In 1899, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts established the position of Town Tree warden to oversee , and 36 years later, facing the threat of Dutch Elm disease and invasive insects, the General Court authorized the establishment of a Shade Tree program to coordinate research and education in support of the public shade tree officials. Founded by A. Vincent Osmun, Head of the Botany Department at Massachusetts State College, and funded in part by the Massachusetts Forest and Park Association, the state hired Malcolm A. McKenzie (in botany) and W. B. Becker (entomology) in June 1935 to work on Dutch Elm disease and its insect vectors.
The Shade Tree Laboratory got off the ground initially with the financial support of the Massachusetts Forest and Park Association, expanding enough by 1948 to acquire new facilities on the UMass Amherst campus. In 1950, Malcolm McKenzie was reassigned from the Botany Department to serve as Director of the Laboratories, remaining in that position until his retirement in 1973. He was joined on staff by D.H. Marsden (1950-1954) and Francis W. Holmes (1954-1991).
The success of the program in Amherst led to the establishment of a formal Shade Tree Laboratory at Waltham in 1949, broadening its scope to include research relating “to shade and ornamental trees, and insects and diseases related thereto.” Operations in Waltham began in January 1951 under the direction of Ray M. Koon and the entomologist Warren D. Whitcomb.