Ellsworth Clayton Carlson was the first son born to Frank Emanuel and Gladys (Veghte) Carlson in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on May 27, 1917. Both Frank and Gladys graduated from the University of Nebraska. Frank Carlson also attended Yale University School of Divinity, following his calling to be a Congregational minister. The Carlsons moved around a great deal during Ellsworth's childhood, living in Helena, Montana, Portland, Oregon, Olympia, Washington, and Pocatello, Idaho. Carlson graduated from Pocatello High School in 1935. Carlson enrolled at Oberlin College in the Fall of 1935, graduating in 1939 with Phi Beta Kappa honors and his A.B. degree in History.
Like a good number of Oberlin students during the 1930s, Carlson's concerns about world peace led him to join the Oberlin Peace Society. In 1939, Carlson was chosen to serve as an "Oberlin in China" rep for the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association (OSMA); he taught English in China from 1939-43. Due to his strong interest in China, Carlson remained there during the war, working as Administrative Secretary, National Student Relief Committee, in Chungking, China from 1943-44. Utilizing the knowledge he gained in the Far East, Carlson was able to fill jobs as Regional Planner, Office of Strategic Services (1944-45), and Country Specialist, United States Department of State (1945-47).
When he returned to the U.S., Carlson completed his formal education. He studied under both Edwin Reischauer and John Fairbank at Harvard University, graduating with his M.A. in 1949, and his Ph.D in History in 1952.
In the Fall of 1950, Carlson joined the faculty ranks at Oberlin College as Assistant Professor of History. Carlson soon was granted tenure and promoted to Associate Professor (1954-62), and later to Professor of History (1962). Courses taught and created by Carlson include Modern China, Modern India, and Traditional Chinese Civilization.
As an OSMA board member for more than thirty years, Carlson traveled extensively, teaching and doing research in the Philippines, Taiwan, India, and Hong Kong. On campus, he acted as Shansi's leading spokesperson.
Carlson gave significant service to Oberlin College. Not only did Carlson serve as Provost from 1969-74, but also was elected Acting President in July-August 1970, and again from February 1974 - April 1975. His service as President occurred during tumultuous times at Oberlin. When Emil C. Dannenberg was selected as Oberlin's eleventh President, Carlson returned to teaching full-time as Professor of History (1975-81) and East Asian Studies (1977-81). While Carlson retired in 1981, he continued to remain professionally active and to serve as Honorary Trustee for the OSMA Board.
While teaching and serving as an administrator, Carlson managed to produce some scholarship. His publications have included The Kaiping Mines ,1877-1912 (1957), "The Wu-shih-shan Incident of 1878" (Festschrift for Frederick B. Artz, 1964), "Obstacles to Missionary Success in Nineteenth Century China" (Asian Studies, 1966), The Foochow Missionaries, 1847-1880 (1974), "Oberlin in Asia : The First Hundred Years, 1882-1982," and numerous other reviews, essays, and notes.
Carlson was a professional member of the American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association, the Association for Asian Studies, and the Society of Ch'ing Studies.
For his many professional accomplishments Carlson was recognized. Included were: the Social Science Research Council Fellowship Award (1949-50), Fulbright Lecturer, University of the Philippines (1956-57), Fulbright-Hays Faculty Fellowship, University Science Center, Hong Kong (1967-68), Honorary Research Associate in East Asian Studies, Harvard University (1975-76), and the Oberlin News-Tribune's Oberlinian of the Year Award, 1974.
While a Shansi rep, Carlson married Florence ("Bobbie") Dunn. Bobbie, a native of Los Angeles, California, was also an Oberlin alumnus (OC'40) and Shansi rep to China. The couple not only met in China, but also decided to marry there on Christmas Day, 1943. The Carlson children include James R. Carlson (OC'69), Frank S. Carlson (OC'71), Elizabeth M. Carlson, and Sarah Carlson.
Carlson was a member of the First Church in Oberlin and the Oberlin City Club. Ellsworth Carlson died on 24 July 1999 at the Kendal Community in Oberlin after a long illness.