Atlee's grandfather and father were physicians and expected him to follow in their footsteps. Atlee gave it a try, enrolling into the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but later dropped out, not wanting to be a surgeon.
Atlee had other ideas. He was fascinated by the sciences of breeding and genetics. Research and published papers by Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel inspired him. As a boy he started out with breeding chickens, geese and turkeys, later including livestock, dogs and even plants. He created his own breeding experiments, wrote papers that were published in the USA and abroad, and corresponded with breeders from England, some coming to visit him at his parents' home in Philadelphia. All this by the age of 16!
When he was 18 years old, Burpee got himself a partner and, with $1000 loaned to him by his mother, they started up a poultry breeding business, to be run out of the family home. Soon they had a small store in Philadelphia and also started selling corn feed. In 1787 Burpee dropped his partner and, at the request of customers, added vegetable seeds to his inventory. He traveled throughout the USA and Europe in search of varieties that were new and interesting. He exchanged and handed out mail order catalogs- his first catalog was 48 pages long. One million catalogs were distributed!
The Burpee Family started up Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in 1888 to serve as both a new home and a place to grow onions, beets, carrots, peas, cabbage and flowers for the seed business. Famous varieties developed at Fordhook include Iceberg lettuce, Fordhook lima beans and Golden Bantam sweet corn.
Floradale Farms in Lompoc, California ,was set up in 1909 to grow, evaluate, and harvest seeds from sweet peas. In Swedesboro, New Jersey, Sunnybrook Farms was set up to specialize in tomatos, eggplants, peppers and different kinds of squash. The company worked with Santa Paula Farms in California during the 1950's to develop hybrid zinnias.
Atlee's son, David, inherited the business and took it in a new direction. David encouraged people to grow their own gardens during WW2, a time when the war cut off the seed supply from Europe that caused crop shortages. These home gardens were called "Victory Gardens" and "War Gardens." David's interest in flowers created new breeding programs for the company. During his leadership, crossbred double nasturtiums, Big Boy tomatos, Ambrosia cantaloups, and new varieties of petunias and marigolds were developed.
Today, George Ball Jr. runs Burpee Seed which still maintains Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Some of the original buildings are now on the grounds of Delaware Valley College. The main house is now a B&B called The Inn at Fordhook. Burpee Seed Company continues to be a leader in the sale of seeds, plants, and gardening tools and accessories via mail order catalogs and the internet.