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Mary Strong Clemens (1873-1968)

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2.5 linear inches (1 box)


Mary Strong Clemens (1873-1968) was a botanical explorer who collected in remote areas of the South Pacific. Botanists such as Merrill, Copeland, van Steenis, Holttum, Cummins, and others all relied extensively on the Clemens collections for writing papers on the flowering plants, ferns, and rust fungi of those regions.

Born Mary Knapp Strong in New York on January 3, 1873, she married Joseph Clemens, a Methodist Episcopalian clergyman in 1894. Joseph Clemens was born in St. Just, Cornwall, England on December 9, 1862. He emigrated with his family to Pennsylvania in 1867. Clemens graduated from Dickinson College (B.A. 1894; M.A. 1897) and in 1902 he joined the United States Army as chaplain with the rank of Captain. This position made possible the Clemens' extensive travels. Mary Strong Clemens made field collections in California, Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas as Joseph Clemens was transferred from post to post.

From 1905 to 1909 the Clemens were stationed in the Philippines at the same time that E. D. Merrill was working there. Clemens collected in Mindanao and Luzon, traveling in the most remote regions and often ascending mountains with heights of over 3,000 meters.

In 1918 Joseph Clemens was retired for a disability he had received in the line of service in France during World War I . After this retirement, the Clemens returned to the South Seas, supporting their work through sales of specimens. They collected on the highest and most inaccessible mountains in the Philippines, British North Borneo, Chihli and Shantung provinces in China, the Anam region of French Indo-China, and New Guinea.

In 1929 they spent six months collecting in Sarawak, Borneo. In 1930 E. D. Merrill estimated their collections at over 20,000 numbers. (Howe, 118) Mary Clemens collected the material and Joseph prepared it for shipment.

Joseph Clemens died on January 21, 1936, from food poisoning in Wareo, New Guinea on the way to a German Lutheran Mission conference in Finschhafen. Mary recorded his death on a specimen label (Clemens 1668, B) which reads "It was under this tree [Myristica lancifolia var. clemensii] that my soul companion for over 40 years of wedded life, bade me farewell for the higher life." (Conn, 217)

Mary Strong Clemens went to New Guinea and remained there until World War II, when the Japanese invasion forced her to evacuate to Australia on December 26, 1941. Until 1939, she had been sending her collections to Berlin. Between 1939 and 1941 she sent them to the University of Michigan. Many of her notebooks were lost in the subsequent occupation of New Guinea.

Arriving in Australia, she was the houseguest of the Queensland Government Botanist C. T. White for some days. He arranged for her to be given a workspace in a shed behind the Queensland Herbarium main building.

Clemens collected extensively in Queensland, traveling by hitchhiking and once on a hand-propelled rail trolley. Her notebooks, housed in the Botany Branch of the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, all begin with the date and contain a summary of the weather and a scriptural passage for each day. Her notes provide insight into some of her personal qualities - deep religious conviction, a fanatical devotion to collecting plants, a concern for the welfare of the indigenes, and indifference to her own comfort and the robustness of her person." (Langdon, 377).

Sets of her collections in Queensland were sent to H. H. Bartlett, director of the Botanical Garden of the University of Michigan, who undertook the distribution and sale of the duplicates. The collections are housed in herbaria around the world. "Opinion now is that Mrs. Clemens probably lacked the capacity to determine plants. As years passed botanists became very wary of Mrs. Clemens and her plants." (Langdon, 380).

In 1950 Mary Clemens suffered a broken hip. After that she ceased to create written records of her activities. In 1963 she moved to the Garden Settlement for the Aged at Chermside on the northern outskirts of Brisbane. She died there on April 13, 1968.


The Mary Strong Clemens Papers (1912-1934) document three collecting expeditions by Mary and Joseph Clemens. The collection contains typewritten and mimeographed determination lists, photographs, and transmittal correspondence. The photographs document the Clemens' expedition through the Chihli and Shantung provinces in China, 1912-1913, and contain views of monuments and daily life in China at that period. The determination lists document their work in Borneo and Java. The collection is arranged into two series.


Series 1: Collections
Series 2: Photographs

Series 1     Collections, 1929-1934
                2.5 lin. in. Arranged alphabetically by expedition.

This series consists of typewritten and mimeographed determination lists, duplicates, and transmittal correspondence from the Clemens' expeditions to Mt. Kinabalu, northern Borneo and Mt. Gede in western Java. Determinations were made by the Buitenzorg Herbarium and the Clemens. A paper by J. J. Smith, "Additions to the Orchid Flora of Borneo," is found in the Sarawak, Borneo, Orchidaceae folder.

Series 2     Photographs, 1912-1913
                1 fldr.

This series contains prints of an expedition taken by the Clemens through Chihli and Shantung provinces. The prints were annotated on the back by Mary Strong Clemens and the annotations have been transcribed onto separate pages in pencil.


The New York Botanical Garden

RG4 Elmer Drew Merrill Records

Harvard University, Gray Herbarium

David Leroy Topping Papers

Queensland Herbarium, Brisbane, Australia

Mary Strong Clemens Field Notebooks

Processed May 1999 by Laura Zelasnic under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) PA-23141-98 and a grant from the Harriet Ford Dickenson Foundation.

For more information and a complete description contact:
Susan Fraser, NYBG Archivist
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, NY 10458-5126
(718) 817-8879

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