Archives and Manuscript Collections
Records of the Herbarium (RG4)
ELMER DREW MERRILL RECORDS (1929-1958)
2 linear feet (5 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, NY 10458-5126
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