Verrill, Addison Emery

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(b. Greenwood, Maine, 9 February 1839; d. Santa Barbara, California, 10 December 1926), zoology.

Verrill’s ability to identify and remember a tremendous variety of animals, plants, and minerals appeared at a very early age. He began with rocks and minerals near his home and later collected plants, shells, and animals at Norway, Maine, where the family moved in 1853. His parents, George Washington Verrill and Lucy Hillborn, were both descended from early New England families. In preparation for his boyhood ambition to study and work under Louis Agassiz, Verrill attended Norway Liberal Institute and in 1859 entered Harvard College. Agassiz put him to work studying birds, urged him to take up zoology instead of geology, and arranged summer trips to the Bay of Fundy, Anticosti Island, and the coast of Labrador for him, in the company of Alpheus Hyatt and N.S. Shaler. Verrill’s early interest in geology lasted throughout his life as a secondary profession.

Even before his graduation from Harvard in 1862, Verrill worked as assistant to Agassiz at the Museum of Comparative Zoology and continued there until 1864. A request from Yale College for recommendations to the newly established chair of zoology led Agassiz to suggest Verrill in 1864. He held the post until his retirement in 1907. He began the zoological collections of the Peabody Museum and was curator from 1865 to 1910. He also taught large classes in geology at Yale from 1870 to 1894. Simultaneously with his Yale duties, Verrill was in charge of the scientific investigations of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, curator of the Boston Society of Natural History for ten years, and professor of comparative anatomy and entomology for one course each spring at the University of Wisconsin from 1868 to 1870. He served as associate editor of the American Journal of Science from 1869 to 1920.

Verrill received an honorary M.A. from Yale in 1867. He was an early member of the National Academy of Sciences, president of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences for some years, a corresponding member of the Société Zoologique de France, and a member of many American scientific societies.

Trained under Agassiz, Verrill became an outstanding taxonomist, for he considered taxonomy the foundation of biology. Until 1870 he collected marine invertebrates by dredging each summer along the Maine coast and in the Bay of Fundy, and completed the identifications of the collections during the school year. Aided by his wife’s brother, Sidney I. Smith, Verrill made a detailed ecologic study of the fauna of Vineyard Sound in 1873, the first of this magnitude in the United States and the model for later ones. He was assigned to handle the invertebrates of Spencer F. Baird’s Commission of Fish and Fisheries survey of the New England coast, and elected to describe and classify all the groups himself, intending to write monographs covering each major unit.

Because of his remarkable facility for distinguishing significant morphological features, he described, with few errors in judgment, at least one thousand marine invertebrates, in every phylum except Protozoa. His outstanding contribution was in the classification and natural history of corals; but his work on echinoderms, especially starfishes and the very confusing brittle stars, placed that group on a secure taxonomic foundation. He was among the first to make a phylogenetic separation of the echinoderms from the coelenterates, both of which had previously been combined into the Radiata. Verrill also completed three monographs on crustaceans, having taken over that group when the original worker, Sidney Smith, became blind. Aided by Katharine J. Bush, he wrote extensively on the mollusks, especially the cephalopods, and directed the making of a life-size model of a giant squid for the Peabody Museum. In addition to his taxonomic work, he wrote considerably on the habits and natural history of each group he studied.

While participating in the dredging trips of the Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Verrill devised useful marine collecting equipment: and the enlisted students on his own weekend dredging trips by sailboat near New Haven, reaching depths of 4,000 meters. From three trips to Bermuda and extensive study he presented a painstaking report on the zoology, botany, geology, and even history and the effect of civilization on those islands. Interested in many fields of zoology. Verrill introduced new names into entomology and parasitology as well as into marine invertebrate groups; he also alerted the public to the hazards of tapeworms and similar parasites. His type specimens are at the Peabody Museum and the U.S. National Museum. He contributed most of the zoological definitions to the 1890 edition of Webster’s International Dictionary.


I. Original Works. The memoir by Coe, cited below, contains a detailed bibliography, by subject, of over 300 papers by Verrill and includes monographs on specific animal groups. His major report on Bermuda is “The Bermuda Islands: Their Scenery, Climate, Productions, Physiography, Natural History and Geology, With Sketches of Their Early and the Changes due to Man,” in Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 11 (1902), 413–911-further reports on the islands appeared in 1906 and 1907. The meticulous Vineyard Sound study is “Report Upon the Invertebrate Animals of Vineyard Sound and the Adjacent Waters, With an Account of the Physical Characters of the Region,” in Report of the United States Commissioner of Fisheries, 1 (1873), 295-747.

II. Secondary Literature. Wesley R. Coe, “Biographical Memoir of Addison Emery Verrill,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 14 (1932), 19–66, provides information on Verrill’s childhood, personality, and scientific accomplishments. Shorter versions, also by Coe, appeared in Science, 66 , no. 1697 (1927), 28–29; and in American Journal of Science, 5th ser., 13 , no. 77 (1927), 377–387.

Elizabeth Noble Shor