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Elmer Drew Merrill (1876-1956)

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4.8 linear feet (8 Boxes)


Elmer 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 citations.

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 community.

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 plant.

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 .


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
                    1 fldr.

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 material.

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 list.

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 portraits.


The New York Botanical Garden

RG1 General Records

RG2 Board of Managers, Scientific Director and Council of The New York Botanical Garden

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 Archivist
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, NY 10458-5126
(718) 817-8879

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