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The Orchid Library of Oakes Ames


Oakes at his microscope, 1941

The Orchidaceae, one of the largest and most complex of plant families, was but poorly understood when Oakes Ames as a young man began his systematic studies. Today, and in no small measure because of his work and that of his associates, the species of Orchidaceae have probably been more thoroughly studied and more completely classified than those of any of the larger plant families.
Harvard dinner for Oakes Ames, 1948


Oakes Ames (1874-1950) was hired as an Instructor of Botany immediately after receiving his Master's degree from Harvard in 1900. Thus began a career of teaching at Harvard which lasted 50 years. During this time Ames also held other influential positions. He was Director of the Botanical Garden from 1909-1922 and Curator of the Botanical Museum from 1923-1927. In 1927 he became Supervisor of the Botanical Museum and in 1937- 1945 he held the post of Director.

Ames's study of orchids began while he was still a very young man. A lifelong passion began with a glimpse of a Dendrobium nobile by his father's bedside. "Then & there I fell in love with orchids and began a collection of my own.", Ames states in his journal. But soon a private collection was not enough. Ames, determined to take every botanical course he could find, went to Harvard.

During his botanical career, Ames identified and studied orchids from Florida, the Caribbean, the Philippines, and Central & South America. He described more than 1,100 new species and 9 new genera and was considered the leading authority on the Orchidaceae of the Philippines.

His wife Blanche Ames, an accomplished artist, went along with him on many of his trips. She illustrated all of his technical papers and made extremely beautiful and accurate drawings and etchings of hundreds of new species.

During this time Ames also gathered together an amazingly complete collection of orchid literature from all over the world. The collection includes more than 5,000 volumes of books and journals devoted exclusively to the identification and classification of orchid species worldwide. In 1938 he donated his orchid library to Harvard. Included in this were many of his manuscripts, letters, and Blanche's original drawings. These are located in the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium Archives.

The Orchid Library stacks are closed and the collection is non-circulating. Materials may be consulted in the Botany Libraries' main reading room, Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

To obtain more information about the Oakes Ames Orchid Library's collections or for a specific reference request email us.


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Last updated May 2013
Copyright 2008 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

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