Edward Sylvester Morse

Edward Sylvester Morse

Edward Sylvester Morse was a Salem, Massachusetts based scholar with scientific interests in natural history, archaeology, ethnology, and Japanese culture and pottery, who was involved in multiple organizations including serving as director of the Peabody Academy of Science (now a part of PEM) from 1880 to 1914. Additional content will be added as it becomes available.

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Edward Sylvester Morse not only played multiple important roles in the history of the Peabody Essex Museum, as a curator at the Essex Institute, editor of The American Naturalist, and Director of the Peabody Museum, but he was also an early collector and student of Japanese art, a biologist, archaeologist, ethnologist, mechanical draftsman, scientific illustrator, professor, and author, among many other pursuits. 

Morse was born to Jane Seymour Beckett and Jonathan Kimball Morse on June 18, 1838, in Portland, Maine. As a child, he exhibited a precocious artistic talent and an enthusiastic interest in nature. His first scientific paper, concerning his discovery of a snail species in his local Maine woods, was read before the Boston Society of Natural History when he was just eighteen years old, even though he had impatiently left school two years previously to pursue his studies independently. Later he enrolled as a special student at Harvard while working as an assistant to zoologist Louis Agassiz.

He married Ellen (Nellie) Elizabeth Owen in 1863. They had two children, Edith Owen, born December 1864, and John, born August 1870.

In 1866, Morse was appointed Curator of Mollusks at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. After arrangements were made in 1867 for the permanent deposit of the Institute's natural history and ethnological collections with the East India Marine Society, Morse resigned his curatorship in 1871 to accept the appointment of professor of comparative anatomy and zoology at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine.

Having begun an ambitious and systematic investigation of brachiopoda, but hampered by the scarcity of specimens on the Atlantic seaboard, Morse traveled to Japan in 1877 where it was believed thirty or forty varieties of brachiopoda existed in the Sagami Bay south of Tokyo. The Japanese Meiji government, impressed by Morse's scientific knowledge and enthusiasm, granted him permission to establish a marine laboratory at Enoshima and invited him to organize a department of zoology at the recently established Imperial University of Tokyo. 

During his tenure from 1877 to 1879, Morse lectured widely on natural history, initiated studies of arrow release, began excavation of the Neolithic shell mounds at Omori, and drafted University of Tokyo's first publication, Shell Mounds of Omori.

While in Japan Morse also developed an interest in Japanese pottery. In 1890, his extensive pottery collection of more than 5,000 pieces was deposited on loan at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and was purchased by the museum two years later. At that time, Morse was appointed Keeper of Japanese Pottery, an office he held until his death. In 1880, after having returned to Salem, Massachusetts, Morse was made Director of the Peabody Museum, a position he held until 1916, when he was named Director-Emeritus. A liberal leave of absence enabled Morse to return to Japan in 1882, and devote himself to the observation and description of Japanese culture. His ethnological investigations produced Japanese Homes and their Surroundings (1886) and Japan Day by Day (1917). Additionally, Morse assembled a major ethnological collection documenting the vanishing feudal Tokugawa shogunate for the Peabody Museum of Salem. Morse's participation in the Lowell Institute lecture series of 1881-1882 and 1883-1884 provided an additional forum from which he spoke on all aspects of Japanese culture to the American public.

During the last twenty-five years of his life, Morse became involved in a myriad of subjects which were peripheral to his earlier scientific work. In addition to Asian art and ethnology, his interests included the observation of the "canals" on the planet Mars and their implication for life, the study of arrow release among different cultures, and the suppression of unnecessary noise in the modern urban environment. Morse died December 20, 1925, in Salem, Massachusetts, at the age of eighty-seven.

Banner Images:

Detail of photograph of E. S. Morse's library in Salem, PHA 184, box 1, folder 3. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.

Detail of sketch of Shanty at Enoshima (fig. 172), E 2, box 20, folder 5. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.