James Family Archives


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Thomas Potts James (1803-1882) (Biography)

Published in “The Bryologist”, Volume VI, Number 5

September 1903, pages 71-74


by Mary Isabella James Gozzaldi

of Cambridge, Massachusetts


     A hundred years have passed since the birth of my father, and it seems that the time has come to redeem a promise made years ago to write a sketch of his life for the readers of The Bryologist, who are so familiar with his name and work.  So far as I know he never kept any journal, and I have had to depend on letters for the facts and dates given.  In the Cryptogamic Museum at Harvard are five large albums of letters written to him, together with his rough copies of his answers, that may serve some day for his biography.  As I have not followed in the steps of my father my record must necessarily be of the man and not the scientist.


     My father, Thomas Potts James, was born September 1, 1803, in the old James mansion house at Radnor, Pennsylvania, standing back from the Lancaster Turnpike, a little way from Byrn Mawr College. His parents were Isaac James, M.D., and his wife, Henrietta, daughter of Colonel Thomas Potts, of Coventry, Pennsylvania.  In the old house at Coventry she had married Isaac James, in the first year of the new century, and on January 16, 1802, John Fletcher James, their eldest child, had been born in this house, and less than twenty months later the second son.  Thomas Potts James.


     The ancestor of the family, David James, came to Pennsylvania from New Radnor, Wales, purchasing in 1682 a large tract of land from William Penn.  Of my father’s boyhood at Radnor I know nothing except that he was a chubby blond, with delicate skin, fine thick fair hair and blue eyes.  When he was nine years old his father removed to near Trenton, where he could have better schools for his children than in the country west of Philadelphia.  Thomas and his elder brother, John, began to fit for Princeton College, but their father, Dr. James, unfortunately lost so much money at this time that a college education had to be given up, and they early began to earn their own living.  John and Thomas both studied Pharmacy.


     It was probably while studying botany as used in the material medica that my father found his vocation.  A congenial companion at this time was a Mr. Laning, who devoted much time to long excursions after new plants.  My father was soon familiar with the principal flora of the neighborhood of Philadelphia, and thinking that it had been determined and named he turned his attention to the Cryptogams where there was a chance of original research.


     In 1831 the brothers, John and Thomas, started in the drug business in Philadelphia and continued for nearly forty years, but only as a means of providing daily bread.  In 1866 my father was able to dispose of his drug store and free himself forever from business and could thus devote all his time to Mosses.  He studied medicine but never graduated; he was Professor and Examiner in the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy many years; Secretary of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and after the death of Dr. Darlington took his place as Professor of Botany.  He was also Treasurer of the American Pomological Society till his death and was indefatigable in its interests, editing and indexing its biennial reports, etc.  It was in connection with Dr. Darlington’s editing of the Bartram correspondence that my father made the acquaintance of his future wife, Miss Isabelle Batchelder.  She was a friend of Dr. Asa Gray’s and much interested in Botany and gave valuable suggestions regarding the illustrations to the Bartram Letters.  They were married in old Christ-Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December, 1951.  They lived a few months in Philadelphia, then settled at Burlington, New Jersey, where I was born:  the following winter they returned to Philadelphia, and here my two brothers and sister were born.  Now came the time when my father began to give the fruit of his labor to the public.  In 1853 he prepared the list of Anophytes, i.e., Mosses and Liverworts for Dr. Darlington’s third edition of Flora Cestrica.  A little later the Flora of Delaware County to Dr. George Smith’s History of that county.


     Under date November 12, 1855, Dr. Asa Gray writes:  “The first sheets of the revised edition of the Manual is now in the printer’s hands – and I am going on with it pretty fast.  After a while Sullivant is to revise the mosses and hepaticae, adding all the species he knows in Atlantic States, i.e., east of the Mississippi.  If you do not like to furnish him a list of the species you have detected, I think it would be well (and the only way to secure the priority of your discoveries) for you to publish beforehand a list of the mosses you know, or of those you have detected which are not in the Manual.  Only you should do it soon.  These people that wait for perfection before they give their knowledge to the world, I notice generally die before they reach the acme.  And I should think it hard if you know of mosses in New England which we do not and you let a new edition of my Manual come out, and be stereotyped, while you confine that knowledge to your own bosom.  As to those thought to be new, why not decide and bring them out or keep those for further investigation.”


     A hall room on the third floor, in the Thirteenth and Locust street house, was given up to mosses.  The walls were entirely lined with high wooden cases, grained to imitate oak, whose fronts let down and shoed innumerable pasteboard boxes filled with mosses from all lands.  Above them hung engravings of botanists.  A delightful mossy smell pervaded the room, and in the window stood a little table on which were the microscope and many watch crystals with moss floating in water.  To this den I used to come with specimens or letters as they arrived, feeling sure of a hearty welcome, especially if I brought a letter postmarked “Columbus, O,” addressed in the fine script of Mr. Leo Lewquereux, Le Cru as we always called him.  My father began sending him mosses soon after he came to this country in 1848, and a constant correspondence was kept up between them until my father’s death, though the first letter I can find from Mr. Lesquereux is dated March 1, 1857, and begins:


     “I thought of proposing you to go together to the White Mountains next summer, but being engaged in the Geological Survey of Kentucky I shall scarcely find time for a journey to the mountains.  I would be delighted to have your company but perhaps you would decline to go with me.  I am entirely deaf.  The only way I could have given you some compensation for the trouble of traveling with me is by my intimate acquaintance with the alpine mountains and their botanical riches.  Many and many a time I have traveled offer the Alps, the Jura, the Vosges, in France and Switzerland with Schimper, Mougeot, and other excellent friends and bryologists.  If you were not afraid of my company I would try and meet you somewhere, perhaps in August this year.


    I have pretty well explored the northern part of Pennsylvania during two years that I was engaged in the geological Survey of the coal basin.  There are some very good places around Mauch-Chunk, and also on the high waters of the Juanita River.”


   From this it will be seen that they had not met; my father eagerly accepted the offer of his company, and after describing the proposed excursion added, “ I do hope this arrangement will comport with your convenience, and that you, Mr. Sullivant, and perhaps Professor Porter, of Lancaster, will make the party.  Professor Porter in a letter recently informed me that you were to make him a visit, so bring him along, and if we can get some of the Yankees to fall in we will have a very pleasant and instructive tour.”  I do not know if Mr. Lesquereux went; he wrote that Mr. Sullivant, though a close student at the cabinet, did not go out collecting.  Either at this time or soon after the authors of the Manual of Mosses did meet and became close friends.  I think they never had a discussion or difference.


     In 1871 he published another catalogue of mosses in Volume V, of the Clarence King Surveys.  And in the spring of 1873 he lost his dear old friend, Dr. Torrey, and his correspondent, Sullivant.  It was then that Dr. Gray came to my father and told him that there was no one but him to bring out the Synopsis of North American Mosses with Mr. Lesquereux.  At first my father refused, saying he could ot do it, but Dr. Gray would not take no for an answer, and at last my faterh consented.  Once having made up his mind that it was his duty to do this work he went at it with the energy of youth.  His colleague not being able to use the microscope it fell on him to make the examinations and comparisons and to drw almost constantly, looking through the microscope and then at his drawing.  In 1878 he published another catalogue of Western Mosses, in Vol. VI of the Wheeler Surveys.  By this time the steady application was beginning to tell on his health, and the physician recommended rest.  He also felt the need of consulting Schimper, the best European Bryologist, who, in 1862, had become Professor of Geology and Minerology and the University of Strassburg.  So in April, 1878, my mother and I sailed with him for England.  We were gone five months, and the whole journey was a delight to him.  In London he renewed his acquaintance with Sir Joseph Hooker, who entertained him at Kew Garden.  Sir William Hooker, his old correspondent, was long since dead.  Schimper was very delightful spending afternoons with my father determining the doubtful specimens he had brought with him.  At first Professor Schimper thought that he had forgotten his English and they would have to discuss the mosses in Latin, but as he heard us talk, his English came back to him and they got on famously.  My father did not speak either French or German.  A disapppintment awaited him at Geneva where his correspondent, De Condolle, was away from home, but he enjoyed seeing some of the German botanists and attending the Botanical Meetings at the Paris Exhibition.


     In 1879 he and Mr. Lesquereux brought out a “Description of some new species of North American Mosses” which was published in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for February.  The same month my grandfather Batchelder died.  This broke up the household in the old Vassall house in Cambridge, where we had lived for ten years, and after a time my father bought land from the heirs and began to build a house just west of the old home.  On February 22, 1882, which was Ash Wednesday as well as Washington’s birthday, he went over the house, in whose building he had taken such interest, then went to church at St. John’s Chapel opposite, saying when he returned home, “All is ready, we will move in tomorrow.”  But it was not to be.  That night he was called to the “house not made with hands eternal in the heavens.”


     His work, that for which he was born, was done, the Manual was nearing completion, but there was still more to be done than Mr. Lesquereux was able to do, and Mr. Sereno Watson, with the self-sacrifice of which scientific men seem always capable, laid aside his own work and completed that which had fallen from my father’s hands, as a labor of love.


     Generous and unselfish to all, he was self-denying and ascetic to himself.  He never smoked or drank.  His dress was of the simplest and he had no hobbies.  I never knew him to spend anything on himself, except the purchase of his microscopes and the books needful for his work.  I wish I could give an idea of his quick, boyish manner, his sense of humor, his cheerfulness and his delight in this beautiful world.  What jolly times he used to have with his fellow botanists.  They were always the most delightful of visitors.  The world seems poorer now they are all gone.


     My father sleeps under a tree at the west en of Mount Auburn, in a spot chosen by himself.  It is marked by a Cornish cross with his name and date and the words: “Wearing the white flower of a blameless life, through the long tract of years.”


Further References

"Thomas P. James." Botanical Gazette VII (1882): 37, 38.
Elliott, Clark.
Biographical Dictionary of American Science.
[Gray, Asa.] "Thomas Potts James."
Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 17 (1881-1882):

Rothrock, J.T. "Biographical Sketch of Thomas Potts James."
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 20: 293-297.
Death notice (in Historic Letters file under James) also contains biographical information