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William Sturgis Bigelow.
Commander of the Imperial Order of
the Rising Sun, ca. 1918.
Charles A. Hoyle, photographer.
Massachusetts Historical Society Photo. Archives,
Collection 20 (Member Photographs).


Who was William Sturgis Bigelow?

The son of Dr. Henry Jacob Bigelow, a famous Boston surgeon, William Sturgis Bigelow (1850–1926) seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1874 and continued his medical education in Europe, where he studied under Louis Pasteur. After returning to Boston and practicing surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital for two years, however, young Dr. Bigelow became restless. Displeased with medicine and his life in Boston, in 1882 he traveled to Japan with Edward S. Morse; there, they joined Ernest F. Fenollosa to form a "Boston triumvirate" of apostles of Japanese art and culture. Bigelow remained in Japan for seven years to study Buddhism—a study that would continue for the remainder of his life. His 1908 Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard University was published as Buddhism and Immortality.

Even before his long residence in Japan, Bigelow had begun to amass an enormous collection of Japanese art. While in Japan and after his return to the United States, he organized exhibitions of traditional Japanese art, as he continued his study of art and religion. Through his exhibitions, writings, and especially through the donation of his immense personal collection of Japanese art—more than 15,000 pieces, as well as 40,000 ukiyo-e prints—to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1911, Bigelow played a major role in bringing an awareness of Japanese culture to the West.

Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow lived between two worlds, and according to a biographical sketch of his life by Dr. Curtis Prout, when Bigelow died in 1926, half of his ashes were interred at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and half were buried in Japan, near a Buddhist temple and overlooking a favorite lake.


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