Archives and Manuscript Collections
ELMER DREW MERRILL PAPERS
4.8 linear feet (8 Boxes)
Drew Merrill (1876-1956) is known both as the foremost contributor to the
taxonomy of the plants of the Far East and as an innovative administrator
of herbaria. He served as Director of The New York Botanical Garden from
1929 to 1935.
Merrill was born in East Auburn, Maine on October 15, 1876. His early
years were spent on his grandfather's farm in East Auburn, establishing
his interest in combining the pure and applied aspects of botany. His graduation
from the University of Maine with an M.A. in 1899 marked the end of his
formal schoolwork, although in later years he received numerous honorary
doctorates. That year, he accepted a position with the United States Department
of Agriculture as Assistant Agrostologist to F. Lamson-Scribner.
At the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States Philippines'
Commission established the Insular Bureau of Agriculture in Manila. Elmer
Drew Merrill was named to the post of botanist. Within a few months this
had expanded to a joint appointment with the Bureau of Forestry. In the
course of his twenty-two years of service in the Philippines, Merrill became
Director of the Bureau of Sciences and Professor of Botany at the University
of the Philippines. When he began working in the Phillipines, only 2,500
plants from that area were known to the literature. By 1923, when the team
he worked with--Copeland, Whiteford, Elmer, and others--had completed collecting,
14,000 plants had been recorded. Identification of these specimens was
impossible with the limited resources he found when he assumed his post.
Between 1902 and 1923, Merrill established a herbarium which grew to over
275,000 mounted specimens and a library that was unequalled in the Far
East. All of this was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines
in World War II. Although he was close to retiring from Harvard by that
time, Merrill was instrumental in securing duplicate specimens and books
to rebuild the collection.
Merrill published a Flora of Manila in 1914 and an Enumeration
of Philippine Flowering Plants, published in sections between 1923
and 1926. His expertise on the Philippines was put into patriotic
service during World War II. He consulted with the War Department on many
classified projects and compiled a handbook of "Emergency food plants and
Poisonous plants of the islands of the Pacific." He was awarded an Appreciation
Certificate by the Secretary of War.
As his interests expanded to include the flora of China, Borneo, and
Guam, Merrill recognized that a larger approach was needed for proper interpretation
and definition of the many species of the Philippines. He coined the use
of the term "Malaysia" as a phytogeographic entity. He wrote a commentary
on Loureiro in 1919 and revised and expanded it in 1934. Dr. Merrill's
research took place before and after full days as an administrator.
He left the Philippines in 1923, to accept a position as Dean of the
California College of Agriculture. There he was instrumental in establishing
a new curriculum and in linking scientific research at the University of
California directly to issues in agriculture. Merrill's research continued
unabated. He added over 110,000 mounted specimens to the University herbarium
and published his work on China, Borneo, and the Philippines.
Beginning with his work in the Philippines, Dr. Merrill's administrative
methodology was as influential as that of his scientific work in the field
of American botany. While at California, he invented the "Merrill Case,"
a carton which can be used for shipping specimens and then as temporary
housing in herbaria. 3,000 of these cases, filled with specimens, were
added during Merrill's tenure; the materials instantly available for study
while awaiting permanent housing.
As Director of The New York Botanical Garden, his service coincided
with the Great Depression. Much of his success at the Garden involved his
creative use of personnel supplied by public relief agencies. He oversaw
the horticultural development of the grounds, which utilized the labor
of 150 men per year. A similar number of women were employed as mounters,
artists, secretaries, librarian clerks, and technicians. Among the tasks
accomplished with this workforce was the first count of the specimens in
the Herbarium. The total figure was reported in 1934. When the backlog
of specimens for the Garden was depleted, specimens were mounted for other
organizations—70,150 in one year. The emergency workforce was able to accomplish
one of Merrill's most lasting contributions: the insertion of literature
pertaining to the specimens into their folders in the herbarium. These
were culled from photostats of the literature, and reprints and the descriptions
were attached either to the inside of the genus covers or on species cover
sheets. In 1934 over 100,000 such descriptions were added. By 1937, Merrill
estimated the count at well over 700,000. Duplicate copies of the descriptions
were sent to other herbaria. This methodology of placing information near
the specimens, initiated by Merrill at The New York Botanical Garden, continues
today. Another innovation was the alphabetized series of entries for Index
Kewensis. This was accomplished by cutting and pasting two copies of the
Index into loose-leaf binders. Also, beginning with Brittonia, which
Merrill established in 1931, he advocated for the naming of periodicals
with a single word title, an idea which provided for clear and concise
In 1935, Merrill left The New York Botanical Garden for a newly created
post at Harvard University: Administrator of Botanical Collections, which
he held as Arnold Professor of Botany. His job was to coordinate nine separately
endowed units in the field of botany. He had the specimens in the Linnaean
herbarium microfilmed and made them available to the world's scientific
He studied Kuntz, Rafinisque, and others, and revealed many combinations
that were unrecorded in the Index Kewensis, which affected the nomenclature
of plants in America as well as Asia. He arranged private financing for
duplicates of these and other classic works to be made and placed in libraries
around the world.
His taxonomic interest turned to New Guinea, and the Arnold Arboretum
supported a second Archbold Expedition to that island. Another expedition
went to China and located fruiting trees of the Metasequoia glyptostrbiodes.
Dr. Merrill acquired several bushels of seeds and for many years gave them
out at horticultural meetings, thus disseminating the species in the west.
In all, he described over 3,000 new species in the Philippines, Polynesia,
China, Molluca, and Borneo. His commentaries on Blanco, Rumphius, and Loureiro
are landmarks. They illuminate a method of identifying previously described
species by studying the populations from which they have been drawn. At
least seven plant genera are dedicated to him and some 220 binomials have
the specific name dedicated to him. Among these is Adenoid Merrill, the
Merrill Palm or Manila Palm, widely cultivated in Florida as an ornamental
Among his many American and foreign honors, Merrill counted medals from
the French Ministry of Agriculture, the Linnaean Society of London, and
the Netherlands Order of Orange Nassau. He was a member of the National
Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He served as
the official U.S. delegate to the Fifth Pacific Science Congress in Vancouver
in 1933, as President of the Botanical Society of America in 1934, and
as President of the Section of Taxonomy and Nomenclature of the Sixth International
Botanical Congress in Amsterdam in 1936. In addition, he served as a member
of the board of directors or as trustee for many institutions around the
world. He was honored with a Distinguished Service Award by The New York
Botanical Garden in 1952.
On Merrill's seventieth birthday, Chronica Botanica dedicated
a number to him—"Merrilleana." In the introduction, the editor calls him
the American Linnaeus "because of 1) an unsurpassed knowledge of
flowering plants, particularly those of far-off regions, 2) an outstanding
originality and ability in methodological and administrative work, and
3) a ready desire to assist his fellow workers the world over, often in
an astonishingly effective way…"
His last work, The Botany of Cook's Voyages (1954), is an investigation
into the vernacular names and physical origins of the plants collected
on these voyages, based on a collection of unidentified material he discovered
at the British Museum.
Elmer Merrill died on February 25, 1956, in Forest Hills, Massachusetts.
At his death, his library of 2,600 volumes was donated to The New York
Botanical Garden. As requested, the sale of duplicates, with the addition
of funds voted by the Board of Managers, was used to establish the Elmer
D. Merrill Fund to award annually a medal to "that individual within the
entire field of botany, irrespective of race, creed, or nationality, who
was considered worthy of such an award." A detailed chronology of Merrill's
life and a bibliography of his work can be found in Elmer Drew Merrill
(1876-1956), by William J. Robbins .
SCOPE AND CONTENT NOTE
The Elmer Drew Merrill Papers (1902-1958) document Merrills scientific
and administrative career before and after his association with The New
York Botanical Garden. They contain lantern slides, correspondence, annual
reports on the Harvard Botanical Collections, manuscripts, photographs,
reprints, honors, and medals. The collection is arranged into six series.
Series 1: Biographical Material
Series 2: Correspondence
Series 3: Manuscripts and Publications
Series 4: Awards
Series 5: Photographs
Series 6: Lantern Slides of Philippine Agricultural and Forestry Industries
Series 1 Biographical Material, 1956-1958
This series consists of reprints of biographical essays published on
the occasion of Dr. Merrill's death. Other items are a photocopy of the
Merrill coat of arms, and a typewritten list of elected appointments and
honors which accrued to him. Also in this folder is correspondence related
to Merrill's conflicts with Harvard in his later years and the destruction
of his records concerning that time, with the exception of the Metasequoia
Series 2 Correspondence, 1915-1929; 1936-1946
1.5 lin. in. Arranged chronologically.
This series contains Merrill's professional correspondence, especially
that relating to his work with Metasequoia glyptostrobiodes.
Series 3 Manuscripts and Publications, 1936-1946
1.5 lin. in. Arranged chronologically.
Included in this series is an annotated map of the Philippine Islands,
additional notes for an article Merrill wrote on the Plants of Hainan Island,
a translation of parts of E.V. Vulff's Introduction to the Historical
Geography of Plants, reviews of some of Merrill's publications, and
a group of reprints of reports on the Harvard Botanical Collections.
Series 4 Awards, 1921-1958
2.5 lin. ft.
This series contains certificates of honor and 12 medals awarded to
him during his career. The Distinguished Service Award from the NYBG is
found here. An inventory list of the medals is included in the container
Series 5 Photographs, 1923-1956
1 fldr. Arranged chronologically.
This series contains portrait photographs of Dr. Merrill, some autographed,
and photographs of some of his honorary certificates. A framed photograph
is found in Box 8—Series 4: Awards.
Series 6 Lantern Slides of Philippine Agricultural
and Forestry Industries, ca. 1902
2 lin. ft.
Series 6 consists of 142 lantern slides of agricultural and logging
practices in the Philippines, along with some scenic locales and anthropological
The New York Botanical Garden
RG1 General Records
RG2 Board of Managers, Scientific Director and Council of The New York
RG3 Chief Executive Officer, William J. Robbins Records
RG4 Elmer Drew Merrill Records
Processed February 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
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, NY 10458-5126
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