Merrill, Elmer Drew

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(b. East Auburn, Maine, 15 October 1876; d. Forest Hills, Massachusetts, 25 February 1956)


For the breadth of his knowledge and his influential international status, Merrill was acknowledged the “American Linnaeus.” He and his twin brother Dana were the youngest of five children of Daniel C. Merril, a sailor, factory worker, and farmer, and Mary Adelaide Noyes Merrill. At Maine State College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (now the University of Maine) he pursued a general science curriculum that included only two botany courses. but his interest in the latter science was stimulated by Francis LeRoy Harvey. He graduated first in his class with the B. S. (1898) and remained as an assistant in the natural sciences.

After three years as an assistant to agrostologist Frank Lamson-Scribner at the United States Department of Agriculture, Merrill went to Manila in 1902 as botanist to the Philippine Bureau of Agriculture. His office consisted of a bare room with only a table and chair: the earlier plant collections and reference books had been either burned or stolen. Charateristically he set about collecting local weeds. When he left Manila in 1923, the Bureau of Agriculture herbarium contained 275,000 Philippine and Malayan specimens. From 1912 to 1918 Merrill devoted eighteen to thirty-six hours a week as “half-time” professor of botany at the University of the Philippines. In 1919 he became director of the Bureau of Science, an appointment that forced him to abandon his hope of writing a detailed flora of the Philippines and led him instead to undertake a catalog that ultimately appeared in four volumes.

Merrill married Mary Augusta Sperry in Manila in 1907; they had four children. Mrs. Merrill and the children remained after his short leave in Washington, D. C. and his return to Manila in 1915, and except for brief leave in 1921, the family was not reunited until 1924, when he became dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1930 Merrill became professor of botany at Columbia University and director of the New York Botanical Garden, remaining there until 1935, when he went to Harvard as Arnold professor, director of the Arnold Arboretum, and administrator of botanical collections. He held those posts in varying combinations until 1948. Merrill was a consultant on tropical botany to the secretary of war; and his survival guide for the armed forces, Plant Life of the Pacific World (New York, 1945), a distillation of his years in the tropics, is still widely useful. Merrill’s Botany of Cook’s Voyages (1954) reviewed facts and what he believed to be unfounded theories on the origin and pre-Columbian dissemination of crops and weeds in the Pacific.

Merrill can be considered a builder. Toward a documentary record of tropical floras he amassed a million plant specimens of tropical for six institutions; for the ethnobotanist he designed a comprehensive field label for plant vouchers; for editors he advocated one-name journal titles (such as Hilgardia, Brittonia, Arnoldia); for botanical nomenclaturists he created a loose-leaf ledger of Index Kewensis by interfiling the names from all installments into a master sequence; for the low-budget institution he designed a cardboard herbarium box (“Merrill case”) for housing specimens; and he launched the reprinting of hard-to-find botanical classics by photo-offset. Merrill was, in short, an organization man. His friendly support of promising scholars, often behind the scenes, his skill in attracting donors, and his fondness for books, music, and, on occasion, tennis were blended with the frank, critical manner of a man in a hurry.


I. Original Works. Merrill published more than 500 books and papers. A chronological list prepared by Lazella Schwarten is appended to W.J.Robbins’ memoir (see below); an alphabetical list by title appears in Torrey Botanical Club, Index to American Botanical Literature, 1886–1966 III(Boston, 1969), 264–273. Cheif among his writting are pioneer accounts of the Philippine, Bornean, and Micronesian floras: A Flora a Manial (Manila, 1912); and An Enumeration of Philine Flowering Plants, 4 vols (Manila, 1922 [1923]–1926); “A Bibliographic Enumneration of Bornean Plants,” spec. no. of Journal of the Striatis Branch of the Royal Asiatic Socity(1921); and “An Enumeration of the Plants of Guam,,” in Philippine Journal of Science, sec. C, Botany 9 (1914), 17–155. Supplements to all of these accounts were issued.

Merrill’s Bibliography of Eastern Asiatic Botany (Jamaica Plain, Mss., 1938), written with E. H. Walker; “A Botanical Bibliography of the Island of the Pacific,” in Contributions from the United States National Herbarium,30 1947) 1–322; and Index Rafinesquianus (Jamaica Plain, Mass., 1949) are key bibliographies, F. Verdoorn, ed., “Merilleana,” inChronica botanica10 (1946), 127–394, is a selection of 23 of his general writings. The first installment—no more published—of an illustrated autobiography, appeared in Asa Gray Bulletin, n.s., 2 (1953), 335–370. Typical of Merrill’s spirited narrative is his account of the first ascent of Mount Halcon, ele. 8,900 ft., in the Philppines, “A Mindoro Fern Adventure,” in American Fern Journal, 36 (1946), 33–47

Merrill’s library of 2,600 titles was given to the New York Botanical Garden, as was his correspondence from 1902 to 1935, amounting to 2,378 items; 83 letters related to his intoduction of Metasequoia alone. His field book have not been located

II.Seconary Literature. There are two complementary accounts of Merrill and his work: R. E. Schultes in Taxon, 6 (1957), 89–101; and W. J. Robbins, inBiographical Memories National Academy of Scienvces32 (1958), 273–333. Shorter Skethes, stressing various facets of Merrill’s life iclude I. H. Burkill, in Nature177 (1956), 687–688; J. Ewan, in Journal of the Washington Academy of Science46 (1956), 267–268; R. A. Howard, in Journal of the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard Universoty37 (1956), 197–216; and F. Verdoorn, “Merrilleana,.” in Chrinica botanica10 (1946), 127–157. Ivan M. Johnston, A Correspondence Between a Professor at Harvard and the University (Jamaica Plain, Mass., 1957), which concers Merrill’s final years, was privately printed

Joseph Ewan

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Merrill, Elmer Drew

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