Gerald McCarthy

(1 December 1858 –  8 September 1915)

“We have among ourselves a class of scientific enthusiasts, worshippers of the mummy god Herbario, who with unwearied patience and tireless limb hound high-road and byway, bog and mountain peak, ever on the look-out for floral strangers, whom they ruthlessly sacrifice to the glue-and-paper deity.”  — Gerald McCarthy

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) has found about 145 specimens collected by Gerald McCarthy, but as our collection continues to be cataloged it is likely that more will be found.  As of 2019 the North Carolina State University Herbarium (NCSC) has cataloged about two dozen specimens collected by McCarthy.

According to the “history” section of the NCSC website, “Before the turn of the 19th century, two institutional herbaria existed in Raleigh.  The oldest was initiated by the first State Botanist, Gerald McCarthy (Ehrenfeld et al., 1998; Troyer, 1999), and housed at the Agricultural Experiment Station.  McCarthy (1888, Report of the Botanist.  Ann. Rept. No. Car. Agric. Exp. Sta. 11:  131-144) described an herbarium of about 2,500 species.  The fate of this collection has not been properly documented and remains unclear.  So far, only a few specimens collected by McCarthy have been found at NCSC.”  As more than 100 specimens have been found at NCU, it seems likely that the majority of McCarthy’s herbarium is in Chapel Hill.

McCarthy’s locations are frequently written in Latin and give few specific details:  “Habitat in Oriente Carolina SeptentrionalisLocis – paludosis” is common.  He frequently Latinized his name to “Geraldus McCarthy” on labels.

Gerald McCarthy was deaf as a result of a childhood illness.  He attended the National Deaf-Mute College (which later became Gallaudet University) while John White Chickering taught there.  They were co-authors on a paper that appeared in the Botanical Gazette in 1886, one year before McCarthy graduated.

James Troyer, Professor Emeritus of North Carolina State University, has written an excellent, in-depth account of Gerald McCarthy’s life and work, “Stopped ears, open mind:  Gerald McCarthy (1858-1915):  North Carolina botanist” (Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 115 (4):  201-212.  1999.)  The following are excerpts from Troyer’s work:

Michael Gerald McCarthy … was born 1 December 1858 in Ottawa, Illinois.  His parents, John and Mary Fitzgerald McCarthy, were both immigrants from Ireland in about 1850 because of the famine in that country.  His father, a Mississippi River pilot, was murdered in New Orleans at the outbreak of the Civil War.  At the age of 15 he was totally deafened and left severely weakened in eyesight and general physical condition by an attack of cerebrospinal meningitis.

…he entered the Illinois Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in 1878, graduating in 1880.  He then worked for a time in St. Louis as a laborer in Shaw’s Botanical Garden, forerunner of the Missouri Botanical Garden.  There he became interested in botany as a life work.  To further that aim he enrolled in 1882 in the National Deaf-Mute College, later Gallaudet College and now Gallaudet University.  He received the B.S. degree in 1887 and at the graduation ceremonies delivered an oration entitled “The forces of vegetable life” (Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, 1887, p. 11).  After graduation he worked for a time in the herbarium of the United States National Museum (Smithsonian Institution), later presenting to that organization more than 4,000 plant specimens collected by him (U.S. National Museum, 1890, pp. 69, 72, 192, 764).

… He gathered specimens in Texas in 1881 and 1882 and while a student at Gallaudet made summer collecting trips to the southeast, especially to North and South Carolina…  When the passage of the Hatch Act in 1887 provided additional resources for the state agricultural station, director H.B. Battle decided to add a botanist to his staff.  McCarthy was named to the position in October 1888, at first on a temporary basis and later by successive two-year appointments.

…McCarthy was at the peak of his productivity in 1897.  He was simultaneously botanist and entomologist of the experiment station, secretary and prime mover of the horticultural society, secretary and principal force in the Southern Pines research project, entomologist to the pest commission, and member of the national committee on seed testing.  Then disaster struck:  he was summarily dismissed from his position as a result of political events.
     A coalition or “fusion” of the Populist and Republican Parties took control of the state by electing a governor and a majority of the legislature in the election of 1896…  An early action of the legislature in 1897 provided for a new board of trustees for… the experiment station… [and]  on 23 August notified McCarthy that he was dismissed as of 31 August. 
     This action of the board was the result of experiment station, as well as party, politics.  Massey [Wilbur F. Massey] believed that the work of the two institutions, college and station, should be thoroughly integrated under himself.  He rather lamely justified the sacking of McCarthy by claiming that “the only difficulty was that his physical infirmity prevented his being a teacher” (Massey, 1897), ignoring the fact that McCarthy had delivered numerous oral presentations and had interacted well with hearing persons.  McCarthy answered this charge with a long and pointed rebuttal (McCarthy, 1897d).

…Unemployed and with his wife [Adeline Dixon of Ulster, PA] pregnant with their first child [Gerald Raleigh MacCarthy], McCarthy left North Carolina in September 1887 to pursue study for the Ph.D. degree in botany, entomology, and invertebrate zoology at Cornell University.  He moved in 1898 to the University of Chicago, where he became a candidate for the M.S. degree in bacteriology.  However, in September 1899 he failed the examination for that degree.  When political power in North Carolina had again changed hands, McCarthy applied for his old job with the station, but instead [in 1900] was given a position with the state department of agriculture.

…As the volume of…work grew, McCarthy’s health was simultaneously deteriorating as a result of the early meningitis and [being struck & severely injured on 11 October 1892 by a Richmond and Danville Railroad train, whose approach he did not sense because of his deafness].  He underwent a surgical operation in December 1907, but a few months later in March 1908 because of his condition he was forced against his will to retire.

… McCarthy moved with his family to Skowhegan, Maine… He was an invalid for the remainder of his life and died on 8 September 1915, the cause of death being recorded as exhaustion and heat prostration.

References in the above excerpts from Troyer:
Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. 1887.  13th Ann. Rept. Washington, DC. 18 p.
U.S. National Museum. 1890.  Report for the year ending June 30, 1888.  Washington, DC.  876 p.
Massey, W.F. 1897.  Prof. Massey writes.  News and Observer, June 13:  3.  Raleigh, NC.
McCarthy, G.  1897d.  M’Carthy answers.  News and Observer, June 16:  3.  Raleigh, NC.


Gerald McCarthy’s sons went on to successful careers.  Gerald Raleigh MacCarthy (1897-1974) was born in Ithaca, New York, spent a few of his childhood years in Raleigh, North Carolina, but spent most of his youth in Skowhegan, Maine.  He attended Colby College from 1915-1917, and served in the trenches of France during World War I.  He finished his undergraduate education at Cornell University with an A.B. in geology in 1921.  He began his long association with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by earning his M.A. in 1922.  He was the Geology Department’s first doctoral graduate in 1926.  He taught in the UNC-CH Geology Department from 1926-1965.  He and Elizabeth Enloe were married in 1922 and had two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret.  (White, W.A., R.L. Ingram, and W. H. Wheeler.  1977.  Memorial to Gerald Raleigh MacCarthy, 1897-1974.  Memorials – Geological Society of America 6.)

Donnell D. MacCarthy was an electrical engineer who worked for General Electric then lived in Canandaigua, New York.



McCarthy, Gerald (1892)  The sophisticated French wines.  Science 19 (478):  185.

McCarthy, Gerald (1892)  American Weeds.  Science 20(493):  38

Nessler, J. and Gerald McCarthy (1890)  Copper-soda and copper-gypsum as remedies for grape mildew.  J. of Mycology 6(2):  73-74.

Bunzli, J.H. and Gerald McCarthy (1890)  Combating the potato blight.  J. of Mycology 6(2):  78-79.

McCarthy, Gerald (1889)  Botany as a disciplinary study.  J. of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 6(1):  33-38.

McCarthy, Gerald (1887)  The study of local floras.  J. of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 4(2):  25-30.

Wood, Thomas F. & Gerald McCarthy. 1886. Wilmington Flora: A list of plants growing about Wilmington, N. C. with date of flowering, with a map of New Hanover County. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 3: [77]-141 & folded map.

Smith, John Donnell, Isaac C. Martindale, J. W. Chickering, Jr., Chas. E. Bessey, A. W. Chapman, R. I. Cratty, J. D. Davis, Chas. F. Johnson, C. E. Smith, and Gerald McCarthy (1886) Specimens and specimen making. Botanical Gazette 11 (6): 129-134.



Ehrenfeld, E.M., M.M. Whitemire, K.E. Evans, and M.M. Reagan.  1998.  Gerald McCarthy, Botanist.  Road House Press, Round Pond, Maine.  78p.

Troyer, James.  1999.  Stopped ears, open mind:  Gerald McCarthy (1858-1915):  North Carolina botanist.  Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 115 (4):  201-212.