William Purdom

Meet the Explorers

William Purdom (1880-1921)

Ethnographer of Tibetan border traditions

William Purdom

William Purdom in brigand costume, Tibet, circa 1911. Portrait from Eaves of the World by Reginald Farrer, 1917.

William Purdom was born in Heversham, England. He worked in nurseries for Low & Sons in Enfield and later for James Veitch at Coombe Wood, Surrey. In 1902, Purdom became a sub-foreman of the Arboretum Nurseries at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and in 1905 enrolled at Kew as a two-year student.

William Purdom explored China for the Arboretum during the same period as Ernest Wilson. In 1909, Charles Sargent was intent on having as many men as possible collecting China’s flora. With E.H. Wilson about to return from western China, and an agreement in place that the ornamental plants collected by Frank Meyer for the USDA would be shared with the Arboretum, Sargent was keen to dispatch a collector to the largely unexplored northeastern provinces. Purdom embarked in February of that year. Sargent’s goal for the young Purdom was to “bring into our gardens Chinese plants from regions with climates even more severe than those of New England.” The Veitch Nursery co-sponsored the 1909-1912 Purdom expedition as they had the first of Wilson’s for the Arboretum.

Much to Charles Sargent’s annoyance, Purdom ultimately made fewer collections than Wilson. However, this wasn’t for lack of trying; he’d initially been sent to collect in an area with less than optimal conditions. Indeed, he often encountered brigands, political unrest, and had a narrow escape from Gansu Province.


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Photography was an extremely successful result of Purdom’s expedition. He proved a gifted portraitist, capturing for posterity a rich ethnographic record of the people from Tibetan border region. Like Wilson, he employed a camera which used glass plates. He was interested in the anthropological and ethnographical aspects of the regions he visited, and took many shots of the people he encountered, documenting their dress and hairstyles. Especially noteworthy is his series of images capturing the “devil dancing” at the now-destroyed monastery in Chone. The Arboretum holds 173 prints of his photographs in our image collection, and all are available to view in Harvard’s image catalog VIA.

Purdom is noted for his later exploration in China with Reginald Farrer (1880-1920), with whom he collected and introduced many new alpine plants. At the conclusion of their expedition in 1916, Purdom remained in China to become a division chief within the Chinese Forest Service. Following a minor operation, he died at the French hospital in Beijing on November 7, 1921.

Search the VIA image database for Purdom’s photography.

William Purdom (1880-1921) papers, 1909-1912 [pdf].

Index of Botanical Specimens collected by Purdom [Harvard University Herbaria].

Heriz-Smith, Shirley. “Brightener of British winters: William Purdom in China and Tibet.” Country Life June 5, 1986. pp.1624-5 [HOLLIS].

Pearson, Lisa. “Picturing People: The Photographs of William Purdom.” Library Leaves, September 24, 2014.