Merritt Lyndon Fernald

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Fernald, Merritt Lyndon

(b. Orono, Maine, 5 October 1873; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 22 September 1950)


Fernald achieved a complete revision in 1950 of Asa Gray’s Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States (1908), the most critical comprehensive floristic work ever published for any part of North America, and propounded the theory of persistence of plants on nunataks—“the largest single contribution to the science of phytogeography since the time of Darwin” (Merrill, p. 53). The son of Merritt Caldwell Fernald, president of Maine State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (later the University of Maine), and Mary Lovejoy Heyward Fernald, he published his first botanical paper at seventeen. About 830 titles were to follow, chiefly concerning the identities, accurate definitions, and verified distributions of plants of the northeastern United States. Fernald’s taxonomic papers were carefully prepared and provocative, although sometimes they were more commentary than conclusion. His approach was to trace types back, often to pre-Linnaean botanists, then to search for clarifying evidence in the field. His masterly acquaintance with botanical literature led him along old paths to fresh decisions.

A short, stout man, Fernald was tireless in the field, boyishly joyous, given to punning, and optimistic throughout his life. His tremendous industry and total absorption with systematic botany were the mainsprings of his success. A “mere grind” was his own appraisal, but his friend Ludlow Griscom called him a “one-pointed, one-sided botanical machine.” On the invitation of Sereno Watson, Fernald had become an assistant in the Gray Herbarium early in 1891 and enrolled that fall in Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School. He graduated in 1897 with the B.S. degree, magna cum laude, his only earned degree.

Fernald wrote monographs on such genera as Potamogeton and Draba, which in turn led to his classic paper “Persistence of Plants in Unglaciated Areas of Boreal America” (1925), a documented rebuttal to the generally held view that a moving ice sheet had annihilated all the plants and animals before it. His “nunatak theory” excited debate among geologists and biologists. It stands, somewhat sculptured, like Botanist’s Dome of the Gaspé Peninsula, a landmark of plant geography.

“His trenchant criticism... [assisted] in maintaining the standards of American botanical scholarship” (Merrill, p. 54). His humor enhances the descriptions and recipes of Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America (1943), which he wrote with A. C. Kinsey.

Fernald married Margaret Howard Grant of Providence, Rhode Island, on 5 April 1907, and a son and two daughters were born to them. His association with Harvard spanned nearly sixty years. He was unforgettable to his students, and his work was avidly followed by readers of Rhodora, which he edited for thirty-two years. Fernald was acknowledged doyen in the study of the flora of the eastern United States. “When he was formed,” wrote Merrill (p. 61), “the mold was destroyed; there never can be another Fernald.”


I. Original Works. A bibliography of Fernald’s publications, by Katherine Fernald Lohnes and Lazella Schwarten, forms an appendix to Merrill’s sketch (see below). Among his writings are “Persistence of Plants in Unglaciated Areas of Boreal America,” in Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 15 (1925). 239–342: and Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America (Cornwall, N.Y., 1943), written with A. C. Kinsey, revised ed. by Reed C. Rollins (New York, 1958).

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest, and an eminently fair, appraisal of Fernald is by Elmer D. Merrill, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 28 (1954), 45–98. Other sketches are Arthur Stanley Pease, in Rhodora, 53 (1951), 33–39; John M. Fogg, Jr., ibid., 39–43; Harley Harris Bartlett, ibid., 44–55; Reed C. Rollins, ibid., 55–61; and Ludlow Griscom, ibid., 61–65, Rollins published a shortened version of his appraisal in Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 78 (1951), 270–272. A few salient comments appear in Una F. Weatherby, Charles Alfred Weatherby (Cambridge, Mass., 1951), pp. 128, 144, 178.

Joseph Ewan

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Merritt Lyndon Fernald (fûr´nəld), 1873–1950, American botanist, b. Orono, Maine, grad. Harvard, 1897. He taught at Harvard (1902–49) and was director of the Gray Herbarium there from 1937. Fernald was the editor (with Benjamin L. Robinson) of the seventh edition (1908) of Asa Gray's manual of botany and of Rhodora, the journal of the New England Botanical Club. Besides numerous botanical papers and monographs, he wrote (with A. C. Kinsey) Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America (1943).