Merriam, Clinton Hart

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(b. New York, N. Y., 5 December 1855; d. Berkeley, California, 19 March 1942)


Merriam was raised in Locust Grove, New York, on a farm bought by an ancestor in 1800; his father, Clinton L. Merriam, had retired there early from a brokerage firm. The boy’s mother, Caroline Hart Merriam, and father both encouraged his interest in collecting birds. Through Spencer F. Baird, to whom his father introduced him, the boy was appointed, when only sixteen, to collect bird skins and eggs on Hayden’s geological and geographical survey of the territories.

Merriam studied for three years at Yale, then received an M.D. from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1879. For six years he practiced medicine in Locust Grove, then accepted the new post of ornithologist in the entomological division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1905 this unit became the Bureau of Biological Survey, which Merriam continued to direct until 1910, when a trust fund established by Mrs. E. H. Harriman provided him with independent research money through the Smithsonian Institution.

Although most widely known for his definition of life zones of faunal distribution, Merriam also did significant groundwork in mammalian studies. Many of the 600 species he proposed have proved invalid, for Merriam was indeed a “splitter”; but he established the significance of cranial characters in mammalian classification, and he perfected preservation techniques. Under his direction the Biological Survey accumulated a vast collection of mammals, on which Merriam published extensively, from shrews to grizzly bears. Under the sponsorship of the Harriman fund, he devoted his later years to gathering data on the Indians of California.

An early conservationist, Merriam was the most active founder of the American Ornithologists’ Union and a founder of the Washington Academy of Sciences, the American Society of Mammalogists, and the National Geographic Society. He served on the American-British fur-seal commission in 1891, and he was the scientific director and editor of all reports of the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899.


I. Original Works. Merriam’s report on life zones was “Results of a Biological Survey of the San Francisco Mountain Region and Desert of the Little Colorado, Arizona,” in North American Fauna, 3 (1890), 119–136. He was especially proud of his “Monographic Revision of the Pocket Gophers Family Geomyidae (Exclusive of the Species of Thomomys),” in North American Fauna, 8 (1895), 1–258. His publications, totaling nearly 500 titles, are included in Osgood (see below).

II. Secondary Literature. Wilfred H. Osgood presented a thorough account of Merriam’s life in “Biographical Memoir of Clinton Hart Merriam,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 24 (1944), 1–57, which includes a bibliography. A. L. Kroeber, “C. Hart Merriam as Anthropologist,” in C. Hart Merriam, Studies of California Indians (Berkeley, 1955), vii–xiv, covers Merriam’s work on California Indians; and Peter Matthiesen Wildlife in America (New York, 1959), touches on Merriam as a biologist and conservationist.

Elizabeth Noble Shor