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Papers of Joseph Hers, 1919-1992: Guide.


This small collection consists of letters written by Joseph Hers and photographs taken during Hers’ trips to Asia. Hers, a Belgian citizen, originally went to China as an interpreter with the Belgium Ministry of Foreign Affairs, though he would eventually hold several jobs in that country. Despite describing his own knowledge of botany as “very limited,” between 1919 and 1924, Hers compiled and sent to the Arnold Arboretum over 2000 plant specimens. The materials in this collection primarily document Meyer’s research and travel in Asia during 1919 and 1923-24.


  • 1919-1992.

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.


0.17 linear feet

This collection consists of correspondence, biographic and bibliographic materials, planting lists, and images. Materials in the collection date from 1919 through 1992, with most items relating to the 1919 and 1923-24 trips to Asia. 68 images of eastern Asia taken in 1919, and 1923–24 have been digitized and are available on VIA.

Biographical Note

Joseph Hers was born in Mamur, Belgium on September 6, 1884. Holding a degree in “Sciences Commerciales et Consultaires,” Hers arrived in China in 1905, employed as an interpreter for the Belgium Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He fulfilled various functions as an attaché to the Consulate General of Belgium in Shanghai until 1913, when he became Secretary General of the Belgium financed Lunghai and Pienlo railways, a post he held until 1944. He was also an assessor at the International mixed court in Shanghai, where assessors, like Hers, sat with the Chinese judge and represented the interest of the foreign plaintiff. In 1915, Hers founded the Sino-Belgian Friendship Association and then later established the Sino-Belgian Inter-University Commission. He was also president of the Sino-Belgian Commission for Education and Philanthropy; it was in this capacity that he arranged for Chinese students to attend Belgium universities.

Through Hers's efforts, one young Eurasian woman would attend Brussels University and go on to obtain a medical degree in London. Born Rosalie Elisabeth Kuanghu Chow, she was the daughter of Zhou Yintong, a railway engineer who had also attended university in Belgium, where he met and married Marguerite Denis. Chow would practice medicine and then become a well-known and respected novelist, writing under the pseudonym Han Suyin (she is also known by her married name, Elisabeth Comber). In A Mortal Flower, 1966, the second volume of a two volume autobiography, Suyin describes her impressions of Joseph Hers in 1928: “very tall, gaunt, a bald head, piercing blue eyes, a big nose, a small moustache and beard, a loud voice and an air of command,” and who also had “that vigor, meticulousness and vitality that characterizes the explorer.” According to Suyin, Hers was as interested in archaeology as he was in botany and helped excavate some Chou dynasty tombs. She also recounts his plant collecting methods:

He was also a good botanist and collected specimens all over China. His contribution to this branch of science is very creditable, for he sent to the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard thousands of specimens of plants from north Honan, then a botanically unexplored region. He went on safaris with a trail of porters, immune to fatigue, weather or insects. His appearance struck terror in village children, his height and voice made the timorous Chinese officials of those days cringe in fear.

In a July 18, 1919 letter to Charles Sprague Sargent, the Arnold Arboretum’s first director, Hers wrote that although his “own knowledge of botany is, I regret to say, very limited, I happen to live in a part of China where very few botanical collections, if any, have been made, and as I enjoy frequent opportunities to travel in little known districts . . .” Enclosed with the letter was a list of trees and shrubs that included a number of new species, and Hers offered to send “seeds, or cuttings, or photos.” Sargent replied that “this is one of the most important collections of Chinese plants which has been sent to the Arboretum and I am extremely obliged to you for sending it to us.”

The Arnold Arboretum has 63 images of botanical subjects taken between 1919 and 1924 by Hers. He also collected seed and herbarium specimens for the Arnold Arboretum that amounted to over 2,000 species. Between 1922 and 1938, Hers also published papers on the cultivated and indigenous woody plants of China, Manchuria, and the Pacific provinces of Russia, and on Chinese names of plants.

After World War II, Hers remained in Belgium and in the late 1950s, he resided in Brussels and was a member of the International Dendrology Union – now the International Dendrology Society. Hers continued his interest and connection with China through a twenty-year post as General Secretary of the Association Belge pour l’Extreme–Orient, a position he retained until the year of his death, 1965.


The Hers collection is organized in two series:

  1. Series: I. Correspondence, Biographic and Bibliographic Materials, Planting Lists.
  2. Series: II. Images

Physical Location

Archives = III JH

Other Finding Aids

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

Additional Joseph Hers correspondence can be found by searching the Arnold Arboretum Correspondence Database.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Provenance: Joseph Hers’ photographs and the majority of his correspondence were acquired by the Arboretum during his association with the Arboretum as a plant collector.

General note

Access to Finding Aid record in HOLLIS.

Processing Information

September 2007, December 2009.

Hers, Joseph, 1884-1965. Papers of Joseph Hers, 1919-1992: 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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