On 28 September 1856, Morse discovered a minute snail in Bethel.
This discovery launched him on the road to a career as a
naturalist. In 1859, the Boston Society of Natural History
proclaimed Morse’s snail Tympanis
. For a precocious twenty year old, this designation
must have been a tremendous boost to his self-esteem.
Dr. True’s influence saved young “Ned” Morse from a life that had
previously been anything but successful. From Gould, on 27 May
1859, Morse journeyed to Cambridge, MA, to meet the famed Louis
Agassiz, who occupied the chair of zoology and geology at the Lawrence
Scientific School of Harvard University. Under Agassiz’s
direction, Morse studied marine biology, specializing in
chonchology. At this time, Agassiz was perhaps the foremost
zoologist in the nation; Morse could not have found a more suitable
mentor. For the next generation or so, those on the list of
Agassiz’s associates and students became among the leading natural
scientists of the era.
During the Civil War, Morse attempted to enlist in Company A
of the 25th Maine Infantry Regiment, but was turned down due to a
chronic tonsil infection. Throughout the war, however, he was in
regular correspondence with John Mead Gould, who sent his diaries back
Morse from the front to become, after the war, a major Civil War
source (Gould's diaries were published in 1998).
On 18 June 1863, Morse married Ellen (“Nellie”) Elizabeth Owen in
Portland, with John Mead Gould serving as his best man. The
two children, Edith Owen Morse and John Gould Morse.
In 1866, Morse settled in Salem, Massachusetts, where he spent most of
life. He became engaged in a study of Atlantic seaboard
which would attract international attention. Two years later,
Morse constructed the house at 12 Linden Street in
Salem that would be his home for the remainder of his life.
A drawing by Edward Sylvester Morse for John Mead Gould's book, How
to Camp Out, published in 1877
During this period, he helped establish the American Naturalist
magazine of which he became one of its editors and included a large
number of his drawings. His work began to be recognized
by a number of
professional organizations and prestigious institutions. In 1868,
became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The
following year, he was selected as the vice-president of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science and was elevated to the
presidency of this organization in 1886. From 1871 to 1874, he
the chair of comparative anatomy and zoology at Bowdoin College.
1874, he was appointed a lecturer at Harvard University. Two
later, he was named a fellow of the National Academy of Science.
In 1877, Morse departed for Japan in search of new specimens and was
soon offered a professorial position at Tokyo Imperial University,
which he held until 1879. It was at this time that Morse began to
Japanese pottery, assembling what would become in the United States the
finest collection of the era. In 1890, this collection was
the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Morse kept a portion of his
which eventually became the Morse Collection at the Peabody Essex
Museum in Salem.
Morse published his First Book of
in 1875. This was followed in
1888 with Japanese Homes and Their
. The latter work is of
particular interest to historians as he was one of the few westerners
to live in 19th century Japan.
Touring Europe in 1887 and 1888, Morse landed at Liverpool and went on
to visit England, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Morse’s association with Japan would be long remembered on both sides
of the Pacific Ocean. In 1898, Morse was decorated with the Order
the Rising Sun, Third Class, by the Japanese Emperor, making him the
first American to be so honored. Toward the end of his life in
Morse was again honored in Japan with the Order of the Sacred Treasure,
In 1880, Morse returned to Salem. The following year, he assumed
life’s work as director of the prestigious Peabody Academy of Science
(now known as the Peabody Essex Museum). During his years here,
museum acquired its world famous collection of Oriental art in addition
to its extensive nautical holdings. In this position, Morse
major national figure, which was recognized by his election in 1911 to
the presidency of the American Association of Museums.
The astronomer Percival Lowell inspired his friend Morse to become
interested in the planet Mars. Morse would occasionally journey
Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, during optimal viewing times
observe the planet. In 1906, Morse published his Mars and Its Mystery
in defense of Lowell’s speculations regarding life on that
work was the only one he produced concerning a subject in which he was
not an expert, but it must have made some impact since Morse was
admitted to the French Astronomical Society.
Morse’s wife Nellie died in 1911. In his later years, he was
by the Brooks sisters—Josephine as his housekeeper and Margarette as
his administrative assistant.
In 1914, when fire consumed most of Salem, Massachusetts, Morse’s house
the properties spared. Two of his scientific associates rushed to
assist him in saving his significant scientific collection, but were
surprised to find him sitting in his study learning to play a South Sea
Two more publications came from his pen: Glimpses of China and Chinese
(1902) and his last book, Japan Day by Day
On 18 June 1925, Morse received a scarlet cap from Dr. Chiomatsu
Isahikawa, a former student in 1877, who had succeeded him as professor
of zoology at the Imperial University. This cap was part of a
that Japanese men of distinction receive on their eighty-eighth
birthday in recognition of their long life and achievements. The
was indeed an honor, but it came just six months before Morse died in
Salem at age 87. His funeral was held at the First Unitarian
Salem with burial in the nearby Harmony Grove Cemetery.
Ever the scientist, Morse had bequeathed his brain to the Wistar
Institute in Philadelphia with the expectation that some anatomical
factor of his ambidexterity might be discerned during an autopsy.
Morse wrote his old comrade John Mead Gould reporting that the
Institute had commissioned a special jar with his name upon it for
storage of his brain when the time came.
Upon hearing of the passing of his lifelong confidante, John Mead
Gould wrote, “What is the world and life here if no Ed Morse?” It
doubtful that Morse would have achieved what he did without the timely
appearance of Dr. True and his connections in his young life.
Dr. True’s efforts on his behalf were significant in launching Morse’s
scientific career. Without them, it is difficult to speculate
would have happened to him. True did make a difference in this
His work in a small, struggling school in western Maine bore fruit as
it did in others fortunate to come under his remarkable
did not live long enough to see the full flowering of his brilliant
student, but undoubtedly by the time of his death in 1887, there was
little doubt that Morse had become one of the leading scientists of his
For those wishing to learn more about Edward Sylvester Morse, see
Wayman, Edward Sylvester Morse: A
(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,