Ernest Henry Wilson papers
General Physical Description note
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Extent20 linear feet
E. H. Wilson was born at Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, England, on February 15, 1876, the eldest of Henry and Annie (Curtis) Wilson's seven children. On leaving school, Wilson apprenticed at the nurseries of Messrs. Hewitt of Solihull, Warwickshire. In 1892, at sixteen, he was employed at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens as a gardener and, on his own time in the evening, studied botany at the Birmingham Technical School. His next employment, which began in January 1897, was at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. In October of the following year, Wilson began studies at the Royal College of Science in South Kensington.
When the nursery firm of Veitch and Sons asked William Turner Thiselton-Dyer (1843-1928), the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (1885-1891), to recommend a suitable man to be sent to China to collect seeds and plants, it was the young E.H. Wilson he nominated. After six months of training under George Harrow at Veitch's Coombe Wood Nursery, Wilson left for China in 1899 and began a successful career in introducing Asiatic plants to the West. On his way to China, he visited at the Arnold Arboretum for five days, and initiated a life-long collaboration with the institution. In April 1902, Wilson returned to England and on June 8, 1902 married Ellen Ganderton of Edgbaston, Warwickshire. They had one daughter, Muriel Primrose, who would later marry the American botanist, George Slate, a plant breeder at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. Wilson went on a second trip to China for Veitch that lasted from 1903 to 1906. For the remainder of 1906, he worked as an assistant at the Imperial Institute, London.
His third and fourth China expeditions (1906-1911) were arranged by C.S. Sargent under the sponsorship of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. "A good set of photographs are really about as important as anything you can bring back with you," Sargent wrote as he prepared for his first Arboretum-sponsored expedition. Sargent insisted Wilson take on this journey and on all that would follow, a large format Sanderson whole-plate field camera capable of recording both great detail and broad perspectives without distortion. For three years, beginning in late 1906, Wilson explored western Hupeh and western Szechuan. He arrived in Boston in 1909 via Beijing, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, and finally London, where he spent several months developing the glass-plate negatives and seeing his 720 images for the first time. Also in 1909, the family moved to Boston; Ernest and Ellen Wilson would eventually live in a house constructed for them on the grounds of the Arboretum, where they would make their home for the rest of their lives.
The purpose of his second Arboretum expedition, which began in 1910, was to collect cones and conifer seeds in the central and southwestern parts of China. In September of that year, while traveling between Sungpan and Chentu, a landslide hit the expedition group, crushing Wilson's leg. After several months in a hospital at Chentu, Wilson returned to Boston in March 1911, much earlier than planned. Before the accident, however, he had managed to take 374 images and to collect and ship bulbs of Lilium regale, the Easter Lily, to Boston.
In January 1914, accompanied by his wife and daughter, Wilson sailed for Japan, where he would focus his attention on cultivated plants, horticulture, conifers, Kurume azaleas, and Japanese cherries. By the time the Wilsons returned to Boston at the beginning of 1915, there were 619 new images to add to the photograph collection. Wilson next undertook a "systematic exploration" of the region in 1917 and travelled to the Bonin Islands, Japan, Formosa, and along the Yalu River into the far northern reaches of Korea, returning to Boston in 1919 with seeds, living plants, 30,000 herbarium specimens, and 700 photographs. His last expedition, a tour of the gardens of the world, took place from 1920 to 1922 and included, in alphabetical order: Australia, England, France, India, Kenya, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa, and Tasmania.
In addition to being a plant explorer and a botanist, Wilson became a prolific author and a much sought-after lecturer. His articles appeared in the popular press as well as in the botanical literature, and he often illustrated his talks with hand-colored lantern slides adapted from the glass plate negatives created during his travels. In 1919, Wilson was appointed Assistant Director; after Sargent's death in 1927, Wilson became "Keeper" of the Arnold Arboretum. Three years later, his remarkable career was cut short when he and his wife were killed in an automobile accident on October 15, 1930 outside Worcester, Massachusetts. Ernest and Ellen Wilson are buried in the Mont-Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Canada.
Other Finding Aids note
- Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) papers, 1896-2017: Guide.
- Finding aid prepared by Larissa Glasser and Liz Francis
- Language of description
- EAD ID
Part of the Arnold Arboretum Archives Repository
The Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library is a specialized collection devoted to the study of temperate woody plants. We collect works on botany, horticulture, floras, urban forestry and taxonomy. The library contains more than 25,000 volumes and 40,000 photographs, and includes an archive that both documents the Arboretum's history and is a repository for 19th, 20th, and 21st century horticultural and botanical collections.
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