John Torrey was born on August 15, 1796 in New York City. Torrey visited the State Prison when he was 15, where his father served as the fiscal agent. There he met Amos Eaton, who was serving a sentence for forgery. Eaton had studied botany with Dr. David Hosack and gave Torrey his first lessons in describing plants.
Torrey was a founding member of the New York Lyceum of Natural History, now the New York Academy of Sciences, in 1817. He was appointed to a committee charged with preparing a list of flora in the locality of New York City. Torrey worked on his Calendarium Florae for the Vicinity of New York in 1818 and 1819, and published A Catalogue of Plants, Growing Spontaneously Within Thirty Miles of the City of New York, in 1819.
Torrey received his MD from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1818. He joined the army as a surgeon in 1824, and concurrently received an appointment as a professor of chemistry, geology, and mineralogy at West Point. Torrey went on to become chair of chemistry and botany at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1828, and professor of chemistry and natural history at Princeton University in 1830.
In 1832, Torrey accepted a position as professor of chemistry and biology at New York University, which he held for only one year. Torrey travelled to Europe to purchase equipment and books for the new university. While in Europe, he took the opportunity to meet with many European botanists and visit botanical gardens in Paris, London, Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Liverpool.
Torrey published the Compendium of the Flora of the Northern and Middle States in 1826. The Compendium was a follow-up publication Torrey’s earlier work, Flora of the Northern and Middle States, published in 1824, which classified plants using the Linnaean system. In the Compendium, Torrey replaced the previous publication’s Linnaean system with the natural system of classification.
In 1831, Torrey published an American edition of John Lindley’s 1830 publication, An Introduction to the Natural System of Botany, the first authoritative work in English on the natural system of classification. Torrey and his protégé Asa Gray, whom he first met in 1832, collaborated for many years, particularly in advocating for the use of a natural system of classification in America.
Torrey was appointed Botanist to the new State Geological Survey in 1836. The position required Torrey to produce a State Flora. The Flora of the State of New York was published in two volumes in 1843.
Torrey and Gray began collaboration on the ambitious Flora of North America in 1836. The Flora appeared at irregular intervals until 1843. The project was never completed. Torrey and Gray abandoned the Flora to focus attention on examining, describing, and classifying the large number of plant specimens being collected by expeditions in the U.S., including the Frémont (1853), Whipple (to determine the railroad route from the Mississippi to the Pacific, 1857), and the Emory (Mexican Boundary Survey, 1857).
Torrey accepted the well-paid position of Assayer of the Mint in New York City in 1853. The position allowed him to resign from his teaching jobs and focus his attention on botanical studies with his growing herbarium. Lacking space to work with his large herbarium, Torrey gifted it and his library to Columbia College in 1860. Torrey was given space to house and work with the herbarium, as well as a small salary as curator of the collection.
In 1865, Torrey took a trip to California on business for the Mint. He took the opportunity to collect numerous plants specimens. While collecting, Torrey always gathered five specimens, for himself, Asa Gray, the Smithsonian, and other important herbariums like Kew. By sending specimens to other herbaria, he received many in return.
From the 1840s on, Torrey gave regular, informal lectures on botany. The lectures became more numerous in the 1860s and were attended by a wide variety of people interested in plants and botany. The lectures were the genesis of the Torrey Botanical Club, which is believed to have had its first formal meeting in 1867. Both the Club (now the Torrey Botanical Society) and its publications are still active.
John Torrey died on March 10, 1873. His herbarium and library remained at Columbia College until 1898, when they were transferred to the newly founded New York Botanical Garden.