Charles Parry:
Frontier Botanist ... Explorer of the American West...
P&S Graduate


BY ALAN LIPKIN’80
PHOTO CREDIT: ALAN LIPKIN, M.D.
Gray’s and Torrey’s Peaks
Gray’s and Torrey’s Peaks, named by Parry after fellow botanists and mentors. John Torrey was professor and chairman of botany at P&S.
CHARLES CHRISTOPHER PARRY (1823-1890) IS KNOWN TO HIKERS and mountaineers of the Colorado high country as the namesake of two mountains, a creek, and dozens of species and genera of plants. Parry, as botanist and explorer, accompanied some of the first parties that surveyed and mapped out what became the western United States. What is less well known, however, is that Parry was a physician and 1846 graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
   Parry was born in Gloucestershire, England, in 1823, descended from a long line of clergymen of the Church of England. He was described as being short, dark complexioned, and blue-eyed. He moved with his family to rural upstate New York in 1832 and began his botanical studies during his undergraduate years at Union College.
   He obtained his medical education at P&S, where he continued to study botany under John Torrey, whose greenhouse and collection of specimens sat on the site of today’s Rockefeller Center. At a time when many medications and treatments were directly derived from plants, botany held an importance in the curriculum similar to that held by pharmacology today.
PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF MEDICINE
Charles Parry
Charles Christopher Parry
   After obtaining his medical degree, he moved to Davenport, Iowa. Although he was based there for the rest of his life, he spent most of his career as a member of surveying and exploring parties throughout the western United States. He initially opened a medical office but practiced for only a few months before becoming dissatisfied with clinical medicine. Aside from a stint as an assistant surgeon for one of the surveying parties that he later joined, he did not practice medicine again.
   In 1847, he participated as botanist in a party that surveyed central Iowa. He became botanist to the Mexican Boundary Survey of 1852 and was a member of numerous other parties that were among the first groups to explore Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, and the entire Rocky Mountain West. He was the first person to catalog the plant life in many of these areas, describing species of plants and flowers previously unknown to science. In his lifetime he collected more than 30,000 unique botanical specimens.
   From the Civil War years onward, he spent many of his summers in Colorado, writing descriptions of the local towns, countryside, and foliage for the Chicago Evening Journal. From 1869 to 1871, he was botanist to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
   In addition to his work with plant life, Parry recorded early ascents of some of the highest peaks in Colorado and made some of the first assessments of their elevations by barometric observation. He was the second botanist to climb Pikes Peak. He also had the privilege of naming some of Colorado’s highest peaks after his mentors, friends, and fellow naturalists, including Torrey’s Peak, Gray’s Peak, James Peak, and Mounts Englemann, Guyot, and Audubon. He named Parry Peak, which overlooks the Winter Park area, after himself and Mount Eva after his wife. Another mountain named after him is near Twin Lakes, south of Leadville.
   Parry was the first person to describe some of the most delicate and beautiful plants and wildflowers of the Colorado mountains. In Colorado alone, more than 80 new species of plants were named from specimens he collected. Among the best known of these is Parry primrose (Primula parryi), commonly seen around streams and marshes in the high country. Its five bright pink petals and foot-long green leaves brighten up the mid-summer scenery for hikers and backpackers.
       PHOTO CREDIT: ALAN LIPKIN, M.D.
 Alan Lipkin, M.D.
       Alan Lipkin, M.D.
   In 1850, during his California travels, Parry also described the rarest native pine in North America, naming it the Torrey pine after his botanical mentor and P&S professor, John Torrey. As early as 1883, he became concerned about the lack of protection for the trees, and his writings helped lead to the establishment of San Diego’s Torrey Pines State Reserve.
   Parry was known as the “King of Colorado Botany” by his colleagues, and his collected specimens were shared with institutions all over the world. Numerous references cite his personal warmth, genial personality, and unassuming nature. His first wife died after five years of marriage,and his only child, a daughter, also died. His second marriage, in 1859, lasted until his death in 1890.
   Although he lived and worked far from major academic centers and only briefly engaged in the practice of clinical medicine, Charles Parry was one of the greatest contributors of his time to our knowledge of the geography and plant life of the American West. He deserves a place of honor among P&S graduates who have become influential in the world at large.

Alan Lipkin, a 1980 P&S graduate, is an otolaryngologist in Denver. He became interested in the story of Charles Parry after repeatedly hearing his name during hiking and photography trips in the Colorado mountains. He invites P&S students and graduates to join him for a personal look at the places photographed for this article.

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