Charles Peck

Charles Peck


Charles Horton Peck, 1833–1917, was a leading American mycologist from 1868 until 1913. This period coincided with the professionalization of American mycology, and was a time of intense work in descriptive taxonomy of fungi. Peck who was self-taught in the identification of fungi was given a position as botanist at the New York State Museum in 1868 and worked productively in that position until his scientific work was ended by a debilitating stroke in 1913 just prior to his 80th birthday. His earliest botanical interest was in bryophytes, but he soon turned to mycology and described more than 2,700 new species and varieties of North American fungi during his career.

Peck helped to shape American mycology, yet he was never a student or a teacher of that subject. He was neither the first American mycologist nor did he write a definitive book on the subject, yet he was a central figure in American mycology for most of his professional life and his work still manifests a major influence on mycology. He passed his knowledge on through the Annual Report of the State Botanist which amounted to several thousand pages of descriptive mycology over his career, and through a voluminous correspondence carried on with people interested in every aspect of mycology including C. McIlvaine, C. H. Kauffman, J. Macoun, W. A. Murrill, C. L. Shear, and R. M. Underwood.

The State of American Mycology in the Mid Nineteenth Century

In the first half of the nineteenth century there was only one person working on the fungi of North America, the European trained mycologist, L. D. von Schweinitz, 1790–1834, an official of the Moravian Church in North Carolina (Rogers, 1977). In the middle of the century, others, including Henry Ravenel, Charles Frost, and Charles Wright, were collectors of fungi but were employed in a variety of other occupations. The self-appointed head of this diverse group was Moses Ashley Curtis, of North Carolina, also a church official who studied fungi through the interpretation of Miles Joseph Berkeley in England (Petersen, 1980b). He collected, coordinated and filtered the specimens sent to Berkeley in order to reduce the English mycologists' workload. Curtis became a good mycologist, but by the late 1860s he was afflicted by physical problems that made it difficult for him to work. The need for an American mycologist became acute and it was Charles Peck who came to fill this position.          

About Charles Peck

Charles Peck was born in Rensselaer County, New York about 15 miles east of Albany. His family was of English extraction and had resided in the town of Sand Lake since the end of the 18th century where they farmed and ran a water-powered sawmill (Burnham, 1918). He attended local schools and worked for his father during the summers (Harsha, 1891). His training was in classical languages and mathematics, but while attending Albany Normal School, the forerunner of the State University of New York at Albany, he became interested in botany. After working as a teacher in a rural school, he entered Union College in Schenectady where he studied botany and classical studies.

On receipt of his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1859, he accepted a position at the Sand Lake Collegiate Institute, where he had once been a student, and taught botany, mathematics, Greek, and Latin. It was during this period, just prior to the Civil War, that he married, had his first son and continued his studies at Union College, where he received a Master of Arts degree.

In 1863 he took a new job at the Albany Classical Institute known as "Cass's Academy" and moved his family to Albany. He undertook the serious study of mosses and made a most fortuitous contact with Judge George William Clinton. Clinton was the son of DeWitt Clinton, governor and presidential candidate, and grandnephew of George Clinton, New York's first governor and America's vice-president under Jefferson and Madison. This heritage did not insure financial security as he was left without financial resources on the death of his father and had to give up his botanical studies for a more lucrative career in law. Among the numerous positions Clinton held was membership on the New York State Board of Regents, the governing body of public education in the state, where one of his duties was oversight of the State Museum of Natural History (Neilans, 1963). His private ambition now was to further the study of botany by encouraging young botanists in their work. He also undertook the study of mosses, and it was through this common interest that he met Peck. In 1866, Clinton encouraged Peck to volunteer in the State Museum to build up its botanical collections. Peck was hired full time as a botanist in 1868. 

In the years preceding 1870, Peck was working on the bryophytes. The serious study of bryophytes in the United States got underway in the 1840s with William Sullivant and the European transplant, Leo Lesquereux, and later with Coe Finch Austin and Thomas James (Slack, 1987). In 1865, Peck published his first paper, The Catalogue of Mosses Presented to the State of New York in the Annual Report of the State Cabinet of Natural History.

One of Peck's close friends, Elliot C. Howe, MD of Troy, NY, was also interested in mosses but had started to work on fungi. Howe urged Peck to start work on a fungus list for the state (Peck, 1899a). He offered his own collection of 267 species and his taxonomic outline of the fungi for a beginning. Peck allowed that it was a good idea and estimated that it would take four to five years. Peck's part in this still uncompleted task took 45 years. 

Charles Peck, the Mycologist


Charles Peck

Charles Peck, Port Jefferson, Long Island, NY, 1904.
Photo by George Atkinson

Peck's first years of work with the fungi were spent in collecting, learning from the books of Persoon and Fries, and in processing specimens sent to him by Clinton, Howe, and others. He sent the specimens he could not identify to Curtis in North Carolina and M. C. Cooke at Kew (Atkinson, 1918). Between 1870 and 1874, Peck sent 400 specimens to Cooke many of which he described in Cooke's new journal Grevillea. These specimens are still at Kew. Peck, however, retained a larger portion of each collection and these remain at the New York State Museum (Barr et al., 1985). After 1875, Peck no longer sent fungi out for identification and he seldom co-authored a species with someone else. He was becoming the final authority on American fungi and received specimens from all parts of the country (Bessey, 1914).

In May and June, Peck usually worked in his office, but made numerous collecting trips to nearby Sand Lake, the Helderberg Mountains, and an area just northwest of Albany called Center (later changed to Karner). In July, August and September he systematically traveled to different parts of New York. He travelled by railroad, stage coach, and wagon but a great deal of walking was sometimes required to get to some of his collecting sites. One area that he visited more than 25 times is the township of North Elba in Essex County in the heart of the Adirondacks where in 1893 he was the first known person to climb Mount Wright (Carson 1973). It was also the site of Peck's major floristic work (Peck, 1899b) and the location of subsequent mycological work by George Atkinson, Calvin Kauffman, and E. B. Mains (Kauffman, 1915).

Peck worked in the field to describe and sketch new and interesting specimens while they were still in fresh condition. More than 1,000 of these drawings are in the collection of the New York State Museum. He even did microscopy in the field by carrying a portable microscope. He often dried the larger specimens in the sun or by a fire while still in the field. Agarics were later remoistened by leaving them in the night air and then flattened between the fingers or in a book so they could be attached to herbarium sheets. Most of Peck's early collections were treated with a mixture of corrosive sublimate (mercuric chloride), diethyl ether, turpentine and alcohol to discourage insects and unwanted mold (Petersen, 1980).


  • Chronology of the Life of Charles H. Peck

    1638: Ancestor, Henry Peck, immigrated to New Haven, Connecticut from England.

    1794: Eleazer Peck, great-great-grandfather of Charles, moved to Sand Lake, New York.

    1833, March 30: Charles Horton Peck born to Joel C. and Pamela Horton Peck.

    1847-1851: Charles attended Sand Lake Academy and worked in his father's sawmill during summers.

    1851-June 1852: Attended Albany Normal School and worked on his father's farm.

    1852: Joined Fourth Presbyterian Church of Albany.

    1852, Fall-Winter 1853: Taught in a district school with 60 students in Poestenkill, New York.

    1853, Summer: Clerked in the Sand Lake General Store for four months until he relinquished the job due to ill health.

    1854: Entered Sand Lake Collegiate Institute (A boy's college preparatory boarding school known as Schram's).

    1855, Fall-1859: Attended Union College where he received botanical instruction from Professor Jonathan Pearson.

    1859, June: Received a B.A. degree from Union College.

    1859, June-September 1863: Taught classics, mathematics, and botany at Sand Lake Collegiate Institute.

    1861, April 10: Married Mary Catherine Sliter, a former classmate from Sand Lake.

    1862: Received M.A. degree from Union College.

    1863: First son, Harry Sliter Peck, born.

    1863, September-February 1868: Moved to Albany and taught Latin, Greek, and bookkeeping at Albany Classical Institute which was also known as "Cass's Academy". During this period he worked earnestly on mosses and made the acquaintance of G. W. Clinton.

    1865: Published first paper The Catalogue of Mosses Presented to the State of New York in the Eighteenth Annual Report of the State Cabinet of Natural History

    1866: Volunteered to manage the herbarium of the New York State Museum.

    1867, July 1: Started on part-time salary at the Museum as botanist in the Geological Survey headed by James Hall.

    1868, May 12: Began work full-time at the Museum to build the cryptogamic collections. He also started to work on fungi and sent collections to M. A. Curtis for determination.

    1868, December: Purchased a new microscope. (Click here for information on microscope)

    1870: Published his first paper on fungi included in the Twenty Second Annual Report of the State Cabinet of Natural History.

    1870: Second son, Charles Albert Peck, born.

    1883: Officially appointed New York State Botanist by the State Legislature.

    1886: Moved to 10 Lyons Avenue, Menands, New York, from 61 Dove Street, Albany, New York.

    1893: Attended Worlds Columbian Exposition, Chicago.

    1905: Hired Stewart H. Burnham as an assistant.

    1908: Received Ph.D. (Hon.) from Union College.

    1912, February: Peck's wife, Mary, passed away.

    1912, November: Peck had a slight stroke, but continued to work.

    1913, February: Had a major stroke which left him unable to resume botanical work.

    1913, March: 80th birthday celebrated by receiving testimonial letters.

    1913, July 1: Homer House was appointed temporary botanist.

    1915, February 5: Peck's resignation approved by Board of Regents.

    1917, July: Peck testimonial exhibit of mushroom models by Henry Marchand opened.

    1917, July 11: Charles Peck passed away.

    1979: State Natural History Collections moved to Cultural Education Center.

  • Literature Cited

    Atkinson, G. F. 1918. Charles Horton Peck. Bot. Gaz. 65: 103-108.

    Barr, M. E., C. T. Rogerson, S. J. Smith and J. H. Haines. 1986. An Annotated Catalog of the Pyrenomycetes Described by Charles H. Peck. New York State Museum Bulletin 459, 74 pp. (See Museum Publications website for availability)

    Bessey, C. E. 1914. A notable botanical career. Science 40: 48.

    Burnham, S. H. 1918. Charles Horton Peck. Mycologia 11: 33-39.

    Carson, R. M. L. 1973. Peaks and People of the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Mountain Club, Glens Falls. 280 pp.

    Gilbertson, R. L. 1962. Index to species and varieties of fungi described by C. H. Peck from 1909-1915. Mycologia 54: 460-465.

    Haines, J. H. 1978. Charles Horton Peck. McIlvainea 3: 3-10.

    Haines, J. H. 1986. Charles Peck and his contributions to American mycology. Mycotaxon 26: 17-27.

    Haines, J. H. 1991. Peck's Day Out. Mushroom, the Journal. Spring 1991: 29-31.

    Harsha, D. A. 1891. Noted Living Albanians. Weed & Parsons, Albany. pp. 325-330.

    House, H. D. 1917. The Peck testimonial exhibit of mushroom models. Science 46: 204.

    Kauffman, C. H. 1915. The fungi of North Elba. New York State Museum Bulletin 179: 80-104.

    Lloyd, C. G. 1908. A visit to Professor Peck. Mycological Notes 29: 376-379.

    Lloyd, C. G. 1912. Professor Charles H. Peck. Mycological Notes 38: 510-512.

    Murrill, W. A. 1915. Mycologia 7: 111-112

    Neilans, D. D. 1963. The Botanical Life and Times of George W. Clinton. Unpublished M.Sc. Thesis. State University of New York at Buffalo. 70 pp.

    Peck, C. H. 1899a. Elliot Calvin Howe (1828-1899). Bull. Torrey Bot. Club 26: 251-252.

    Peck, C. H. 1899b. Plants of North Elba. New York State Museum Bulletin 6(28): 1-266.

    Peck, C. H. 1906. In: The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. James White & Co., New York. 13: 49.

    Peck, C. H. 1907. In: Who's Who in New York City and State. L. R. Honorsly & Co., New York.

    Peck, C. H. 1912. In: Who's Who in science. J & A Churchill, London. 1912.

    Petersen, R. H. 1980. Annual Reports of the State Botanist 1868-1912, reprinted 1980. Boerhaave Press, Leiden. (pages not consecutively numbered).

    Petersen, R. H. 1980. "B & C": The Mycological Association of M. J. Berkeley and M. A. Curtis. Bibliotheca Mycologica 72, J. Kramer, Vaduz. 120 pp.

    Rogers, D. P. 1977. L. D. de Schweinitz and early American mycology. Mycologia 69: 223-245.

    Slack, N. G. 1987. Charles Horton Peck, Bryologist, and the Legitimation of Botany in New York State. Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden 45: 28-45.