Wilson’s career as an explorer began in 1899 when he traveled to China seeking the dove tree, Davidia involucrata, for the Veitch Nursery in England. A visit to the Arnold Arboretum on his way to China initiated a lifelong collaboration with Charles Sargent. As Wilson was preparing for his first Arboretum journey, Sargent insisted that he take along a large-format, Sanderson whole-plate field camera capable of recording both great detail and broad perspectives without distortion. The rest of his camera gear included a cumbersome wooden tripod and many crates of large, heavy, fragile glass-plate negatives.
Between 1907 and 1922, Wilson used the Sanderson camera to take 2,488 images of eastern Asia for the Arnold Arboretum.
In 2007, the institution celebrated the centennial of Wilson’s first Arboretum-sponsored plant expedition. Read about some of Wilson’s plant introductions.
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, he studied botany at the Birmingham Technical School. His next employment, which began in January 1897, was at the Royal Botanical Garden at 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, which had been sending collectors abroad since 1840, asked the then director of Kew, William Thistleton-Dyer, to recommend a suitable man to be sent to China to collect seeds and plants, it was the young E. H. Wilson who was chosen. After six months of training at Veitch’s Coombe Wood Nursery under George Harrow, Wilson left for China in 1899 and began a successful career in introducing Asiatic plants to the West. In April 1902 he returned to England and on June 8, 1902 he married Ellen Ganderton of Edgbaston, Warwickshire. They had one daughter, Muriel Primrose who would eventually marry the American botanist, George Slate, of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. Wilson went on a second trip to China for Veitch that lasted from 1903-1906. 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 through Charles S. Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum. For three years, beginning in late 1906, Wilson explored western Hupeh and western Szechuan. He returned to 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 for the first time his 720 images. Also in 1909, the family moved to Boston; Ernest and Ellen Wilson would live on the grounds and make the Arnold Arboretum 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 he was 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.
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 Wilson’s 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 Korea. Beginning in 1917 with the Japanese islands of Bonin, Liukiu, and Formosa, he then traveled 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 a stop at the Singapore Botanical Garden in June of 1921.
Wilson became a popular lecturer on his collection trips and on horticulture, often illustrating his talks with hand-colored lantern slides. 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 outside Worcester, Massachusetts. Ernest and Ellen Wilson are buried in the Mont-Royal Cemetery in Montreal, Canada.
Harvard University Library Open Collections Program provides Wilson material online through their website, “Expeditions & Discoveries: Sponsored Exploration and Scientific Discovery in the Modern Age. Ernest H. Wilson Expeditions to China, Japan, Korea, Formosa, and Islands in the Japanese Sea 1899–1919.”