William Sturgis Bigelow

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Portrait of Sturgis Bigelow

William Sturgis Bigelow (1850–1926), son of Henry Jacob Bigelow, was an American physician and collector of Japanese art.[1] He was one of the first Americans to live in Japan[citation needed], and to introduce the American public to Japanese art and culture. He was also among those who adhered to the philosophy of the "White man's burden"[citation needed], and worked to establish protections for Japanese art during a time when some Japanese were willing to sell or destroy elements of their own traditional culture in a fervor of Westernization and modernization.

Early career[edit]

A brilliant[citation needed] medical student, Bigelow received his degree in medicine from Harvard University in 1874, and continued his medical studies in Europe for five years, under Louis Pasteur. Though his primary interest was, accordingly, bacteriology, his father was a surgeon, and so he was pressured to perform surgery as well.

Bigelow and Japan[edit]

In 1882, Bigelow traveled to Japan with Ernest Fenollosa and Edward Sylvester Morse. This may have been intended originally as simply a vacation from the world of medicine, but in the end, Bigelow remained in Japan for seven years. There, he became an art collector, and traveled the country for some time, exploring it and studying its culture, art, and religion. Bigelow would eventually convert to Buddhism. He also contributed financially to the establishment of the Nihon Bijutsuin (Japan Fine Arts Academy), which was founded by his friend and ofttimes traveling companion Okakura Kakuzō.

As a result of the determination of Fenollosa and Morse, as well as their special authorizations under the Japanese government, Bigelow was able to explore parts of Japan closed to outside viewers for centuries. The group visited the Shōsō-in (Treasure House) of Tōdai-ji, viewing hidden treasures of Emperor Shōmu, and were granted a few shards of pottery, the only items belonging to the Shōsō-in known to currently reside outside of it. Among the many other items he obtained during his time in Japan were a set of gilt bronze statues from Hōryū-ji, of the historical Buddha and attendants, known as the Shaka Trinity statues, and a mandala from the Hokke-do (Lotus Sutra Hall) of Tōdai-ji, one of the oldest Japanese paintings to ever leave Japan.

A photographer, Bigelow recorded many of the sights he and his companions came across. As Fenollosa and Okakura were granted authority by the Japanese government to open temple rooms and storehouses unopened for centuries, in order to record and therefore preserve their contents, Bigelow's photographs of these events are of great historical importance as well.

Bigelow's grave at Homyoin temple.

Returning to the United States, Bigelow donated over 40,000 objects of Japanese art to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His efforts, along with those of Morse, Fenollosa, Charles Goddard Weld, Okakura, and a handful of others, made the newly founded Department of the Art of Asia at the Museum of Fine Arts the largest collection of Japanese art anywhere outside Japan; this is a distinction it still holds today.[2] He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1911.[3]

He was considered "at once an epicure and a mystic, who professed an ascetic religion and wore beautiful Charvet haberdashery."[4] In 1899 Bigelow proposed to the Croatian soprano Milka Ternina, who was at the time singing at the Metropolitan Opera, and gave her a 38-carat diamond named “Cleveland”, while a week later he presented her a letter with his marriage proposal. She rejected the proposal but from then on their relationship became more intimate. During their relationship, he gave her a number of Japanese objects which she donated in 1930 to the Etnografski Muzej in Zagreb.[5]

Upon Bigelow's death, in accordance with his final requests, Bigelow's remains were cremated; half the ashes were buried at Mii-dera, just outside Kyoto, along with those of Fenollosa, and half were interred in the Sturgis family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery.[6]

Bigelow was the man who introduced Baron Kaneko Kentarō to Theodore Roosevelt by a letter of introduction. They first met in 1890 when Roosevelt was Head of the Civil Service Commission and Kaneko was returning to Japan from Europe via the U.S.[7]

Spiritual evolution[edit]

Bigelow attempted to merge biology with spirituality. He accepted the existence of both material and spiritual realms; many of his ideas were discussed in his book Buddhism and Immortality (1908). Bigelow used the concept of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution. According to Bigelow spiritual evolution is when an individual emerges from "unconditioned consciousness" and "moves up the scale of evolution guided by natural selection". Next the individual moves to a level of celestial experience and finally is able to "return to the unconditioned consciousness from which all things emerge." Bigelow accepted both material and spiritual evolution and believed Buddhism and science were compatible.[8]


  1. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Kelly, Howard A.; Burrage, Walter L., eds. (1920). "Bigelow, Henry Jacob". American Medical Biographies. Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company. 
  2. ^ "Art of Asia". Museum of Fine Arts Boston. 
  3. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 20, 2011. 
  4. ^ Jackson Lears, T.J. (1994). No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 226. ISBN 0-226-46970-0. Retrieved 2008-11-21. 
  5. ^ Renata Santo, "Legacy of Milka Trnina in the Collection of Non-European Cultures of the Ethnographic Museum", Etnološka istraživanja 17-18 (2014), 245-262. http://hrcak.srce.hr/file/197070
  6. ^ Lot #310 Catalpa Path; lot card on file at Mount Auburn Cemetery.
  7. ^ Baron Kaneko and the Russo-Japanese War, 2009, Part One, Chapter Four
  8. ^ American encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912: Victorian culture & the limits of dissent, Thomas A. Tweed, 2000, pp. 107–108
  • Frederic, Louis (2002). "Japan Encyclopedia." Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • "A History of the Asiatic Department: A Series of Illustrated Lectures Given in 1957 by Kojiro Tomita (1890-1976)." Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1990.

External links[edit]