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Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Persons, Collections and Topics

Popenoe, F. Wilson (1892–1975)

HI Archives collection no. 204
Family papers, 1882–1975
29.25 linear feet (45 boxes, 16 volumes, miscellany)

Biographical Note

Frederick Wilson Popenoe, who later preferred simply to be called Wilson, was born 9 March 1892 in Topeka, Kansas. For most of Wilson's childhood, his father, Frederick Oliver Popenoe (1863–1934), traveled throughout Central America in search of gold. Avocado seeds, which his father brought back from one trip to Central America, started Wilson on a life-long study of that and other tropical fruits. The avocado is now a popular and common fruit in North American supermarkets, thanks in large part to Wilson's enthusiasm and research.

In 1914, at the age of 22, Wilson joined the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and began work under David Fairchild (1869–1954) as an agricultural explorer. Wilson's experiences gave him so much first-hand and previously unknown information that in 1920 he published his Manual of Tropical and Sub-Tropical Fruits, which quickly became the standard reference on the subject.

In 1923 Popenoe met and married his first wife, Dorothy Hughes (1899–1932), who had made her own contribution to the botanical field with her research on African grasses. Wilson and Dorothy had five children. Wilson continued his botanical exploration of Central America. Dorothy concentrated on raising their children and completing a meticulous and faithful restoration of a nearly destroyed Spanish Colonial house in Antigua, Guatemala, which eventually became their home.

Wilson left the USDA in 1925 and became an employee of the United Fruit Company (UFC) of Boston. He and Dorothy moved to Tela, Honduras, where Wilson helped to establish the Lancetilla Plant Experimentation Station. He spent most of his remaining career with the UFC, although he was occasionally "lent" to the USDA for assistance on special projects in Latin America. In 1941 he assisted in the creation of a tropical agricultural school, the Escuela Agricola Panamericana (EAP), which would train young Latin-American men in modern farming techniques. He was the director of the school until he retired in 1957.

Wilson Popenoe continued to attend board meetings at the EAP and to assist others in botanical and Central American historical matters. He also worked on updating his Manual of Tropical and Sub-Tropical Fruits. With Herbert Snow Wolfe (1898–1991), he completed the preliminary revision before he died on 20 June 1975.

— Elizabeth R. Woodger, Archival Assistant, 1979 (from "Wilson Popenoe, American horticulturalist, educator and explorer," Huntia, 1983, 5(1): 17–22)

Scope and Contents Note

The Wilson Popenoe papers were given to the Archives of the Hunt Institute in 1976 by his son, Dr. Hugh Popenoe.

The first section of the collection, Correspondence, includes not only letters to and from Wilson Popenoe during his lifetime but also other family correspondence. These letters cover nearly 100 years of Popenoe correspondence.

The second section consists of Subject Files used by Popenoe for his own reference, which include letters, published and unpublished manuscripts and writings, field notebooks, photographs, reprints and newspaper articles, as well as documentation and most of the published newsletters from the Escuela Agricola Panamericana.

Finding aid

A finding aid for this collection is available online.

Other resources

For information about portraits of and biographical citations for this subject, see the Hunt Institute Archives Register of Botanical Biography and Iconography database.

For thumbnails of artwork by Dorothy Kate Hughes Popenoe, see the Catalogue of the Botanical Art Collection at the Hunt Institute database.

Frederick Wilson Popenoe (1892–1975), unknown location, ca.1968, 13 × 15.5 cm, unknown photographer, HI Archives portrait no. 8.