Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,213

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,213


This is the grave of Edward Morse.

Born in Portland, Maine in 1838, Morse must have had a somewhat difficult childhood. His father was a strict Calvinist and his mother didn’t really believe in religion at all. His father basically thought the study of science was sinful and his mother encouraged him to study science. Well, whatever those dynamics looked like, Morse followed his mother’s path. The family had some money and he was sent to some good schools, which he routinely got kicked out of for various hijinks. But he got it together and came under the influence of a science teacher who got him to focus.

Morse was always interested in what he could find on the Atlantic coastline and had a large collection of shells as a child. Soon, the collection was so large that scientists began visiting him to study it. So that was a good path into a scientific career even without much in the way of education. He started studying snails as well and discovered some new species. He supported himself through engravings for science books, which he was good at. Finally, Louis Agassiz discovered Morse and brought him to Harvard for further study, to work for him, and eventually to become his assistant.

After he was rejected from Civil War military service due to his poor health, Morse became a national leader in zoology. He helped found The American Naturalist in 1867 and became a well-known lecturer. He was a scientific populist, someone who wanted to bring knowledge to the masses. But he also continued his pioneering studies of brachiopods. By 1874, he was teaching at Harvard and in 1876, he was a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. While Agassiz vigorously opposed the ideas of Darwin, Morse became a strong evolutionist.

Where we mostly remember Morse today is in his time in Japan. In 1877, he visited the nation to look for brachiopods. But he stayed. This was the moment when the Meiji Restoration was rapidly bringing Japan into the modern world and to do that, Japanese leaders wanted the best foreign advisors they could get to train them. So Japan offered Morse a deal where he would be the first zoology professor at Tokyo Imperial University. He said yes. He was there for the next three years, then returned to the U.S. for a year before spending a couple more years in Japan.

Morse became a leading interpreter of Japan for Americans. He was still interested in his brachiopods of course, but he also became super interested in Japanese archaeology. This was not necessarily something that Japan itself had shown much interest in. In my readings on Japan due to my time there last summer, one thing I was somewhat surprised to discover was that the idea of Japan with this timeless past was really a creation of the Meiji. Before this, old ruins had little value and were often just left to crumble. I believe I picked this up by reading Stefan Tanaka’s New Times in Modern Japan. So Morse was on a train between Yokohama and Tokyo and he saw a big mound. Curious to what was a clearly a human creation, he went back to poke around. It was the Omori Shell Mound. This was of course known to the Japanese. But Morse excavated them, learned a ton about past Japanese material culture, and made it known to the world. The Japanese realized that being a “modern” nation would also emphasize things such as archaeology and so that became another science they would look to Morse to help them develop. Moreover, Morse published his work on the mounds in both English and Japanese, though it’s unclear if it was his idea to publish in Japanese or if someone immediately had it translated with his approval. Now I wish I had known about the Omori Shell Mound before now, I might have tried to visit the site when I was in Japan, though it’s not as if I didn’t keep busy……

In fact, Morse became more interested in Japanese culture than Japanese brachiopods over time. He started collecting ceramics, which for him wasn’t that different than his shell collection. His collection ended up in the MFA in Boston and the Peabody-Essex in Salem, two of the most important museums outside of New York in the United States. He started publishing heavily about Japanese life. Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings in 1885 introduced the principles of Japanese design to American audiences. On the Older Forms of Terra-cotta Roofing Tiles in 1892 is pretty self-explanatory. Latrines of the East from 1893 clearly needs to be on my reading list. Glimpses of China and Chinese Homes in 1903 built on his later travels in Asia to introduce Chinese design to the U.S.

One of the points in his writing was that Asians were equal (or close anyway, it was the late nineteenth century after all) to whites. For example, he defended the lack of privacy in Japanese homes by noting that privacy was something that lesser humans needed and as the Japanese were so advanced and civilized, such things were below them. He also studied things such as Japanese agricultural tools because he was impressed with the innovation and productivity of Japanese farm workers. He studied and wrote about Japanese tea ceremonies and Noh chanting, which he learned himself and discussed in his 1917 book Japan Day by Day, a travel narrative of his time there.

Moreover, Morse’s contributions to building Japanese science were pretty amazing. In addition to all we’ve already discussed here, he established the first marine biological station in Japan, created the Biological Society of Japan, and recommended leading scientists around the world for the Japanese to invite to teach them the latest in various fields, such as microbiology, about which he knew little. He immediately created a zoological museum upon starting to teach in Japan, just as a place to hold specimens for future study. He also established the Museum of the University of Tokyo in 1879 and worked with the Education Museum at Ueno to teach science. He also sent huge amounts of scientific literature to Japan to build up their library collections.

By the late 1880s, Morse was a senior figure in American science and archaeology. He split his time between sweet positions in the U.S. and his travels in both Europe and Asia. He became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1886 and was director of the Peabody Academy of Science (which is today the Peabody part of the Peabody-Essex). He directed museums and was elected to all the fancy stuff in the U.S. for the rest of his life. He also engaged in speculation about life on Mars thanks to his relationship with the astronomer Percival Lowell, who wondered if what he was seeing on the planet was canals. Of course that was not the case, but Morse published Mars and Its Mystery in 1906 to give credence to Lowell’s ideas.

Morse kept working until the end. In 1925, he published a paper on shell mounds. He died at his home in Salem a month later. He was 87 years old. Not bad. He left his library to the nation of Japan to replace knowledge lost in the 1923 earthquake.

Edward Morse is buried in Harmony Grove Cemetery, Salem, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other Americans involved in late nineteenth century Japan, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Elliot Griffis is in Schenectady, New York and Thomas C. Mendenhall is in Madison, Wisconsin. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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