Palmer, Edward

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(b. Hockwold cum Wilton, England, 12 January 1831; d. Washington, D.C., 10 April 1911)

natural history.

Although Palmer had little formal education and was never robust in health, he was a gifted collector and made significant contributions to knowledge, especially from about 1860 to 1880. During this period he worked primarily in the western United States and mostly in areas that were still sparsely or not at all occupied by Europeans. His notes and observations on the manners and customs of the western Indians, and his collections of ancient and modern Indian artifacts, are among the more important sources of information on the ethnology and archaeology of the tribes in question. Throughout his career he collected botanical and zoological specimens, and also those of anthropological interest, but in his later years he increasingly restricted himself to the collection of herbarium specimens. His most-quoted paper is “Food Products of the North American Indians,” in Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture (1871), and most of his other publications are short papers on the same or similar subjects.

Palmer came to the United States in 1849. He was introduced to natural history and to the practice of medicine by serving as hospital steward on a naval expedition to Paraguay (1853–1855). He attended lectures at the Homeopathic College in Cleveland, Ohio (1856–1857) and, having thus qualified himself, earned much of his living for the next eleven years as a physician and surgeon, while at the same time collecting and distributing biological specimens. He served as a contract surgeon at various army posts in Colorado, Kansas, and Arizona (1862–1867), and as medical officer at an Indian agency in what is now Oklahoma (1868). After this he gave up medicine and devoted himself exclusively to collecting in Mexico and the western United States, with intermittent support from government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian Institution, the Bureau of Ethnology, and the Commission of Fish and Fisheries. Private sponsors included the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and other biologically oriented museums at Harvard University. In 1878 and thereafter, Palmer helped to finance several of his own trips to Mexico by selling subscriptions to his sets of exsiccatae. Asa Gray and his successors at Harvard supplied determinations for the botanical specimens that Palmer collected and helped with the sale and distribution of his duplicates. In Palmer’s later years J. N. Rose of the U.S. National Herbarium performed a similar service for him.

Palmer’s zoological collections include representatives of most of the major groups of macroscopic animals, but he seems never to have collected extensively in any group except the insects. His botanical collections, which were widely distributed, included an estimated 100,000 specimens, or about 20,000 different gatherings, of which about 2,000 represented species new to science. Although lacking the unique quality of his early ethnological collections, his botanical specimens were often from areas seldom or never before visited by experienced collectors. They provided a basis for modern taxonomic and phytogeographic studies, especially of northern and western Mexico, and they stimulated further exploration in western North America.


I. Original Works. Palmer’s own publications comprise 25 papers published in scientific periodicals and government documents. Most of the papers deal with the uses of plants or other articles by the American Indians; all are cited in full in McVaugh’s book on Palmer, which is mentioned below.

About 650 of Palmer’s letters (1852–1911), and many handwritten documents pertaining to specimens, are extant. The richest sources of these are the governmental archives in Washington, D.C. (especially those of the Smithsonian Institution), and the archives and the libraries of Harvard University.

Palmer’s personal collection of MSS and correspondence was sold at auction in 1914, and much of it has never been located since that time (McVaugh, Edward Palmer, p. 407, item 45 of “References and Sources” ).

II. Secondary Literature. Rogers McVaugh, Edward Palmer: Plant Explorer of the American West (Norman, 1956), includes a detailed listing of Palmer’s itineraries by date and locality, copies of some early field notes, and a bibliography of all known books and papers written by or about Palmer to 1955.

Rogers McVaugh