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For Moses Ashley Curtis, an Episcopal priest and botanist, there was no conflict between religion and science. Moses Curtis was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on May 11, 1808. The son of the Reverend Jared Curtis and Thankful Ashley attended Stockbridge Academy and graduated from William College in 1827. While at Williams, Professor Chester Dewey and Professor Amos Eaton significantly influenced Moses’s interest in the natural sciences. After graduation, he left New England for Wilmington, where he served as a tutor for the family of Governor Edward B. Dudley and began studying the local plants. Curtis returned to Massachusetts in 1833 to study for the ministry under the Church of the Advent. On December 3, 1834, he married Mary De Rosset of Wilmington. The following year, he received his ordination.
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The Reverend Curtis began his ministry immediately as a missionary in western North Carolina, serving congregations in Lincolnton, Salisbury, Morganton, and Charlotte. From 1837 to 1839, he taught at the Episcopal School in Raleigh, the predecessor to St. Mary’s. He was called back into the mission field in 1840 to Washington, North Carolina. After serving there for a year, he accepted a call to St. Matthew’s Church in Hillsborough where he remained for the rest of his life, except from 1847 to 1856, when he lived in Society Hill, South Carolina. Curtis was a talented musician, playing the piano, organ, flute, violin, and composing anthems and hymns such as “How Beautiful upon the Mountain.”
Although a dedicated priest, Curtis is best known by people outside of North Carolina for his accomplishments in the field of botany. He was considered an expert in the field of mycology, the study of fungi. Prior to his contributions, the study of lichen had been very limited. Among his published works was the 1860 Geological and Natural History Survey of North America, Part III, Botany. Curtis reported having collected and eaten forty different species of mushrooms within two miles of his house and believed that if people had a better knowledge of edible fungi, the food shortage for southern armies during the Civil War would not have been as severe. Moses Ashley Curtis died on April 10, 1872, and was buried at St. Matthew’s Church in Hillsborough.
Allen Johnson, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (1946)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 475—sketch by William S. Powell
William S. Powell, Moses Ashley Curtis, 1808-1872 (1958)
Edmund and Dorothy Berkeley, Yankee Botanist in the Carolinas, the Reverend Moses Ashley Curtis, D. D., 1808-1872 (1986)
M. A. Curtis Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill