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Arnold Arboretum
William Purdom

Explorers

William Purdom (1880–1921)

In 1909, with Ernest Henry Wilson about to return from southern China and an agreement with the USDA in place to ensure that Frank Meyer’s Asian collections would be shared with the Arboretum, Sargent was eager to dispatch yet another plant collector to the largely unexplored northeastern provinces of China. Hoping, in Sargent’s words, to “bring into our gardens Chinese plants from regions with climates even more severe than those of New England,” the most inexperienced of Arboretum explorers, William Purdom, embarked on his first expedition in February of that year.

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169 images (1909–11)

William Purdom was born in Heversham, Westmoreland, England on April 10, 1880. His early horticultural training began at Brathay Hall Gardens, Ambleside, Cumbria where his father, William, held the position of head gardener. Purdom then worked at the 19th-century nurserymen Low & Sons in Enfield and later for James Veitch (1868-1907) at Coombe Wood, Kingston, Surrey, the original site of the Veitch family’s famous nursery.  In 1902, Purdom became a sub-foreman of the Arboretum Nurseries at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and in 1905 enrolled at Kew as a two-year student.

In 1909, Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) the Director of the Arnold Arboretum, was intent on having as many plant collectors as possible engaged in exploring China’s flora.  With the Arboretum’s primary explorer, Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930), about to return from southern China and an agreement in place with David Fairchild, Chairman of the Foreign Plant Introduction Section of the USDA, that the ornamental plants collected by Frank Meyer (1875-1918) would be shared with the Arboretum, Sargent was eager to dispatch yet another collector to the largely unexplored northeastern provinces of China.

William Purdom, whom Sargent had only met early in 1909, embarked on his first plant expedition in February of that year. Sargent’s goal for the young Purdom, the most inexperienced of Arboretum explorers, was to “bring into our gardens Chinese plants from regions with climates even more severe than those of New England.” The Veitch Nursery cosponsored the 1909-1912 Purdom expedition as they had the first of Wilson’s for the Arboretum.  Although Purdom’s expedition did not measure up to the successful exploits of Wilson in numbers of new plant introductions, in 1913 a new Rhododendron, Rhododendron purdomii, was named after him by Alfred Rehder and E. H. Wilson.  Purdom did collect seeds and herbarium specimens of many plants and he did take a substantial number of photographs. While he often recorded individual plants, he favored wide vistas of the mountains and valleys of China.  Purdom was also interested in the anthropological and ethnographical aspects of the regions he visited, and took many close-up shots of the people he encountered, documenting their dress and their hairstyles. Especially noteworthy are his series of images capturing the “devil dancing” at the now-destroyed monastery in Chone.

Purdom’s collection techniques improved and he is now respected for his later success in China with Reginald Farrer (1880-1920) with whom he collected and introduced many new alpine plants. However, his quiet demeanor was again overshadowed by another’s energetic personality.  Unlike Purdom, but like Wilson, Farrer was also a prodigous author eager to share his exploits.  In his books, On the Eaves of the World: A Botanical Exploration of the Borders of China and Tibet (1917) and The Rainbow Bridge (1921), Farrer recounts the adventures of the Kansu Purdom and Farrer expedition of 1914-15.

At the conclusion of the expedition in 1916 Purdom remained in China while Farrer returned to England to work under John Buchan in the Department of Information.  That same year the Chinese government established a Forest Service. Nang Han returned from his studies at Cornell University be China’s senior secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce and co-director of the Chinese Forest Service.  Forsythe Sherfesee, from the United States, served as the other the co-director of the Service, and William Purdom became a division chief within the service.

In addition to his other duties Purdom established tree nurseries to aid in the reforestation of China.  In “The House of Veitch” (2002) Shirley Heriz-Smith recounts this era of Purdom’s career: “He was asked to organize a tree planting programme for the Chinese railway and spent much of his time living in a converted railway carriage in remote places.  It is said that he established a particularly flourishing forestry station at Kin Han (Isah?) in southern China.” Following a minor operation, Purdom died at the French hospital in Beijing on November 7, 1921.

The William Purdom (1880-1921) papers, 1909-1912 finding aid is available on our website.

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