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Arnold Arboretum

Explorers

Joseph Hers

Joseph Hers (1884–1965)

It was Joseph Hers, an administrator of the Lung-Hai and Pien-Lo railways, who first approached Sargent with a proposal to collect specimens for the Arboretum.

Stationed in Chengchow, Hers was superbly situated to range far and wide collecting and photographing plants. In 1919, Hers wrote Sargent 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 . . . 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.”

Search the database for Hers’ images (68)

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68 images (1919, 1923–24)

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 he established the Sino-Belgian Inter-university Commission. He was also president of the Sino-Belgian Commission for Education and Philanthropy and 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 letter to Sargent on July 18, 1919, 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.” Although we have only 63 of his images (all of which are of botanical subjects), between 1919 and 1924 he collected seed and herbarium specimens for the Arnold Arboretum that amounted to over 2,000 species. Between 1922 and 1938 he published papers on cultivated and indigenous woody plants of China, Manchuria, and the Pacific provinces of Russia, as well as 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 in 1965.

The Joseph Hers (1884-1965) papers, 1919-1992 finding aid is available on our website.

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