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COLLECTION Identifier: gra00108

Elso Sterrenberg Barghoorn papers

Scope and content

The Barghoorn papers contain correspondence, newspaper clippings, maps, manuscripts, and photographs related to Frederick Oliver Thompson’s work as an amateur fossil collector. The collection also contains manuscripts, drafts, journals, travel diaries, field notes, a scrapbook, and 35mm color slides pertaining to Barghoorn’s travels and research. The collection is divided into 4 series. The first series is Frederick Oliver Thompson materials; the other three series are Barghoorn materials.


  • Creation: 1911-1983


Conditions Governing Access

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


4 linear feet (3 record cartons, 1 oversize map folder)

Biographical note

Elso Sterrenberg Barghoorn, Jr. was born on June 30, 1915, in New York City, and grew up in Dayton, Ohio. He graduated with honors from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1937 and went on to earn an M.A. (1938) and Ph.D. (1941) from Harvard University. His lifelong interests in plant anatomy, paleontology, and fungal decay were inspired by his graduate work with Irving Widmer Bailey, William Culp Darrah, and William Henry “Cap” Weston. Following graduation Barghoorn taught at Amherst College until being drafted in 1943. He spent the next two years in Panama researching fungal degradation of supplies with the Army Quartermaster Corps.

After the war Barghoorn briefly returned to Amherst before accepting an assistant professorship at Harvard in 1946. He became associate professor in 1949 and professor in 1955. In 1973 Barghoorn was appointed Fisher Professor of Natural History, a position he held until his death.

Barghoorn published papers on a variety of topics but is most famous for his research into Precambrian life. As an advisor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration he helped develop a strategy for the biological exploration of the solar system and analyzed lunar samples from the Apollo missions for signs of past life. He received numerous awards and honors in his lifetime and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Linnean Society of London, the Paleontological Society, and the International Association of Wood Anatomists, among others.

Barghoorn married Margaret Alden MacLeod in 1941. The couple had two sons, one of whom died in childhood. His marriage to Margaret, as well as his second marriage, to Teresa Joan LaCroix, ended in divorce. Barghoorn married Dorothy Dellmer Osgood in 1964. He died on January 22, 1984 at his farm in Carlisle, Massachusetts.


Knoll AH. 1991. Elso Sterrenberg Barghoorn, Jr. (June 15, 1915-January 22, 1984). Proc. Amer. Philos. Soc. 135(1):86-90.

Margulis L, Knoll AH. 2005. Elso Sterrenberg Barghoorn Jr. Biogr. Mem. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 87: 92-109.

Biographical / Historical

Frederick Oliver Thompson was born December 29, 1883, in Des Moines, Iowa, the first son of H. DeVere Thompson and Alice Cooper Thompson. He married Anna Cram in 1912 and they had four children.

In 1903, Frederick Thompson graduated from St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, before going on to Harvard University, receiving his A.B. degree in 1907. He became an amateur fossil collector around 1930 when he first accompanied a friend on a fossil hunting trip in Joliet, Illinois. By 1938, he was continuing to collect fossils, and while on a trip to Iowa discovered “coal balls,” spherical shaped coal that when sliced open revealed fossils of plants and seeds. He sent the majority of his findings to the Botanical Museum at Harvard University, and some to other institutions such as Washington University in St. Louis. Through his collecting, he supported and fostered many research projects in both paleobotany and paleontology. In 1949, he became a research fellow at the Harvard Botanical Museum. Frederick Thompson died on January 3, 1953.


Barghoorn ES. 1953. Frederick Oliver Thompson, 1883-1953. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, 16(7), 173–178.


Series I. Frederick Oliver Thompson materials, 1911-1983: Correspondence is arranged chronologically. The bulk of the correspondence is between Barghoorn and Frederick Oliver Thompson. There is additional correspondence from Thompson to Henry N. Andrews and to Charles B. Lipman, and letters from Thompson’s wife, Anna Cram Thompson, to Barghoorn. The series also contains additional paper ephemera related to Thompson, including clippings of newspaper articles he wrote, biographical information, maps, and photographs.

Series II. Barghoorn publications and correspondence, 1945-1983. Includes Barghoorn proofs and corrections, publications, transparencies, and correspondence.

Series III. Barghoorn journals, 1929-1978: Journals are handwritten and contain field notes, collecting lists, travel diaries, photograph records, and expenses. Loose materials found in the journals, including blank postcards and notes, have been removed and placed in envelopes stored with each journal. Typed transcriptions are stored with some journals.

Series IV. Barghoorn visual materials. Predominantly 35mm slides of Barghoorn's travels and work, 1965-1977. Slides have been removed from original binders for preservation purposes, but original titles and order have been maintained. This series also includes a scrapbook on the Saugus Iron Work, in Massachusetts. The scrapbook contains publicity materials, newspaper articles and photographs.


Gift of the Barghoorn family, 1984

Processing note

The collection was originally cataloged in the Economic Botany Archives repository but it should have been cataloged in the Gray Herbarium Archives repository. In July 2023, The collection was given a new Gray Herbarium Archives call number (gra00108) and the finding aid was re-imported into the Gray Herbarium Archives repository.

Barghoorn, Elso S. (Elso Sterrenberg), 1915-1984. Elso Sterrenberg Barghoorn papers, 1931-1983: A Guide.
Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries. The Gray Herbarium Library specializes in the identification and classification of New World plants with emphasis on North American plants. The Archives of the Gray Herbarium houses unique resources including personal papers, institutional records, field notes and plant lists, expedition records, photographs, original artwork, and objects from faculty, curators, staff, and affiliates of the Gray Herbarium.

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