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William Henry Brewer (1828-1910)

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9.5 linear inches (2 boxes)


William Henry Brewer (1828-1910) was the first Chair of Agriculture at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University and a botanical explorer of California and the Pacific Coast. He was Principal Assistant in charge of botany on the pioneering Geological Survey of California, 1860-1864. His recommendations about Alaska led to its purchase by the United States in 1867.

Brewer was born on a farm at Poughkeepsie, New York on September 14, 1828. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Enfield, near Ithaca, New York. In 1848 Brewer entered Yale University to study agricultural chemistry under Professors Benjamin Silliman, Jr. and John Pitkin Norton. At Yale he was one of the first members of the Berzelius Society. After two years at Yale, Brewer returned to Enfield and began his teaching career at Ithaca Academy. In 1852 he returned to Yale where he received a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from the Sheffield Scientific School. Among this first graduating class were George J. Brush and William P. Blake. From 1852 to 1855 he taught at the Ovid Academy in Ovid, New York. In 1855 he traveled to Heidelberg, where he studied natural sciences under Professor Bunsen, and also travelled to Munich where he studied under Professor Liebig. In the summer of 1856, he undertook a 600 mile botanical exploration of Switzerland. Before returning to Ovid in 1857, he attended Chevreul's lectures on chemistry in Paris. In 1858, he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at Washington College (now Washington and Jefferson College) at Washington, Pennsylvania. That year he married his first wife, Angelina Jameson.

In 1860, after the deaths of his wife and newborn son, Brewer was invited to participate in the Geological Survey of California, directed by Josiah Dwight Whitney. This survey would set the standards for all future geological surveys undertaken in the United States. His primary task was leading field parties and maintaining records of botanical collections.

Classifications were not undertaken until after the survey was completed. Although no longer employed by the survey, Brewer brought his specimens to Harvard where he was advised by Asa Gray on their determinations. The first volume of the botany portion of the Geological Survey of California was not published until 1876. The second volume appeared in 1880 under the authorship of Sereno Watson (1826-1892).

In 1864, Brewer left the California survey to occupy the Chair of Agriculture in the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale. He remained at this post until 1903, retiring as professor emeritus. He was active in Connecticut government, establishing agricultural experiment stations and organizing the Connecticut and New Haven Boards of Health. He was special a agent in the 1880 census, reporting on the production of cereals in the U.S. and he chaired the committee appointed by the National Academy of Sciences in 1903 to make recommendations for a scientific survey of the Philippine Islands.

Other botanical explorations he participated included: the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (1869); Greenland (1894); and the Harriman Alaska Expedition (1899). He was awarded an honorary degree by the University of California in 1910.

A diarist and letter writer, his writings are preserved in the History of Technology Collection at the University of California, Berkeley archives. They were most recently edited by Frances P. Farquhar in 1966.

Brewer had remarried in 1868 to Georgiana Robinson at Exeter, New Hampshire. They had four children: Nora, Henry, Arthur, and Carl.  William H. Brewer died at New Haven in 1910.


The collection documents Brewer's career as Professor of Agriculture at Sheffield Scientific School; Yale University; and his work on the botany volumes of the Geological Survey of California, 1860-1880 under Josiah Dwight Whitney, including his collaborations with Asa Gray and Sereno Watson. It contains manuscripts, notes, correspondence, and galley proofs. The collection is arranged into three series.


Series 1: Lectures, n.d.
Series 2: Geological Survey of California, Botany, 1860-1880
Series 3: Sereno Watson Papers, 1875-1879

Series 1     Lectures, n.d.
                   2 folders. Arranged by subject.

This series contains manuscripts of two lectures delivered by William Brewer during the course of his career as Professor of Agriculture (1865-1903) at the Sheffield Scientific School, Yale University.

Series 2     Geological Survey of California, Botany, 1860-1880
                  0.5 lin. ft. Arranged by subject.

This series contains manuscripts and proofs for Volume 1 of the botany section of the Geological Survey of California. Notable in this series are manuscript determinations of Polemoniaceae by Asa Gray. Correspondence to Sereno Watson regarding his proofreading of Volume 1 and his corrected proofs is found in Series 3: Sereno Watson Papers.

Series 3     Sereno Watson Papers, 1875-1879
                  1.5 lin. in.

This series contains correspondence from William Brewer related to Watson's proofreading of the galleys for Geological Survey of California, Botany, pre-prints of George Engelmann's contributions to Volume 2 and some of Watson's notes for Volume 2.


University of California, Bancroft Library

History of Science and Technology Collection

Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University Herbaria

William Henry Brewer Papers

Processed June 2000 by Laura Zelasnic, Project Archivist, under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH PA-23141-98).

For more information and a complete description contact:
Susan Fraser, NYBG Archivist
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, NY 10458-5126
(718) 817-8879

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