Skip to main content

Harris Hawthorne Wilder Papers

Identifier: CA-MS-00119

Scope and Contents

The Harris Hawthorne Wilder papers, perhaps by Wilder's own intent, reflect a single overarching theme: Wilder as a man of science. Although the collection comprises both personal and professional materials, very few documents fall outside of this portrait. Even personal documents such as diaries and correspondence tend to illustrate Wilder's buoyant compassion for the natural world. Personal items unrelated to Wilder's interest in science are rare. Whether this focus reflects Wilder the man, or just this particular collection, is not certain.

The Wilder papers include biographical accounts, both formal and informal; eulogies and obituaries; newspaper clippings, including accounts of the near drowning of Wilder and his wife; genealogical studies; photographs; memorabilia; scrapbooks; diaries; an autobiography of his youth; correspondence, including 22 items from mentor and Amherst College professor John Tyler; class notes made as a student at Amherst and at Freiburg University in Germany; lecture notes made as a teacher; publications; unpublished manuscripts; speeches; original research data; and a slide collection used in his teaching.

The strengths of this collection lie in two areas: 1) biographical materials, especially those concerned with Wilder's early life, and 2) Wilder's research and publications. Professional materials include either the original manuscripts or reprints of most of his 65-item bibliography. These documents, however, tend to represent the final stages of publication with few items offering a view into Wilder's preliminary thinking. These files appear to be Wilder's office files rather than his working files. A view into the early stages of Wilder's writing process is available in many of his unpublished manuscripts, which often contain early versions of material that appeared in publications years later.

Wilder students often remembered him as an inspiring teacher and examples of his teaching style can be found in his handwritten "Popular Lectures." He was also noted for his generalist, "man for all seasons," approach to knowledge, drawn principally from his early training in the classics. This tendency can be seen in manuscripts of Popular speeches, which Wilder presented at Northampton social functions. Other notable materials from Wilder's professional life include the original palm and sole prints from his internationally acclaimed dermatoglyphics research, a field that he discovered.

A noticeable weakness of the collection is the relative absence of items from Wilder's adult personal life, especially from his life with wife and fellow Smith College professor Inez Wilder. Only photographs and secondary biographical accounts offer a view of this period. Wilder's adult life is represented almost exclusively by his professional activities. As a result, the Wilder collection offers little to researchers wanting to recreate the social milieu around Smith College and Northampton near the turn of the century. Researchers wanting to reconstruct the formal history of Smith College may find letters written by Wilder as the dean of the Zoology Department to the Board of Trustees useful.

By contrast, his autobiography, diaries, childhood correspondence, memorabilia, and scrapbooks offer an excellent view into the private history of a boy growing up in a rural Massachusetts resort town between 1865-1885.

The Wilder collection also contains an extensive genealogical study by Wilder himself. Wilder's family came from old New England stock, including Thomas Wilder who first arrived in America in 1638, and perhaps even an unconfirmed Wilder who arrived on the Mayflower. Wilder traced his family tree back to Nicholas Wilder, who fought at Bosworth Field in 1485 and received a landed estate (Shiplake) and coal of arms (Burke's Peerage, sub. Wilder) from Henry VII.

Dates of Materials

  • 1868 - 1987
  • Majority of material found within 1882-1928


Language of Materials

English and German

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

Smith College retains copyright of materials created as part of its business operations; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Smith College, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Harris Hawthorne Wilder was born in Bangor, Maine, on April 7, 1864. He was the only child of Solon Wilder and Sarah Watkins Smith. His father was a noted musical director and composer in New England, who published a book of church hymns in 1874, including a number of original pieces. His most recognized composition was an arrangement of Augustus Toplady's Rock of Ages, using a responsive double chorus. Harris Hawthorne Wilder takes his lifelong nickname, "Hallie," from his father's musical proclivities, a name drawn from Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, referring to Solon Wilder's fondness for grand oratorios.

His mother, Sarah "Sally" Wilder, was the family homemaker, who continued in this role for her adult son until her death in 1907. She came from a family of physicians, including her father, Chandler Smith, and three uncles. Although Wilder's maternal grandparents died too early to influence him directly, Wilder later cited his mother's family for his original interest in biological and anatomical matters.

Harris Wilder lived the first three years of his life in Bangor, as his father served as chorister at the French Street Congregational Church. In 1888, the family moved to the Boston area where Solon Wilder accepted a teaching position at the Boston Conservatory of Music. He was also chorister at the Shepherd Memorial Church in Cambridge. During the Wilders' stay in Cambridge, Sarah Wilder's recently widowed sister, Eliza Gardner Smith, lived with the Wilder family. Wilder credits his "Aunt Lizzie" with inspiring him toward a life of learned curiosity, as well as instructing him in drawing, a talent that marked his professional career and one evident throughout this collection of his personal papers. "Aunt Lizzie's" daughter, and Harris Wilder's cousin, Rebecca Wilder Holmes, eventually joined Harris Wilder at Smith College as a professor of music.

In 1871, prompted by Solon Wilder's poor health, the Wilder family moved to Princeton, Massachusetts, and lived with Solon Wilder's parents, Ivory and Louisa Wilder. During the following years, Solon Wilder expanded his reputation by organizing and conducting a number of musical festivals throughout New England, plus a number in the Midwest. In 1871, a young Harris Wilder accompanied his family on one tour to Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and finally to Missouri, where he investigated the caves made famous by Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer. Solon Wilder died of tuberculosis in 1874, when Harris Wilder was ten years old.

Inspired by his mother and his "Aunt Lizzie," Harris Wilder showed a bent toward scientific investigation from a young age. As a boy, he would cut out paper dolls like many children, but would then diagram their skeletons. When Wilder was six, a family friend presented him with a seven-month human embryo skeleton. He was also given a human skull by another aunt. He often brought home carcasses of woodchucks and skunks in order to reconstruct their skeletons. While living in Cambridge, he built his own museum containing numerous skeletons. When he was a young adolescent, a local physician, Joseph O. West, helped him unearth the doctor's dead horse, "Thomas Equinas," so Wilder could study the horse's anatomy. By the age of fourteen, he was regularly corresponding with Alfred Wially, a French scientist living in London, and exchanging silk-producing moth cocoons.

Growing up in Princeton, a summer retreat community near Mt. Wachusett, afforded Wilder the opportunity to meet many interesting and successful people boarding in his family's home. Some of the children of these visitors became lifelong friends. In 1880, he traveled to Worcester to attend high school, returning home on the weekends. As a young student, he took part in numerous musical productions, a talent he utilized throughout his later life at Smith College.

Wilder family's financial resources were limited and only with a gift from the Chickering family, regular summer boarders at the Wilder house, could he attend college. Daughter May Chickering remained a friend throughout Wilder's life. In 1882, Wilder enrolled at Amherst College, studying zoology and classics. There he met Professor John Tyler, who had just introduced a biology department at Amherst. Tyler would become a main influence in Wilder's professional life.

After receiving his A.B. from Amherst in 1886, Wilder taught biology for three years in the Chicago public school system. In 1889, motivated by Tyler who had also studied in Germany, Wilder traveled to Freiburg University, a noted center of amphibian research, to pursue a doctorate degree. He Studied with Robert Wiedersheirn and August Weismann and received his Ph.D. in 1891. A minor subject of his examination was medieval English. He returned to the United States and taught again in Chicago. Wilder's mother accompanied her son in all his career moves. A year later in 1892, Wilder obtained a position at Smith College. He would remain at Smith for the next thirty-six years.

Wilder's professional achievements and his contributions to the Smith College curriculum were numerous. In his second year at Smith, Wilder founded the school's Zoology Department. Two years later he added fieldwork to the curriculum, a rare notion at that time. By the early 1900s, his classes, especially those in evolution and anthropology, were overenrolled by both majors and non-majors. He was an active researcher and writer, publishing either an article or a book nearly every year of his professional life. He produced five major books: History of the Human Body, Personal Identification, A Laboratory Manual of Anthropometry, Allan's Prehistoric Past, and The Pedigree of the Human Race. His primary areas of research were amphibian studies, primate and human identification using palm and sole prints, teratology (the study of genetic malformations) among human twins, comparative anatomy, and physical anthropology, including the excavations of skeletal remains of indigenous people of Massachusetts. Notable achievements included the discovery of a species of salamanders without lungs or gills, and the development of a system for reconstructing a lifelike human face solely from the measurements taken from a deceased individual's skull. Although interested in the study of eugenics, a popular field at the turn of the century, Wilder differed with many of his colleagues by suggesting that the differences between races, which to Wilder were often evolutionary adaptations to climate, should be celebrated by science, not used as a means of social and political separation.

In 1901, Wilder met Inez Whipple, one of the Zoology Department's first graduate students. The two co-taught a class in 1906, "Anatomy and Physiology of Man." That same year, Wilder and Whipple were married. In 1914, Inez Whipple Wilder became a full professor at Smith. The couple frequently worked together in their research. The Wilders led an active social life in the Northampton community, and their Belmont Street house, which was located a block from campus and built from a plan of an Italian villa, became a popular gathering place for friends, students, and visiting scholars. Their life together included many travels to Egypt, Jamaica, and southern Europe. In 1920, Harris Wilder taught at Ginling University in Shanghai, China. Following the Wilders' return from China, their home became a center for visiting students from China.

Wilder died of a cerebral hemorrhage on February 27, 1928. He was working on his autobiography when he died. Inez Wilder completed the early stages of this project before her own death a year later.

Biographical / Historical

1864 (April 7)
born in Bangor, Maine
family moved to South Boston, Massachusetts
family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts
family moved to Princeton, Massachusetts
Solon Wilder, father, died
attended Worcester Classical High School
attended Amherst College (A.B.)
taught high school biology in Chicago, Illinois
Ivory Wilder, grandfather (paternal), died
Louisa Wilder, grandmother (paternal), died
attended Freiburg University, Germany (Ph.D.)
taught high school biology in Chicago, Illinois
taught zoology at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts
1906 (July 26)
married Inez Whipple
Sarah Watkins Smith, mother, died
HHW and Inez Wilder nearly drown in Connecticut River
1928 (February 27)


23.812 linear feet (43 containers)


Research scientist, writer, and founder of the Zoology Department at Smith College. The Wilder papers reflect a single, overarching theme: Wilder is a man of science. Though both personal and professional papers are included in this collection, very few documents fall outside of this portrait. Materials include biographical material, photographs, writings, memorabilia, scrapbooks, research materials, slides, and diaries. Also included are an autobiography of his youth and correspondence, including 22 items from mentor and Amherst College professor John Tyler.


This collection is organized into seven series:

  1. I. Biographical
  2. II. Photographs
  3. III. Memorabilia
  4. IV. Non-Professional Writings
  5. V. Correspondence
  6. VI. Professional Activities
  7. VII. Oversize Materials

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Source unknown.

Processing Information

Please note that prior to 2018, folder inventories were not always updated when new material was added to the collection. As a result, folder inventories may not be complete and folder numbers may be incorrect.

Finding aid to the Harris Hawthorne Wilder Papers
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: manosca119 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2018-11-15: Containers added and finding aid updated as part of the College Archives Survey
  • 2019-11-25: Added boxes 1 and 2, updated extents and dates

Repository Details

Part of the Smith College Archives Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063