Merriam, John Campbell

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(b. Hopkinton, Iowa, 20 October 1869; d. Oakland, California, 30 October 1945)


Merriam was the son of Charles and Margaret Merriam. He took a B.S. degree at Lenox College, Iowa, then in 1887 moved with his family to Berkeley, California, where he attended the University of California, studing botany under E. L. Green and geology with Joseph Le Conte. In 1893 he took his doctorate in vertebrate paleontology at Munich. The following year he became an instructor at the University of California and in 1912 chairman of the new department of paleontology. In 1896 he married Ada Gertrude Little, who bore him three sons. She died in 1940, and in 1941 he married Margaret Webb.

Merriam helped pioneer the study of paleontology on the West Coast. The early explorations were followed by a period of stagnation, broken in the early 1890’s by workers from both Stanford and the University of California. Between 1896 and 1908 Merriam published papers on Tertiary molluscan faunas, Tertiary echinoids, and the Triassic Ichthyosauria. In 1901 he published an important work on the John Day Basin in Oregon, and after 1905 he published many descriptions of the Tertiary mammalian faunas of the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles.

In 1917 Merriam began two additional activities that led him away from research in paleontology: he helped found and became president of the pioneer conservation organization, the Save-the-Redwoods League, and he was elected chairman of the Committee on Scientific Research of the California State Council of Defense. The latter post led him to Washington, D. C., to aid in the war effort, and eventually to his becoming president (1920–1938) of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. During these two decades he was very active in the National Academy of Sciences and was a leader in science administration and conservation. Conservative in his social beliefs, he was considered more serious than jovial by his colleagues.


I. Orginal Works. Merriam’s writings are collected in Published Papers and Addresses of John Campbell Merriam, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1938); vol.IV contains his nonscientific writings. His MSS are in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress and the Bancroft Library, Univ. of California, Berkeley.

II. Secondary Literature. A biographical sketch and extensive bibliography of Merriam’s work, by Chester Stock, appear in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 26 (1951), 208–232; see also Chester Stock, “Memorial to John Campbell Merriam,” in Proceedings. Geological Society of America for 1946 (1947), 182–197; and Ralph W. Chaney, “John Campbell Merriam,” in Yearbook. American Philosophical Society for 1945 (1946), 381–387. A sketch of his scientific and philosophical thought appears in Chester Stock, “John Campbell Merriam as Scientist and Philosopher,” in Carnegie Institution of Washington, Cooperation in Research (Washington, D.C., 1938), 765–778.

Carroll Pursell