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Papers of William Purdom, 1909-1912: Guide.


Compiled by plant explorer William Purdom, this collection consists primarily of correspondence. There are some photographs and documents relating to expedition expenses. Purdom was dispatched to Asia to collect plants for the first time by C. S. Sargent in 1909. Though he would return to Asia later, this collection is comprised of materials dating from 1909-1912.


  • 1909-1912

Terms of Access

Researchers seeking to examine archival materials are strongly encouraged to make an appointment. The Director, or an office of origin, may place restrictions on the use of some or all of its records. The extent and length of the restriction will be determined by the Director, office of origin, and the Archivist and will be enforced equally for all researchers.

Terms of Use

The copyright is held by The President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Arnold Arboretum Archives of Harvard University. The copyright on some materials in the collection may be held by the original author or the author's heirs or assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining written permission from the holder(s) of copyright and the Arnold Arboretum Archives prior to publishing any quotations or images from materials in this collection.

Photocopies may be made at the discretion of the Arnold Arboretum Archives staff. Permission to make photocopies does not constitute permission to reproduce or publish materials outside the bounds of the fair use guidelines.


1 linear feet

This collection contains photographs, correspondence, and financial statements from Purdom’s expeditions. 173 images of eastern Asia, taken from 1909-1912, have been digitized and are available on VIA.

Biographical Note

William Purdom was born in Heversham, Westmoreland, England on April 10, 1880. His early horticultural training began at Brathay Hall Gardens, Ambleside, Cumbria where his father, William, held the position of head gardener. Purdom then worked at the 19th-century nurserymen Low & Sons in Enfield and later for James Veitch (1868-1907) at Coombe Wood, Kingston, Surrey, the original site of the Veitch family’s famous nursery. In 1902, Purdom became a sub-foreman of the Arboretum Nurseries at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and in 1905 enrolled at Kew as a two-year student.

In 1909, Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) the Director of the Arnold Arboretum, was intent on having as many plant collectors as possible engaged in exploring China’s flora. With the Arboretum’s primary explorer, Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930), about to return from southern China and an agreement in place with David Fairchild, Chairman of the Foreign Plant Introduction Section of the USDA, stating that the ornamental plants collected by Frank Meyer (1875-1918) would be shared with the Arboretum, Sargent was eager to dispatch yet another collector to the largely unexplored northeastern provinces of China.

William Purdom, whom Sargent had only met early in 1909, embarked on his first plant expedition in February of that year. Sargent’s goal for the young Purdom, the most inexperienced of Arboretum explorers, was to “bring into our gardens Chinese plants from regions with climates even more severe than those of New England.” The Veitch Nursery cosponsored the 1909-1912 Purdom expedition as they had the first of Wilson’s for the Arboretum. Although Purdom’s expedition did not measure up to the successful exploits of Wilson in numbers of new plant introductions, in 1913 a new Rhododendron, Rhododendron purdomii, was named after him by Alfred Rehder and E. H. Wilson. Purdom did collect seeds and herbarium specimens of many plants and he did take a substantial number of photographs.

While he often recorded individual plants, he favored wide vistas of the mountains and valleys of China. Purdom was also interested in the anthropological and ethnographical aspects of the regions he visited, and took many close-up shots of the people he encountered, documenting their dress and their hairstyles. Especially noteworthy are his series of images capturing the “devil dancing” at the now-destroyed monastery in Chone.

Purdom’s collection techniques improved and he is now respected for his later success in China with Reginald Farrer (1880-1920) with whom he collected and introduced many new alpine plants. However, his quiet demeanor was again overshadowed by another’s energetic personality. Unlike Purdom, but like Wilson, Farrer was also a prodigious author eager to share his exploits. In his books, On the Eaves of the World: A Botanical Exploration of the Borders of China and Tibet (1917) and The Rainbow Bridge (1921), Farrer recounts the adventures of the Kansu Purdom and Farrer expedition of 1914-15.

At the conclusion of the expedition in 1916 Purdom remained in China while Farrer returned to England to work under John Buchan in the Department of Information. That same year the Chinese government established a Forest Service. Nang Han returned from his studies at Cornell University to be China's senior secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce and co-director of the Chinese Forest Service. Forsythe Sherfesee, from the United States, served as the other the co-director of the Service, and William Purdom became a division chief within the service.

In addition to his other duties Purdom established tree nurseries to aid in the reforestation of China. In “The House of Veitch” (2002) Shirley Heriz-Smith recounts this era of Purdom’s career: “He was asked to organize a tree planting programme for the Chinese railway and spent much of his time living in a converted railway carriage in remote places. It is said that he established a particularly flourishing forestry station at Kin Han (Isah?) in southern China.” Following a minor operation, Purdom died at the French hospital in Beijing on November 7, 1921.


The Purdom collection is organized in six series:

  1. Series: I. Biographic Material and Portrait of William Purdom
  2. Series: II. Correspondence to Charles Sprague Sargent
  3. Series: III. Correspondence to James Veitch
  4. Series: IV. Correspondence from Charles Sprague Sargent to William Purdom
  5. Series: V. “Technicalities of the Purdom Expedition” (itemized expenses)
  6. Series: VI. Images

Physical Location

Archives = III WP

Other Finding Aids

Current version of this finding aid is available at the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

Additional Wliiam Purdom correspondence can be found by searching the Arnold Arboretum Correspondence Database.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Provenance: This collection was created by William Purdom and acquired by the Arnold Arboretum during and after his trip to China. The collection was transferred from the Arboretum’s departmental holdings to the Arboretum’s Archives in 1986 when the Archives was established.

General note

Access to Finding Aid record in HOLLIS.

Processing Information


Purdom, William, 1880-1921. Papers of William Purdom, 1909-1912: Guide.
Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University
Language of description

Repository Details

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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