Charles Torrey Simpson

Dr. Fairchild and the 'Sage of Biscayne Bay' at The Sentinels

Charles Torrey Simpson


Simpson and Fairchild inspecting a Ravenala madagascariensis at The Sentinels, Little River, Florida. March 1924.

By Janet Mosely

One of David Fairchild’s many talents was creating and fostering friendships with others who were as passionate and well-versed about plants and nature as he. His friendship with Charles Torrey Simpson, fondly known as the “Sage of Biscayne Bay” is a testimony to this fact.

Simpson, a noted conchologist, came to South Florida in 1902 after retiring from the Smithsonian Institute’s Department of Mollusks. He purchased 15 acres on Biscayne Bay and built a home, which he called The Sentinels after two towering pines which flanked it. He spent the next thirty years planting, tending, studying and, perhaps most importantly, sharing this site. The Sentinels became a popular meeting place for Dade County’s early plant enthusiasts. According to E.O. Rothra, Simpson’s biographer, “…his botanical garden foreshadowed that of Miami’s noted Fairchild Tropical Garden [sic] and was a showplace for Miami visitors and residents as well as an outpost of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s tropical experiment station.” 

Dr. Fairchild and Charles Simpson met in 1912 and became lifelong friends. They shared a passion for gardening and collecting which is mirrored in Simpson’s statement “There’s nothing like getting out after specimens to make a fellow feel he’s really living.” 

Dr. Fairchild hired Simpson as an agricultural agent for the Brickell Avenue Plant Introduction Station where he also charged him with educating local gardeners on tropical plants. Simpson became famous for his role in fostering early south Florida tropical horticulture. The culmination of his intense investigation of south Florida’s landscape led to such popular works as Ornamental Gardening in Florida (1916); In Lower Florida Wilds (1920); Out of Doors in Florida (1924) and Florida Wild Life (1932), as well as his study of Liguus fasciatus, the endangered Florida tree snail. He was also an active proponent of creating a national park in the Everglades. 

In 1924, Simpson became the fourth recipient of the Frank N. Meyer Medal for Foreign Plant Introduction. Dr. Fairchild, Barbour Lathrop, William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Spicer-Simson attended the ceremony at The Sentinels. The medal, designed by Spicer-Simson and appropriately inscribed with a Tang Dynasty poem “In the glorious luxuriance of the hundred plants he takes delight”, was presented to Simpson by his long-time friend David Fairchild. In 1927, the University of Miami chose Charles Torrey Simpson to receive its first ever bestowed honorary doctorate for his contributions to the science of South Florida. 

Professor Simpson gave advice freely and generously to everyone from Charles Deering to the Garden Clubs. In The World Was My Garden, Dr. Fairchild compared Simpson to naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs, “…like them…he had gathered about him all kinds of trees and plants, which he loved to handle and classify and study. His charming personality and unfailing generosity towards everyone who came for information or plants made his place a rendezvous.”

Unfortunately, The Sentinels is gone. But Charles Torrey Simpson’s memory lives on in his body of work and as the City of Miami Simpson Hammock Park & Charles Torrey Simpson Memorial Garden Center.

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Please contact:
Nancy Korber
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Center for Tropical Plant Conservation
11935 Old Cutler Road
Miami, Florida 33156 USA
tel. 305/667-1651, ext. 3424
fax 305/665-8032