Arts and Entertainment

Exhibit highlights Groff's photos of China

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — "Life's Silvered Strand: George 'Daddy' Groff's China," a Penn State University Archives exhibition is on display Feb. 15 to June 8, in the Special Collections Library, 104 Paterno Library.

George Weidman Groff (1884-1954), affectionately known as "Daddy" Groff by thousands of his students, was an agricultural faculty member concentrating on horticulture and botany during his years at Penn State and Lingnan Universities. A pioneer in identifying medicinal plants, Groff was honored in 1953 as one of the first five named "Distinguished Alumni" of Penn State.

The exhibit features black-and-white photographs Groff shot in China in the 1920s and 1930s and include poems that Groff wrote, describing the content and context of his day-to-day expeditions throughout South China. The exhibit also includes several pieces of furniture donated to Penn State by the Chinese government in recognition of Groff’s work.

As a Penn State senior, Groff pioneered the idea of an agricultural mission to China. In 1907, he was assigned to the Canton Christian College (later known as Lingnan University) as both a teacher and to conduct botanical studies. Groff advocated a reciprocal exchange of cultural ideas in which the U.S. contributed to China’s agricultural science and techniques of extensive agriculture, while receiving an understanding of China’s intensive agricultural methods and the value of her unique cultivated and wild floras.

In 1921 after completing his graduate education, Groff helped organize the Lingnan Agricultural College with a faculty of western-trained Chinese, supplemented by a few Penn State and Kansas State College staff members. He served as the dean of the college until 1935. During his years in China he traveled widely, studying plant life in South China, Indo-China, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaya. Among his noteworthy accomplishments -- the development of citrus fruits, improvements and introduction of papaya, lychee, eucalyptus robusta, the Siam banana, and other sub-tropical fruits.

In 1937 Groff directed a National Geographic expedition into the hill country of northern Guangxi province in search of the famous, unidentified medical plant, the Lo-Han Fruit. He found and collected this plant which was later identified as a new species. His research and article in National Geographic Magazine are still cited as seminal for such medicinal species.

Groff’s work in China was financed and supported by his friends and colleagues at Penn State. In 1911, students organized a Penn-State-in-China committee which raised funds from chapel donations to support Groff’s efforts. The fundraising effort continued for over 30 years and supported educational exchange students similar to the University’s current study abroad efforts. After the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Groff remained at Canton in an effort to preserve the campus and equipment at Lingnan. He moved to Florida due to ill health in 1941. While recuperating, Groff established a plant exchange post in America where promising plants might be collected and propagated for shipment to China.

During 1946 and 1947, Groff served as agricultural rehabilitation officer in South China under the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He was not only of great help building China’s agriculture but was one of America’s goodwill ambassadors. During his career, Groff published numerous articles and bulletins on Chinese agriculture, horticulture and botany. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Peking National Historical Society, the Royal Asiatic Society of China, and the American Geographical Association. Groff died in Laurel, Fla. on Dec. 4, 1954, having devoted his life to plant study, agricultural education and international exchange.

In a letter to a colleague, Groff summarized his educational philosophy, “helpful cooperation and collaboration between nations in plant acquisition and improvement is a dominant factor in the adequate feeding, clothing and sheltering of mankind everywhere. It is now widely recognized that food production and distribution is of major importance to a peaceful world. The sharing of nature’s blessings in the form of plant life is essential to a wholesome international outlook upon life. Thus man’s life with plants and the uses he makes of them become of deep significance to his religious, social and economic progress.”

This exhibit has been curated by Katelyn Bucher, Penn State Class of 2010. Bucher is currently a masters of library science student at Long Island University focusing on archival studies.

Exhibit hours during the semester are 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday,  Call 814-865-1793 for other times.

Additional information about the exhibit or George Groff can be obtained by contacting University Archivist Jackie R. Esposito at 814-865-7931 or at

Groff with his camera Credit: Penn State University Archives / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated November 06, 2017