Ernest Jesse Palmer (1875–1962) was a highly accomplished plant collector, botanical taxonomist, and naturalist. He was employed by the Arnold Arboretum from 1913 to 1948 and, during the latter part of his tenure, lived with his family in the old farm house on Centre Street (near the Arboretum’s current greenhouses). In this article, Palmer’s son, Theodore W. Palmer, explains the unlikely circumstances that made this exceptional career possible.
Ernest Jesse Palmer was born in England but came to the United States when he was three years old, his family first settling in west central Missouri. From early childhood Palmer had a strong interest in natural history, an interest that was encouraged by his parents who were surprisingly well informed on many subjects although they had no significant formal education. However, when his father lost the ability to work in his midfifties, Palmer’s free time and chances for his own formal education were severely restricted as he became the main source of support for his family at the age of eleven. After the family moved in 1891 to the lead and zinc mining boom town of Webb City, in southwestern Missouri, he concentrated his natural history interest on the Carboniferous age marine fossils which were abundant in the mine tailing piles.
Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927), founding director of the Arnold Arboretum, was the person mainly responsible for directing Palmer’s career to botany. Palmer and Sargent first became aware of each other through the botanist Benjamin Franklin Bush (1858–1937). Bush had started collecting plants for Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum around 1899, after several years of doing the same for the Missouri Botanical Garden. In his obituary of Bush, Palmer wrote that in 1900 he read Bush’s 1894 paper:
In the introduction the author requested that teachers, horticulturists, or anyone interested in the woody plants of the state, send specimens to him for identification, for the purpose of bringing about a better knowledge of the flora of the state and of the distribution of the trees and shrubs. Finding many plants unknown to me, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity, and mailed a small package of twigs and leaves to him.
Bush identified botanical specimens for Palmer over several months, and arranged to visit the next year in April. He stayed with the Palmers for nearly a week and left a supply of driers for the crude plant press Palmer had constructed. After that, Bush visited Palmer repeatedly in Webb City.
Palmer sent his first specimens, some hawthorn (Crataegus) fruits, to Sargent in November 1901. His first attempt at shipment failed, however, as Sargent wrote to say that “many of the paper packages inside the bag broke open in transit so that the fruit was mixed. In future the fruit should be put in separate cloth bags.” No doubt numbers of inept people sent such packages to the Arboretum. But Palmer corrected the matter with a second box of specimens and received the following praise from Sargent:
I have your letter of the 18th and also your box of specimens. These are excellent and you have been very successful in drying them, for Crataegus is one of the most difficult of all genera to handle for the herbarium.
I hope you realize how greatly I am indebted to you for your assistance in this investigation. When the spring opens I hope that you will be full of enthusiasm and ready for a new campaign, for the field about Webb City is by no means exhausted yet. I shall write you later just what it is desirable to look after in the spring. (November 22, 1901)
By 1903, Sargent had published three new species from Palmer’s herbarium specimens: Crataegus palmeri, C. lanuginosa, and C. speciosa, naming the first for Palmer in Trees and Shrubs, Volume I, p. 57, where he wrote:
This handsome tree of the Crusgalli Group, one of the largest and most symmetrical of American Thorns, is named for its discover, Mr. E. J. Palmer, of Webb City, who has carefully collected and studied Crataegus in southwestern Missouri, where the genus is represented by a large number of interesting forms, of which several are still undescribed.
Perhaps Palmer’s early success was not particularly remarkable—Crataegus in southwest Missouri was widespread and varied. On the other hand, Palmer was able rather soon to distinguish the interesting from the commonplace, and therein lies the genius of any good collector.
Thus began a correspondence that was eventually to change Palmer’s life profoundly. During the next several years, until 1907, the letters were sporadic. These were the years during which Palmer was building his taxonomic skills as well as pursuing his many other interests in natural history—all while also supporting his family with multiple jobs, starting with delivering heavy loads with his father’s horse and wagon in his teenage years to being chief bookkeeper for a local oil company.
It is obvious that Sargent valued Palmer’s work on his favorite subject, Crataegus. Palmer was eager to please all his correspondents as can be seen in his correspondence with the many small-time collectors with whom he exchanged specimens. He did no less for this great man who showed an interest in him. He worked to master Crataegus as well as anyone could. By 1908 one of his more colorful acquaintances, the Reverend John Davis of Hannibal, Missouri, wrote, “Mr. Bush says you know the several species [of Crataegus] now almost by heart; can sight them afar off, and call them all by name.” Thus Palmer had at this early date achieved a local reputation with this confusing genus. Is it, then, surprising that Sargent wanted to hire Palmer to collect for him? On March 25, 1907, Sargent wrote:
I now enclose a list of the Crataegus material collected by you or me in your region which has not yet been described. Much of it is incomplete and I very much hope that you may be able to do more work this year on these numbers.
Won’t you kindly write me what the prospect is and whether there is any chance of your extending your work beyond the immediate neighborhood of Webb City and Carthage? Eureka Springs in Arkansas is evidently a good field as we collected flowers there a good many years ago but have never had any fruit. Joplin, I take to be a rich field and unexplored; indeed I fancy there is no place in southwestern Missouri that you could visit without finding new forms.
But Palmer’s answer was negative at this time because of his need to support his family. Sargent visited Webb City in the autumn of 1907 and stayed in the Palmer family home, as noted Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries had done in 1904. (The family, who lived in impecunious circumstances, took pride in these visits.) On the visit itself, there is no information. Palmer was then 32 years old, knew his area well, and no doubt Sargent saw a fair sampling of the surrounding countryside.
Early in 1908 Sargent again wrote asking Palmer to collect professionally:
I have been very much impressed with the carefulness with which you have made collections and observations of Crataegus and your grasp of the genus. I wish you could devote more time to collecting and studying the southern Missouri. Would it be possible for you to make an arrangement with your employers by which you could get off a month in the spring and a month or six weeks in the autumn for this purpose? If this could be done I should be very glad to pay you the salary you now get and, of course, all your expenses. Will you think this over and let me know if it is not possible to make some such arrangement? I should like to think that the Arboretum could employ you continuously for a year or two, at least, in this sort of work, and I was rather in hopes that Professor Trelease [of the Missouri Botanical Garden] would join me in such a scheme but he does not see his way clear to doing so, and single-handed I do not see how we can manage it.… (February 18, 1908)
Again Palmer felt unable to do so; he wrote that he couldn’t keep his position (as accountant with the Waters-Pierce Oil Company) and still take off so much time.
A Growing Partnership
By 1910 the relationship between the two men was such that Sargent could ask Palmer to collect very specific specimens, although Palmer would have to go to some trouble to do so. For example, on January 14, 1910, Sargent wrote:
I believe you know that curious Hickory which grows at Noel and for which Bush suggested the name of subvillosa. It is one of the minima set but has smooth bark and very broad leaflets. If you know where to find the trees, would it be possible for you to run down to Noel now and get us some winter branchlets showing winter buds, etc.
Noel is nearly fifty miles from Webb City and this was before automobiles were common. There was the train, of course. Palmer said in later years that he could not have collected so widely had not the railway and electric railway afforded access to places some distance from Webb City. By this means he could go to the towns of Alba, Joplin, Duenweg, Carthage, and Galena. (In 1918 the line was extended to include Baxter Springs and Pitcher.) The fare was twenty cents round trip to anywhere within a fifty mile radius, and Palmer would take his bicycle along to give him mobility once he reached his destination. In the case under discussion, Palmer did secure the hickory specimen. He would, throughout the remaining years as a collector, go far out of his way to obtain a desired plant for Sargent.
In 1911, Sargent urged Palmer again to collect professionally and for a more extended period than the snatched weekends and his annual two week vacation, which had been the only available time previously. The letters speak for themselves:
You have a salary, I understand, of $50 a month in your present position and I understood from you that you were rather anxious to get a couple of months next summer to look after some changes and improvements in your house. It has occurred to me that possibly you might be willing to give up your present position for six months, beginning March 1st, and devote March, April, May, June, September, and October to collecting for the Arboretum, taking July and August for your own work. We could offer you the same salary that you have now and of course pay all your traveling expenses.
If you can see your way to accepting such an offer, I should want you to go to Texas to look after some Crataegi there in March and then gradually work northward. There are indications in southern Missouri of a large number of still undescribed species of Crataegus of which we have incomplete material. I should be very glad to get these doubtful species cleared up and generally to get as much work done in southern Missouri, Arkansas, and eastern Texas as time will permit. I am very anxious to get this work done and I don’t know any one so well fitted to do it as yourself, so I hope that I shall get a favorable answer to this letter. (December 20, 1911)
And, only a few weeks later:
… My idea is that the proposed field work would take practically all the time from March 1st to December and January unless you wanted, as I had supposed, a couple of months at home in the summer for your work.
I hope this arrangement can be made for I feel very strongly the importance of it and that you are the best man for the work. If the proposition I made you does not appear satisfactory, let me know just what you want. I think if possible we ought to decide pretty soon because my idea would be for you to go to Texas early in March and it will take some time to properly lay out the campaign, etc. In any case do not let this thing fall through if there is any possible way of preventing it. (January 11, 1912)
Another negative answer from Palmer prompted this reply by Sargent:
I am very much disappointed at your inability to devote the summer to botany and I am still in hopes that some arrangement may be made. The situation is this. We have indications of a large number of new species of trees and shrubs in southern Missouri, Arkansas, and eastern Texas. To collect these intelligently it is necessary that the collector should be in a position to visit the localities in the spring and autumn. Bush cannot be depended on for this as he is often tied up by his business. The result of this in the past has been that we have hundreds of incomplete specimens. I do not see why, if you want to take up botany, you cannot have summer employment for three or four years at least, and possibly make as much or more than you do now with the possibility that this work might lead to something better in the future. Of course if you collected for the Arboretum you could at the same time do what Bush did, make sets for yourself and sell them with the understanding that they were not to be distributed until the plants had been named. I wish you would give this matter serious consideration for I think it is of the utmost importance to American botany that these collections should be made and I feel sure that the chances for you in advancements in the next few years would be better than what they would seem to me to be if you remain as a clerk in Webb City. Perhaps you can at least tell me what sort of a proposition you might want if you are not satisfied with the one I have made. (February 1, 1912)
Bush wrote Palmer in April 1912, after a visit, that he wanted to show Palmer over the collecting ground because it was likely that he would succeed Bush in the field. Bush also wrote, “You know more about them [Crataegus] than I do or anyone else does for that matter.” However, Palmer did not yet accept an offer from Sargent and in May Sargent wrote, “I am still most anxious that you should be connected with the Arboretum as a collector and I shall never lose an opportunity of suggesting to you the desirability of your accepting my propositions.”
Again, early in 1913, Sargent wrote:
I am in a position now to arrange permanent botanical employment for you for a period of at least three years at a salary which will be in advance of what you are now getting. I think this is a proposition which you ought not to hesitate to accept even if you are tied up in mining ventures, which you can certainly turn over to some one else. Before deciding either to accept or refuse this offer I want to talk it over fully with you and I suggest that you come to Boston at once, at my expense, and remain here for a few days at the Arboretum.… The sooner you come the better, for the offer, if you accept it, means the beginning of work in the early spring …” (January 20, 1913)
Palmer’s quick negative reply elicited this response from Sargent:
I regret extremely that you do not see your way to taking up botany as a profession. I wanted to open a way for you to have a really distinguished career and one that would have paid you better than your present occupation. Mining properties are terribly uncertain and in nine cases out of ten, I am afraid, they lead to loss and disappointment.
I had supposed that if you saw your way to accepting my proposition you would make your headquarters in St. Louis, and that your mother and sister would move there where I believe they would find life as comfortable and pleasant as in Webb City. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am at your decision. (January 28, 1913)
In a letter from Palmer to Sargent on March 31, 1913, Palmer again declined Sargent’s request, though this time he left open the possibility of future work, writing:
I am situated just as I was when I wrote you a few weeks ago, and I do not see how it would be possible for me to get away from here at present. I could not leave or dispose of my mining interests at this time without sacrificing all that I have put into them. However, I expect to know within a few months whether I shall realize anything on my investment or not, and it has been chiefly on this account that I have delayed making any change in my plans for the past year. As I am situated in Webb City, with my mother and sister here and some property to look after, I can scarcely see how I could manage to be away altogether. However, I expect to make a change of some sort shortly, but not likely before fall. If there is still an opening in the line you suggest at that time I might be in a position to take advantage of it, but could not possibly do so just now.
His resistance was fading, however, and he wrote to Sargent on June 20, 1913, “While it would be more advantageous to me in my present financial circumstances to retain my present position until spring I scarcely feel that I should put you off any longer if you feel that the work to be done this year is urgent, and I am to undertake it.” He finally began working as a collector for the Arnold Arboretum and Missouri Botanical Garden later that year. The death of his father on September 17, 1911, after a long illness, probably made this easier.
Moving to Boston
It was not until after his mother, Anna Windle Palmer (born 1841) died on April 30, 1920, that Palmer felt free to move to Boston. Finally at 11:00 p.m., April 4, 1921, a cold and rainy night, at age 45, Palmer arrived in Boston. He had never visited an eastern city before and knew only Sargent in the whole of Boston.
The next day, Palmer called on Sargent before noon. (That evening he wrote his sister that the $1.50 he paid for a simple breakfast put him “on the road to bankruptcy.”) The small Arboretum staff (all paid quite modestly) had been looking for an apartment for Palmer when he arrived. The best that they had found was a two-room suite upstairs in the house of the superintendent of the grounds, Christian Van der Voet, some distance from a place to eat.
At the Arboretum, Palmer worked six and a half days a week. That half day, Sunday morning, was the most important time since Sargent arrived usually before 8 a.m. (and therefore so did Palmer). They enjoyed working together for a relatively uninterrupted few hours. Generally no one else was there on Sunday to consult the great professor. Every day Palmer rose in the morning about 5:30 a.m., spending about an hour before going out for breakfast. Then he worked until 12:30 or 1:00 p.m. when he had a small lunch at a food stand near the Arboretum. After dinner at a restaurant, he took an evening’s walk, bought the newspaper, and went home to read. When the weather permitted, on his afternoon off, Palmer explored Boston on foot. (Besides relishing the exercise, Palmer deplored the high price of a trolley ride: ten cents.) Through the years Palmer continued to go on plant collecting expeditions as well as working in the Arboretum’s collections and herbarium, and writing extensively on plants and other natural history topics, including the Native American artifacts he collected on the grounds.
Sargent’s death in March 1927 was very distressing for Palmer. He had lost a friend and mentor and then, as of April 30 that year, Ernest Henry Wilson terminated Palmer’s job, purportedly as a cost cutting measure (by Wilson’s estimation the Arboretum was $120,000— nearly 1.7 million in today’s dollars—in debt at the time of Sargent’s death). Harvard botanist Oakes Ames (1874–1950) was appointed Supervisor of the Arboretum in June 1927, and Wilson was appointed Keeper at about the same time. Ames and Palmer had already established a good relationship and with Ames now as Supervisor, Palmer was rehired by 1928.
In 1930, at age 55, Palmer married Elizabeth McDougal, a bacteriologist at the Massachusetts State Laboratory, which is located to the east of the Arboretum. They had three children—my brother, sister, and me. Ames arranged for the family to live in the house at 1090 Centre Street, owned by Harvard University but adjacent to and controlled by the Arboretum.
My father’s stories when I was a young child left no doubt that he and Sargent had greatly enjoyed each other’s company. Throughout his career Sargent managed to enlist a number of people down on their luck in a variety of ways to become part of his “band of brothers” and sisters. During Palmer’s collecting years, Sargent repeatedly made arrangements to spend a few days with him in the field. Wealthy men like Sargent who enjoy the luxury of many servants often also enjoy proving that they can get along well on their own in primitive situations.
Palmer officially retired from the Arboretum around midsummer in 1947, but returned to work in the herbarium from September of that year until early summer 1948. Palmer and his family then moved back to the family home in Webb City, Missouri. He continued to work on botany and other natural history interests seven days a week, despite declining eyesight. On his death bed, he dictated the last few words of a botanical article about his beloved Ozark forest to his wife, Elizabeth. He died hours later, on February 25, 1962. Palmer published more than 100 botanical papers in his career. Academic writing was not his only forte, though— in 1958, Elizabeth gathered seventy-six of her husband’s poems, the result of his lifelong love of poetry, and published them in a volume titled Gathered Leaves, Green, Gold and Sere.
My wife, Laramie Palmer, began writing a Master’s thesis on my father for the University of Kansas in 1970. I have freely used her extensive but unfinished manuscript for this article and in a biography I hope to publish commercially in which she is acknowledged as co-author. She should be recognized as co-author here, but I wanted to be able to say “my father.”
The many letters between Sargent and Palmer are in the Arnold Arboretum Archives. Palmer kept copies also and my family donated them to the State Historical Society of Missouri. I have received permission from both institutions to quote from the letters.
A New Genus
In 1913 Palmer collected an unknown plant in Jasper County, of which Bush wrote, “Do not send out any of No. 3921, and if you have any more of it, please send me all of it until I can get it described … This is a new genus to be known as Geolobium minimum … I have found many new species, but never a new genus, and a genus so peculiarly situated, with no known relative, no known family to receive it.” The name Geolobium was dropped in favor of Geocarpon and the plant was described by Kenneth Kent Mackenzie (to whom Bush apparently sent it for identification) in 1914. Mackenzie placed it in Aizoaceae, the fig-marigold or ice plant family, but it was changed much later to Caryophyllaceae, the pink family.
Incidentally, it appeared that at least some of Palmer’s botanical employers were annoyed that the description of the plant had fallen to Mackenzie, who was a lawyer and amateur botanist allied with the New York Botanical Garden. His connection with Palmer was an indirect one through Bush. While the United States had been a gold mine of new genera for a few hundred years, by 1913 a new genus was fairly uncommon (among phanerogams, certainly) and to have one get away to another institution hurt more than a little.
Bush, B. F. 1895. A list of the trees, shrubs, and vines of Missouri. Missouri Horticultural Society Report, pp. 353–393.
Kobuski, C. E. Ernest Jesse Palmer, 1875–1962. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 43: 351–358.
Palmer, E. J. 1937. Benjamin Franklin Bush. American Midland Naturalist 18(3): 1–6.
Sargent, C. S. 1905. Trees and Shrubs: Illustrations of new and little known ligneous plants. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Theodore W. Palmer is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oregon and one of the founders of Mount Pisgah Arboretum near Eugene, Oregon.