Darwin’s longest running and most significant exchange of correspondence dealing with the subjects of design in nature and religious belief was with the Harvard botanist Asa Gray. Gray was one of Darwin’s leading supporters in America. He was also a devout Presbyterian. The vigorous and yet civil and humble manner in which the two men debated matters of intense personal belief and social consequence serves as a model of constructive engagement. The entire extant correspondence, consisting of about 300 letters written between 1854 and 1881, is now available for the first time. Many of these letters are not yet available in print. The transcriptions have been provided and checked by the editors of the Correspondence Project.
Gray was born in New York State in 1810. He qualified as a doctor, but gave up medical practice after only two years to teach and study botany. He travelled in England and Europe in 1838 and it was then that he first met Joseph Hooker, son of the director of Kew Gardens.
Gray and Hooker briefly met Charles Darwin for the first time during that visit, but it was not until 1855 that Gray and Darwin first corresponded. That correspondence continued for the rest of Darwin’s life. Returning to the US, Gray was appointed professor of natural history at Harvard University in 1842, a post he held until his death in 1888. He wrote numerous botanical works and was president of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1848 he married Jane Loring. They had no children.
The Darwin Correspondence Project has commissioned a dramatisation of the friendship between Darwin and Gray, drawing entirely on their own words from letters and publications. Information about the dramatisation, called Re:Design, and written by Craig Baxter is available here. A two-actor version of the script specially developed for small-scale performances in colleges or at conferences, is also available for not-for-profit performance.