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COLLECTION Identifier: arn00023

Peter S. Ashton Sarawak fieldwork papers

Scope and Contents

This collection comprises part of Peter Ashton's research archive. All of the materials are from field work in Sarawak, Malaysia during 1963-1968. This collection contains plot maps, tree data, fire images and publications, plots and charts, and field books related to Ashton’s Sarawak fieldwork.

In the 1960’s, Ashton was a botanical researcher in the forest service of Sarawak, then a state in northern Borneo island, which is now part of Malaysia. His job was to document the tree species occurring in the rain forests, ultimately for management for timber production. This was done in two ways: first, by collecting specimens, many of them stored in the Harvard University Herbaria; and second, by laying out plots, which were grouped in clusters (lettered A-N) across the state. There were 105 plots in all and each plot was 1 1/2 acres. Plots were sited at 13 localities representing the diversity of geology throughout lowland Sarawak. Each plot had some 200 trees censused by Ashton and his colleagues. Collections were made, sorted by family, genus and species, and their particulars documented in this collection.

Data in this collection corresponds to the species reference collection of fallen leaf ecological vouchers, in the Harvard University Herbaria, which are attached to cards and ordered by family and numbered species on separate cards. The species are in turn by lettered site (sites thus lettered indicated in a map, figure 3.9 in chapter 3 in "On the forests of tropical Asia: lest the memory fade") filed in the Harvard University Herbaria.


  • 1963-1968


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available by appointment for research. Researchers must register and provide one form of valid photo identification. Please contact for additional information.


1.5 linear feet (3 manuscript boxes, plots and maps are stored in 1 oversize roll and drawers in the map cases)

Biographical note

Peter Shaw Ashton was born in Boscombe, Bournemouth, England on June 27, 1934, to Edna Marjorie (Knott) Ashton and Dudley Shaw Ashton. He spent his youth in forests in the south of England, exploring the colors and patterns found on insect wings. Ashton received his B.A. in biology in 1956, and his M.A. in biology and Ph.D in botany in 1960 from the University of Cambridge. He married Helen Mary Spence in 1958 and has three children.

Ashton served as Forest Botanist to the Brunei government from 1957 to 1962 and the Sarawak government from 1962 to 1966. He used the data he gathered from his work on tree species in Brunei for his graduate work, demonstrating qualitatively the relationship between habitat and species composition of forests. He developed working relationships with the local guides that would allow him to return for additional research projects in later years. In 1966, Ashton took a position as lecturer in botany at Aberdeen University and remained in Scotland until 1978. His family relocated to the United States in 1978 when he began his term as the director of the Arnold Arboretum and Arnold Professor of Botany at Harvard University. From 1978 to 1991, he served as professor of dendrology at Harvard. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983. In 1984, Ashton began a collaborative project with scientist Stephen Hubbell to study forest plots in southeast Asia. The project evolved into the founding of the Center for Tropical Forest Science that expanded the original idea into a network of over forty forest plots over multiple continents. Ashton proposed new conservation areas as national parks, based on tree floristic evidence; these were legislated into formal existence following Sarawak's entry as a state within Malaysia.

From 1990 to 2000, Ashton served as a faculty fellow for the Harvard Institute of International Development. In 1998 he was named a faculty fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Center for International Development. He was named the Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry in 1991 and maintained the post until his retirement in 2005. In 2006, Ashton was elected Honorary Fellow of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) during the annual meeting held in Kunming, China. In a 2007 Harvard talk, Ashton called for a holistic approach to forest conservation that includes both the large and small members of forest ecology as well as the people who live nearby and depend on forests for their livelihood. In 2015 the Peter Ashton Prize was created by the ATBC in his honor. He received the Japan Prize and the Sultan Quaboos Prize from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Ashton has named 244 plant species and published over three hundred publications. Peter Shaw Ashton serves as the Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry, Emeritus at Harvard University.

Arnold Arboretum News. 2015. Peter Ashton wins prestigious book award for On the Forests of Tropical Asia. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Website ( ). Accessed 16 April 2020.

IPNI (2020). International Plant Names Index. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Harvard University Herbaria & Libraries and Australian National Botanic Gardens. Website ( Accessed 7 May 2020.

Powell, A. 2008. Peter Ashton: A legacy written in trunk, limb and leaf. The Harvard Gazette. Website ( Accessed 23 April 2020.

Prabook. 2020. Peter Shaw Ashton. World Biographical Encyclopedia, Inc. Website ( Accessed 23 April 2020.

Reed, C. 2007. Honorable Forester. Harvard Magazine. Website ( Accessed 23 April 2020.

Wayback Machine. 2010. Peter Shaw Ashton. Internet Archive. Website ( Accessed 16 April 2020.



The collection is arranged into five series.
  1. Series I. Plots maps.
  2. Series I. Sub-series A. Plot contour maps from Sarawak state of Malaysia; arranged by plot letter A-N. Includes maps of the 105 sample plots indicating altitude, plot shape, disposition in relation to topography and location of soil pits, profiles diagrams representing the structure of the forests at each of the 13 sites where the plots were clustered.
  3. Series I. Sub-series B. Plant family plot maps; arranged alphabetically by family name, includes the location and identity of all trees exceeding 20 cm dbh in a natural arboretum at Semengoh, West Sarawak. This forest, now legally designated a nature reserve, is all that remains of a major regional (NW Borneo) forest type, rich in endemic species.
  4. Series I. Sub-series C. Proposed parks; maps of a proposed network of National Parks for the Malaysian state of Sarawak, proposed by Ashton and J.A.R. Anderson. Most were subsequently successfully legislated by the Sarawak state government after Sarawak joined Malaysia.
  5. Series I. Sub-series D. Plot keys; ecological plots in the Pasoh Forest Reserve. Unusually in the tropics, perhaps uniquely, these parks were proposed on botanical criteria: known species' distributions extrapolated from knowledge of their edaphic/geological distributions. Still in large part intact (unlike parks in neighboring nations), they are estimated to conserve at least two thirds of the indigenous flora, and therefore of the overall biodiversity which is dependent on it.
  6. Series II. Tree data.
  7. Series II. Sub-series A. Tree data by file; print outs of tree data from disks. Arranged in disk order.
  8. Series II. Sub-series B. Tree data by family; data is organized by family, three families are represented: Dipterocarpaceae, Fagaceae, and Lauraceae.
  9. Series III. Fire images and publications: contains maps, photographs, and articles on fire.
  10. Series IV. Plots and charts.
  11. Series V. Field books; 10 field books organized by plot letter and location. Also includes one thumb drive.


Gift of Peter Ashton circa 2015.

Related Materials

Related materials at the Botany Libraries: Peter Shaw Ashton oral history, 2007-2009. Oral History Ashton. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum (Cambridge), Harvard University.

General note

Northern Borneo, thanks to its tree species diversity, was the terrestrial World's most biodiverse region (Slik & al. PNAS 112(2015) 7472) before the destruction of its forests by mercantile interests, but for some fragments. These data represent the sole precise regional record of its most biodiverse ecosystem: Mixed Dipterocarp Forest, now replaced by oilpalm. For each site, all species are vouchered and named by leaf specimens as a separate collection in the Harvard University Herbarium. The vouchers are keyed to the plot maps in this collection.

Processing Information

A detailed inventory of the collection was made circa 2016. Selected portions of the collection were digitized in 2017 and a catalog record was made with links to the digital files. A detailed finding aid was made May 2020 based on the 2016 inventory. The finding aid includes links to digitized items.
Link to catalog
Ashton, Peter S. Peter S. Ashton Sarawak fieldwork papers, 1963-1968: A guide.
Botany Libraries, Arnold Arboretum Library (Cambridge), Harvard University.
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Arnold Arboretum Library (Cambridge), Harvard University Repository

Harvard University Herbaria
22 Divinity Ave
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 495-2366