremendous worker, a man of indefatigable energies, who devoted almost every waking moment of his life to his work. As ardent an advocate as was Agassiz of the necessity to maintain high standards in scientific research, he never hesitated to "take off [his] coat, roll up [his] sleeves, and spend weeks in digging . . . rubbish away" in order to advance science.
Whether Gray was "digging rubbish away" or attempting (by his own confession) "maliciously to vex the soul of Agassiz with views so diametrically opposed to all his pet notions," when in 1859 he challenged Agassiz's position in a series of debates on species and their origin is a question best left to psychological analysts. The result, in any case, was of revolutionary consequences, for in these debates, politely carried on within the genteel intellectual circles of Boston and Cambridge, Gray threw down the gauntlet of Darwinism--a view of world development that was to shake up traditional conceptions and revolutionize man's thinking about religion, society, and man's position in the universe.
The path that led Gray to "turning some of Agassiz's own guns against him" on the evening of January 11, 1859, began in rural New York, where Gray was born into a Scotch-Irish family of modest means. His father, a tanner and farmer, was able to provide him with whatever limited educational facilities were available in that simple agricultural region, including five years of study at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District at Fairfield, New