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Oakes Ames (1874-1950)



Oakes Ames was born into a wealthy and influential family in North Easton, Mass., on September 26, 1874. From childhood he was interested in botany, and set himself "the goal of learning the name of one new plant each day" (Mangelsdorf ix). Ames entered Harvard College in 1894, receiving his A.B. in 1898 and his A.M. in 1899. Ames began his career at Harvard as Instructor of Botany, a post which he held for 10 years. Ames would hold a variety of teaching and administrative positions at Harvard until his death in 1950.

Ames's childhood interest in botany and horticulture was shared by his father, who had several greenhouses set up at the family home in North Easton. "[A]mong the plants purchased was a small collection of orchids" which would be Ames's introduction to the plant family that would become his life's work (Mangelsdorf ix). This interest in orchidology was further influenced by Dr. N.L. Britton of the New York Botanical Garden, who "pointed out to Ames that the classification of the Orchidaceae was almost hopelessly confused" and that it would take "not only a brilliant taxonomist, but extensive financial support" to develop a proper organization of the family (Schultes 70). Ames's work in with orchids led him to amass a large living collection, as well as an extensive orchid herbarium, with a library and collection of photographs and paintings (including paintings by his wife, Blanche Ames). The living collection was donated to the New York Botanical Garden and the herbarium and library are now part of the Harvard University Herbaria.

Ames also had an interest in economic botany. This became his other major field of study after he taught a course "Outlines of Economic Botany" in 1909-1910, and a few years later gave several lectures on medical botany at the Harvard School of Tropical Medicine (Shultes 73-74). His devotion to economic botany led Ames to collect what might be the most complete library and herbarium on the subject, both of which are now part of the Harvard University Herbaria.

Oaks Ames's accomplishments were not limited to scholarship and collecting, however. As Director of the Botanical Museum, he "initiated a program of research and publication" as well as seeking (and finding) the financial support neccesary for the creation of an endowment fund (Mangelsdorf xiii). The Botanical Museum Leaflets of Harvard University began publication during his tenure with the museum, and did not cease publication until over 50 years later, in 1986. Ames was also "instrumental in raising the Charles Sprague Sargent Memorial Fund" during his time as Supervisor of the Arnold Arboretum (Mangelsdorf xiii). This fund more than doubled the Arboretum's endowment and allowed for its growth in many areas, as well as making it possible for the Arboretum staff to more fully participate as part of the Department of Biology. During WWI, Ames was part of the Botanical Raw Products Comittee of the National Research Council. WWII saw economic botany become even more important to the war effort, and many of Professor Ames's former students were called into government service to solve the botanical problems facing the nation (Mangelsdorf xiv).

Ames received numerous honors during his career, including:

Centennial Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, 1929
George Robert White Medal of Honor, 1935
Honorary Doctorate, Washington University, 1938

Ames was also a member of several scientific and botanical societies, including:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Orchid Society
American Society of Naturalists
Association Internationale des Botanistes
Biological Society of Washington
Boston Society of Natural History
Botanical Society of America
Canal Zone Orchid Society
Linnaean Society of London
National Institute of Social Science
New England Botanical Club
New York Academy of Science
Orchid Circle of Ceylon
Sigma Xi
Torrey Botanical Club
Washington Academy of Science

Ames's career at Harvard followed two tracks: administration and teaching.

As an administrator:
Assistant Director of the Botanic Garden (1899-1909)
Director of the Botanic Garden (1909-1922)
Curator of the Botanic Museum (1923-1927)
Supervisor of the Botanic Museum (1927-1937)
Director of the Botanic Museum (1937-1945)
Associate Director of the Botanic Museum (1945-1950)
Chairman of the Division of Biology, the Atkins Garden in Cuba, and the Arnold Arboretum (1926-1935)
Chairman of the Council of Botanical Collections and Supervisor of the Biological Laboratory, the Atkins Garden in Cuba, and the Arnold Arboretum (1927-1935)

As a teacher:
Instructor in botany (1900-1910)
Associate professor of botany (1915-1926)
Professor of botany (1926-1932
Arnold professor of botany (1932-1935)
Research professor of botany (1935-1941)
Research professor of botany emeritus (1941-1950)


Mangelsdorf, Paul C. "Oakes Ames 1874- : A Biographical Sketch." Orchids in Retrospect. Botanical Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 1948. pp. ix-xv.
Rollins, Reed C. "The End of a Generation of Harvard Botanists." Taxon. 1(1): 3-4, 1951.
Sax, Karl. "Oakes Ames, 1874-1950." Journal of the Arnold Arboretum. 31: 335-337, followed by list of publications, 337-349.
Schultes, Richard E. "Oakes Ames, 1874-1950." Rhodora. 53(627): 67-78, 1951.
Sutton, S.B. "The Arboretum Administrators: An Opinionated History." Arnoldia. 32(1): 3-21, 1972.

Scope and Content:

The Ames papers consist of two manuscripts pertaining to orchids of the Philippines. One manuscript is a draft of an article, "Orchidaceae Halconenses: An Enumeration of the Orchids collected on and near Mt. Halcon, Mindoro, chiefly by Elmer D. Merrill," which was published in the Philippine Journal of Science (Sec. C Botany 2: 311-337) in 1907. The other manuscript is titled "New Species, New Combinations and additions to the Orchid Flora of the Philippines" and consists of descriptions of plants arranged alphabetically by plant names. It is described as having been prepared for Fascicle V of Ames' Orchidaceae (which was published in 1915), but it is quite different from the published work in scope and arrangement.

Note: There are also some 150 letters from Ames in the Semi-Historical files.


The "Orchidaceae Halconenses" manuscript was given to the Arnold Arboretum by Ames on September 11, 1931. The "New Species, New Combinations ..." manuscript was given to the Arnold Arboretum by Ames on May 26, 1932. Both of these were previously in the library stacks.

Container Listing: BOX BD

1. "Orchidaceae Halconenses: An Enumeration of the Orchids collected on and near Mt. Halcon, Mindoro, chiefly by Elmer D. Merrill." Bound manuscript, 33 pp.

2. "New Species, New Combinations and additions to the Orchid Flora of the Philippines." Manuscript, 143 pp.

See Also:

Semi-Historic Letter Collection
Gray Archives Photograph Collection: #0002, #1025


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Last Updated June 2002
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