Merrill, George Perkins

views updated


(b. Auburn. Maine, 31 May 1854; d. Auburn, 15 August 1929)

geology, meteoritics.

Merrill was a descendant of Nathaniel Merrill, who had settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630’s His father, Lucius Merrill, was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. His mother, Anne Elizabeth Jones, was the daughter of the Reverend Elijah Jones of Minot, Maine, whose scholarship had a profound influence upon the intellectual life of his grandson. One of seven children, Merrill began to earn his own living at an early age, finding employment as a farmhand and in shoe factories. He was twenty-two years old when he entered the Maine State College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (now the University of Maine), where he majored in chemistry and graduated with a B.Sc. degree in 1879. He then became a laboratory assistant, working on the chemistry of foods, at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. There he became acquainted with G. Brown Goode, formerly curator of Wesleyan’s museum collections and at that time in charge of the U.S. National Museum in the Smithsonian Institution and director of the survey of fisheries for the tenth census. Goode appointed Merrill to the census staff in 1880 and to the Museum staff in 1881 as aid to George W. Hawes, who had just become curator of the geological collections. After Hawes’s death in 1882, Merrill was put in charge of petrology and physical geology; and in 1897 he became head curator of the department of geology in the U.S. National Museum, a position that he held until his death. He also served as part-time professor of geology and mineralogy at Columbian College (renamed George Washington University in 1904) from 1893 to 1915.

Merrill was married in 1883 to Sarah Farington, of Portland, Maine. She died in 1894, leaving one son and three daughters. He was married again in 1900 to Katherine L. Vancey of Virginia, by whom he had one daughter. He was of sturdy build, alert and active, accustomed to long hours in office and laboratory; an avid reader, he was fond of poetry and music. Austere and reserved on first acquaintance, to his many friends Merrill displayed a warm and generous heart. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences; the American Philosophical Society; the Geological Society of America, of which he was vice-president in 1920; the Washington, the Maryland, and the Philadelphia academies of science; and the Geological Society of Washington, of which he was president in 1906–1907; and a corresponding member of the American Institute of Architects.

Merrill made scientific contributions in at least five distinct areas. As a museum administrator he built up the department of geology in the U.S. National Museum and made it one of the world’s greatest and best-organized geological collections. Introduced by Hawes to the new petrologic technique of microscopic study of thin sections of rocks, he applied that procedure to the large collection of building stones assembled in connection with the tenth census and enlarged in succeeding years. This not only led to the publication of his most widely read book, Stones for Building and Decoration, but also established such a reputation for him that he was influential in the selection of stones for many governmental buildings, most notably the Lincoln Memorial. These studies naturally turned Merrill’s attention to the processes of rock weathering. Here his early training in chemistry proved valuable and his Treatise on Rocks, Rock Weathering, and Soils was immediately hailed by European as well as American geologists, and led to his recognition in agricultural circles as the outstanding authority of his time on soils and their origin.

A fourth area in which Merrill’s scientific contributions were especially notable involved the study of meteorites. He was one of the first to “regard the meteorites as world matter”; and in 1906 he correctly identified Coon Butte, near Canyon Diablo, Arizona (now known as Meteor Crater), as an impact crater. Last among his areas of accomplishment was that of the history of geological science; his three works on this subject (1906, 1920, 1924) are indispensable source material

Among Merrill’s many honors were an honorary Ph.D. from what is now the University of Maine, in 1889, the Sc.D. from George Washington University in 1917, and the J. L. Smith gold medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1922.


I. Original Works. Merrill’s writings include “On the Collection of Maine Building Stones in the United States National Museum,” in Proceedings of the United States National Museum. 6 (1883), 165–183; “Report on the Building Stones of the United States and Statistics of the Quarry Industry for 1880,” in Tenth Census United States, X (Washington, D.C., 1884), bound as part of vol. X, but with separate pagination; “The Collection of Building and Ornamental Stones in the United States National Museum,” in Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1886 (Washington, D.C., 1889), pt. 2, 277–648; Stones for Building and Decoration (New York, 1891; 2nd ed., 1897; 3rd ed., 1903); “Disintegration of the Granitic Rocks of the District of Columbia,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 6 (1895), 321–332; “The Principles of Rock Weathering,” in Journal of Geology, 4 (1896), 704–724, 850–871; and A Treatise on Rocks, Rock Weathering, and Soils (New York, 1897; new ed., 1906).

Later works are The Non-metallic Minerals, Their Occurrence and Uses (New York, 1904); “Contributions to the History of American Geology,” in Report of the United States National Museum for 1904 (1906), 189–733; “The Meteor Crater of Canyon Diablo, Arizona,” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 50 (1908), 461–498; “The Composition of Stony Meteorites, Compared With That of Terrestrial Igneous Rocks and Considered With Reference to Their Efficacy in World Making,” in American Journal of Science, 4th ser., 27 (1909), 469–474; “Handbook and Descriptive Catalogue of the Meteorite Collections in the United States National Museum,” Bulletin. United States National Museum, no. 94 (1916); “Contributions to a History of American State Geological and Natural History Surveys,” ibid., no. 100 (1920); “On Chondrules and Chondritic Structure in Meteorites,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences …, 6 (1920), 449–472; The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (New Haven, Conn., 1924); “The Present Condition of Knowledge on the Composition of Meteorites,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 65 (1926), 119–130; and “Composition and Structure of Meteorites,” Bulletin. United States National Museum, no. 149 (1930).

II. Secondary Literature. Biographies of Merrill are Waldemar Lindgren, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 17 (1935), 31–53, which includes a bibliography of 196 titles; and Charles Schuchert, in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 42 (1931), 95–122, with a bibliography of 196 titles.

Kirtley F. Mather

About this article

Merrill, George Perkins

Updated About content Print Article