Edward S. Morse

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Edward Sylvester Morse
PSM V13 D008 Edward S Morse.jpg
Portrait of Morse published in the Popular Science Monthly
Born(1838-06-18)June 18, 1838
DiedDecember 20, 1925(1925-12-20) (aged 87)
Salem, Massachusetts, United States
Occupationprofessor, zoologist, orientalist

Edward Sylvester Morse (June 18, 1838 – December 20, 1925) was an American zoologist and orientalist.

Early life[edit]

Morse was born in Portland, Maine as the son of a Congregationalist deacon who held strict Calvinist beliefs. His mother, who did not share her husband's religious beliefs, encouraged her son's interest in the sciences. An unruly student, Morse was expelled from every school he attended in his youth — the Portland village school, the academy at Conway, New Hampshire, in 1851, and Bridgton Academy in 1854 (for carving on desks). He also attended Gould Academy in Bethel, Maine. At Gould Academy, Morse came under the influence of Dr. Nathaniel True who encouraged Morse to pursue his interest in the study of nature.

He preferred to explore the Atlantic coast in search of shells and snails, or go to the field to study the fauna and flora. However, despite his lack of formal education, the collections formed during adolescence soon earned him the visit of eminent scientists from Boston, Washington and even the United Kingdom. He was noted for his work with land snails, and before the age of twelve when he had discovered two new species: Helix Milium and H. astericus.[1]

As a young man, he worked as a mechanical draftsman at the Portland Locomotive Company and a wood engraver attached to a Boston company. Morse was recommended by Philip Pearsall Carpenter to Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University for his intellectual qualities and talent at drawing, and served as his assistant in charge of conservation, documentation and drawing collections of mollusks and brachiopods until 1861.

During the American Civil War, Morse attempted to enlist in the 25th Maine Infantry, but was turned down due to a chronic tonsil infection. On June 18, 1863, Morse married Ellen (“Nellie”) Elizabeth Owen in Portland. The couple had two children, Edith Owen Morse and John Gould Morse (named after Morse's lifelong friend Major John Mead Gould).


Morse rapidly became successful in the field of zoology, specializing in malacology or the study of mollusks. In March 1863, along with three other students of Agassiz, Morse co-founded the scientific journal The American Naturalist, and he became one of its editors. The journal included a large number of his drawings. In 1864, he published his first work devoted to mollusks under the title Observations On The Terrestrial Pulmonifera of Maine.[2] In 1870 he published The Brachiopoda a division of Annelida[3] wherein he reclassified brachiopods as worms rather than mollusks. The work attracted the attention of Charles Darwin.[citation needed] From 1871 to 1874, Morse was appointed to the chair of comparative anatomy and zoology at Bowdoin College. In 1874, he became a lecturer at Harvard University. In 1876, Morse was named a fellow of the National Academy of Science.


In June 1877 Morse first visited Japan in search of coastal brachiopods. His visit turned into a three-year stay when he was offered a post as the first professor of Zoology at the Tokyo Imperial University. He went on to recommend several fellow Americans as o-yatoi gaikokujin (foreign advisors) to support the modernization of Japan in the Meiji Era. To collect specimens, he established a marine biological laboratory at Enoshima in Kanagawa Prefecture.

While looking out of a window on a train between Yokohama and Tokyo, Morse discovered the Ōmori shell mound, the excavation of which opened the study in archaeology and anthropology in Japan and shed much light on the material culture of prehistoric Japan. He returned to Japan in 1881 to present a report of his findings to Tokyo Imperial University.

While in Japan, he authored a book Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings illustrated with his own line drawings. He also made a collection of over 5,000 pieces of Japanese pottery. He devised the term "cord-marked" for the sherds of Stone Age pottery, decorated by impressing cords into the wet clay. The Japanese translation, "Jōmon," now gives its name to the whole Jōmon period as well as Jōmon pottery.

Morse had much interest in Japanese ceramics.[4] He returned on a third visit to Japan in 1882, during which he collected clay samples as well as finished ceramics. He brought back to Boston a collection amassed by government minister and amateur art collector Ōkuma Shigenobu, who donated it to Morse in recognition of his services to Japan. These now form part of the "Morse Collection" of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, whose catalog was written by Ernest Fenollosa. His collection of daily artifacts of the Japanese people is kept at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The remainder of the collection was inherited by his granddaughter, Catharine Robb Whyte via her mother Edith Morse Robb and is housed at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Banff, Alberta, Canada.


Morse examining pottery, circa 1920

After leaving Japan, Morse traveled to Southeast Asia and Europe. In 1884 (at age 46), he was elected a vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and became president of that association in 1886, 1887, 1888, 1889. During this period, he returned to Europe, and Japan in quest of pottery.

Morse became Keeper of Pottery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1890. He was also a director of the Peabody Academy of Science (now part of and succeeded by the Peabody Essex Museum) in Salem[5] from 1880 to 1914. In 1898, he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun (3rd class) by the Japanese government. He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1898.[6] He became chairman of the Boston Museum in 1914, and chairman of the Peabody Museum in 1915. He was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasures (2nd class) by the Japanese government in 1922.[7]

Morse was a friend of astronomer Percival Lowell, who inspired interest in the planet Mars. Morse would occasionally journey to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, during optimal viewing times to observe the planet. In 1906, Morse published Mars and Its Mystery in defense of Lowell’s controversial speculations regarding the possibility of life on Mars.

He donated over 10,000 books from his personal collection to the Tokyo Imperial University. On learning that the library of the Tokyo Imperial University was reduced to ashes by the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, in his will he ordered that his entire remaining collection of books be donated to Tokyo Imperial University.

Morse died at his home in Salem, Massachusetts in 1925 of cerebral hemorrhage and was buried at the Harmony Grove Cemetery.

Morse’s Law[edit]

In 1872, Morse noticed than mammals and reptiles with reduced fingers lose them beginning from the sides: thumb the first and little finger the second.[8] Later researchers revealed that this is a general pattern in tetrapods (except Theropoda and Urodela): digits are reduced in the order I → V → II → III → IV, the reverse order of their appearance in embryogenesis. This trend is known as Morse’s Law.[9]

Published works[edit]

See also[edit]


Glottidia pyramidata, a living brachiopod. From Morse (1902)[10]
  1. ^ Japanese History Online
  2. ^ Morse, Edward Sylvester (1864). "Observations On The Terrestrial Pulmonifera of Maine, Including a Catalogue of All the Species of Terrestrial Mollusca and Fluvial Known to Inhabit the State". Journal of the Portland Society of Natural History. 1 (1): 1–63.
  3. ^ Morse, Edward S. (1870). "The Brachiopoda a division of Annelida". The American journal of Science. 50: 100–104.
  4. ^ Maine Historical Society
  5. ^ Grimes, John R., "Curiosity, Cabinets, and Knowledge" Archived 2016-06-24 at the Wayback Machine, pem.org, p. 4. Retrieved 2016-09-20.
  6. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  7. ^ The Courier Volume 26, No. 2 (2002)
  8. ^ Morse E. S. (1872). "On the Tarsus and Carpus of Birds". Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York. 10: 141–158. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1874.tb00030.x. ...when the number of fingers or toes is reduced in Mammalia and Reptilia, they are always taken away from the sides of the member, the thumb first disappearing and then the little finger.
  9. ^ Young R. L., Bever G. S., Wang Z., Wagner G. P. (2011). "Identity of the avian wing digits: Problems resolved and unsolved". Developmental Dynamics. 240 (5): 1042–1053. doi:10.1002/dvdy.22595. PMID 21412936.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ Morse, Edward S. (1902). "Observations on living Brachiopoda". Memoirs of the Boston Society of Natural History. 5: 313–386.

External links[edit]