The New York Botanical Garden International Plant Science Center
Mertz Library
Science Home ... Mertz Library ... Archives and Manuscripts

Elmer Drew Merrill (1876-1956)

Library Collections & Resources

Finding Guide

Archives and Manuscripts

Books and Journals

NonBook Collection

Circulating Collection

Searchable Databases and Electronic Resources

Archives and Manuscript Collections

Records of the Herbarium (RG4)
2 linear feet (5 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 Philippines, 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 Merrill 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 1912 and an Enumeration of Philippine Flowering Plants, published in sections between 1922 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. For his work, he was awarded an Appreciation Certificate by the Secretary of War.

As his interest 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 Joao de Loureiro's Flora Cochinchinensis in 1919 and revisited 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 the position of 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 work on China, Borneo, and the Philippines.

Dr. Merrill's influence on the field of American botany was felt not only through his scientific work but also through his innovative administrative methods. While at California, he invented the "Merrill Case," a carton that 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 with a staff of some 150 men. 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 New York Botanical Garden was depleted, specimens were mounted for other organizations - 70,150 in one year alone. 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. This was 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 that 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.

Merrill studied Kuntz, Rafinisque, and others and revealed many combinations unrecorded in the Index Kewensis, which affected the nomenclature of plants in America as well as Asia. Merrill 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 glyptostroboides. 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 their 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. The New York Botanical Garden honored him with a Distinguished Service Award 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 Records ( 1929-1958) document the scientific and administrative career of Dr. Merrill at The New York Botanical Garden. The bulk of the material consists of correspondence with botanists and collectors around the world, reflecting Dr. Merrill's occupation with developing the herbarium collections and the importance of his collaboration with individuals and institutions around the world, especially in the Far East. The collection is arranged into three series.


Series 1: Biographical Material
Series 2: Correspondence
Series 3: Elmer D. Merrill Library

Series 1    Biographical Material, 1956-1958
                1 lin. in. Arranged chronologically.

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.

Series 2     Correspondence, 1929-1935
                   1.5 lin. ft. Arranged geographically.

Dr. Merrill was in contact with botanical institutions and collectors around the world. This series contains his scientific and administrative correspondence. It is arranged by country and then alphabetically by correspondent in that country. The United States material contains most of the material related to his administrative duties at The New York Botanical Garden, including the story of the development of the Perennial Border in the Garden. Especially noteworthy is his consulting association with Lignan University in China, which resulted in numerous specimens being added to collections in the United States, and frequent contributions by Dr. Merrill to the Lignan Science Journal. Detailed records of collecting expeditions by J. and M. S. Clemens in Java and New Guinea and the first Archbold expedition, also are in this series.

Series 3     Elmer D. Merrill Library, 1956
                   0.5 lin. ft. Arranged by subject.

This series contains the bibliographic enumeration of Dr. Merrill's library, and notes on the disposition of the duplicate volumes. It also contains the original bound manuscript of Merrill's commentary on Loureiro's Flora Cochinchinensis, 1919 and his 1934 revision.


The New York Botanical Garden
PP     Elmer Drew Merrill Papers
RG3  Chief Executive Officer, William J. Robbins Records
RG4  Henry A. Gleason Records

Harvard University, Arnold Arboretum Library
Charles Sprague Sargent Papers
Elmer Drew Merrill Papers
Letters from Elmer Drew Merrill, 1946

Harvard University, Gray Herbarium Library
Oakes Ames Papers

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

  Back to Top

NYBG Home  |  Science Home  |  About Us  |  Site Map  |  Participate  |  Contact Us
© 2003 The New York Botanical Garden  |  Photo Credits
Terms of Use  |  We welcome your feedback and suggestions.