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Biography of Charles H. Peck

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CHARLES H. PECK

There is a lesson in each flower, A story in each stream and bower; In every herb on which you tread Are written words, which, rightly read, Will lead you from earth’s fragrant sod. To hope, and holiness, and God.”

Allan Cunningham.

AN ALBANIAN who has manifested a high order of genius in a special department of science, and whose devotion to the study of the beauties and sublimities of nature is supreme, is Professor Charles H. Peck, the present botanist of the New York state museum of natural history. He was born in the town of Sandlake, Rensselaer County, N. Y., on the 30th of March, 1833. His father, Joel B. Peck, operated a saw-mill at that place, and when but fourteen years of age young Peck assisted him in running the mill during the summer months. In the winter he attended the district school – a much more congenial work for him than that of handling lumber.

But this manual exercise was at the same time greatly beneficial to him in strengthening his naturally delicate constitution and fitting him for future usefulness in his later scientific researches. In 1851, at the age of eighteen, he entered the state normal school at Albany, where for a year he pursued his studies with the closest application and the most absorbing interest. It was here that he first took up the special study in which he has always since been so deeply interested, and for which he seems to have been naturally inclined from early youth. An extra class in botany, taught by Professor J. H. Salisbury, then one of the professors in the normal school, was formed, and young Peck was one of the first to join it. It was a voluntary class, and discontinued at the close of the school term. But it was instrumental in settling a point in the intellectual aspiration of our student. He now determined to become a botanist, and the elementary studies in this science which he carried on here awakened in him an interest in the subject which never forsook him, and which had a great deal to do in shaping and directing his whole future career. Thus it often happens that apparently trifling circumstances f give a color and character to the history of an individual which are far-reaching in their influence and most important in their final results. While cherishing the most ardent love for the study of botany, Mr. Peck was not then in a situation to pay exclusive devotion to the more profound investigations of this interesting and very instructive science. In the meantime he was to engage for a brief period in teaching school, in clerkship in a country store, and in completing a general collegiate course.

Graduating from the normal school in 1852 he took charge of a large district school in Rensselaer County in the autumn of the same year. This school had then an average attendance of about sixty pupils. Though young and inexperienced as a teacher, Mr. Peck resolutely undertook the work and successfully conducted the school through the winter term. In the summer of 1853 he accepted a position as a clerk in a general country store, but after a trial of four months in this capacity, he was obliged to relinquish his clerkship on account of impaired health, doubtless feeling at the same time that he had not found his proper calling in the dry goods business. After resting for a brief season at home he fully made up his mind to avail himself of the privileges of a collegiate course, and for this purpose he carefully undertook his classical preparatory studies. He entered Union college at Schenectady in the fall of 1855. It may be truly asserted that Mr. Peck pursued his college studies with a closeness and intensity which were lacking in many a student of far more robust constitution. He made the most of the precious hours of college life, poring day after day and night after night over his text-books. He took the regular classical course, and so high and scholarly were his attainments in this branch of learning that he was one of the three members of the class who successfully passed the thorough and extended examination for the Nott prize scholarship.

It was while at college that Mr. Peck’s former love for botanical research had a more favorable opportunity of being kindled anew. He received his botanical instruction from the late Professor Jonathan Pearson, a man genial in his nature and earnest in his literary work. Professor Pearson did not confine his teachings to the class-room, but made excursions with his botanical class to the fields and mountains, teaching facts and principles as suggested in the broad and beautiful field of nature, where -

” They sat, reclined

On the soft, downy bank, damask’d with flowers.”

These excursions of the college class, however, were not frequent enough to suit the taste of Mr. Peck, who wished to lose no opportunity to gratify his love for botanical investigation. During nearly every Saturday in the summer and autumn months, he might have been seen rambling through the college garden or over more distant fields, hills and mountains, in search of plants for study; and specimens for his herbarium. He thus combined the enjoyable and profitable pursuit of knowledge with most agreeable recreation, impressed, doubtless, with the sentiment of Wordsworth -

” To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

Mr. Peck graduated from old Union with honor in 1859, when the mutterings of coming civil war were about to agitate the country. He at once accepted a position as teacher of classics, mathematics and botany in the Sandlake Collegiate institute, the school in which he had received his own classical preparation for college. Here he remained three years, patiently and carefully imparting the fruits of his hard earned, extensive knowledge to his scholars. While here a position as tutor in Union college was offered him but circumstances were such as to prevent its acceptance.

At the end of the second year of Mr. Peck’s professorship here, a happy domestic event occurred in his life, and that was his marriage to Miss Mary C. Sliter, a young lady possessed of many virtues, who had been his classmate in his school-boy days, and who now consented to be a helpmate to him during life. Two sons, both of whom are living, are the fruits of this union. Having thus happily settled down in life, Mr. Peck removed to Albany with his young wife, at the close of his third year at Sandlake, and accepted a position as teacher in a private school, where Latin, Greek, book-keeping, etc., were especially under his charge. After four and a half years of continuous and faithful work in this capacity, his services were transferred to the New York state museum of natural history, with which institution he has since been connected as botanist. About this time he became a member of the Albany institute, and he is now corresponding member of several scientific societies. The dreams of his early life may now be said to have been fully realized, and he has ever felt perfectly at home in his present sphere of activity and usefulness. This position has given him an excellent opportunity for the full exercise of his love for botanical pursuits, and he has availed himself of it with gladness. The duties of his office made it necessary to devote much time to the study of fungi, and in this branch of botany he has become one of the leading authorities in this country. His annual reports to the board of regents of the University of the State of New York constitute an important addition to mycological literature, and they are eagerly sought after by botanists throughout this country and Europe. He numbers among his correspondents the most distinguished European and American botanists. He has detected and described very many new species of fungi, and has added much to the general knowledge of these plants. By his labors the herbarium of the New York state museum of natural history has taken a position of prime importance among the public herbaria of the world, containing as it does the type specimens of a large number of species of fungi, some of which are not represented in any other herbarium. The number of species represented in the herbarium has been almost trebled, now numbering over four thousand, of which one-half at least are fungi.

In 1886 Mr. Peck removed to a country seat at Menands, three miles from Albany, where he could experiment with plants, and where he has taken much interest in horticultural operations.

At the age of eighteen Mr. Peck united with the Presbyterian Church, and he is at present a member of the Fourth Presbyterian church of Albany, of which the Rev. A. V. V. Raymond is pastor. In politics he has always been a republican, but not an active partisan, sometimes even voting for candidates of the opposite party when deeming them best fitted for the place.


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