The Mary Strong Clemens Papers (PP)

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Collectors: Clemens, Mary Strong, 1873-1968.
Title: The Mary Strong Clemens Papers (PP)
Dates: 1912-1934;
Dates: bulk, 1929-1933
Quantity: 2.5 inches; 1 box
Call Phrase: Clemens (PP)

Biography of Mary Strong Clemens

Mary Strong Clemens (1873-1968) was a botanical explorer who collected in remote areas of the South Pacific. She valuable materials into the hands of Merrill, Copeland, van Steenis, Holttum, Cummins and others who 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 Jan. 3, 1873, she married Joseph Clemens, a Methodist Episcopalian clergyman in 1894. Joseph Clemens was born in St. Just, Cornwall, England on Dec. 9, 1862. He emigrated with his family to Pennsylvania in 1867. Clemens graduated from Dickinson College (BA 1894; MA 1897). In 1902 he joined the U.S. Army as chaplain with the rank of Captain. This position made possible their extensive travels. Mary Strong Clemens made field collections in California, Utah, Oklahoma and Texas as Joseph Clemens was transferred from post to post.

From 1905-1909 they were stationed in the Philippines at the same time that E. D. Merrill was working there. She collected in Mindanao and Luzon. She traveled in the most remote regions and ascended mountains with heights of over 3000 m.

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, they 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 N. Borneo, Chihli and Shantung provinces in China, Anam, 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)

Mrs. Clemens collected the material and Mr. Clemens prepared it for shipment.

Joseph Clemens died on Jan. 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 Dec. 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. In Australia she became known for her eccentricities. She often slept in the shed, bathing in a fountain on the grounds of the Herbarium. Eventually she moved to a hostel about five K. from the Herbarium. She would walk to her workspace every day.

Clemens collected extensively in Queensland, travelling by hitchhiking and once on a hand-propelled rail trolley. Her notebooks, housed in the Botany Branch of the Queensland Dept. 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 to 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 distribution and sale of the duplicates. Their collections are housed in herbaria around the world including: Berlin, Leiden, Singapore, Zurich, Munich, Belgium and California Academy of Sciences, Harvard, University of Michigan, Rocky Mountain, Purdue, the United States Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden in the United States.

“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 she 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.


Carter, A.M. “The Itinerary of Mary Strong Clemens in Queensland, Australia,” Contributions from the University of Michigan Herbarium 15 (1982): 163-169.

Conn, Barry J. “Mary Strong Clemens: a botanical collector in New Guinea (1935-1941,” In History of systematic botany in Australasia; Proceedings of a symposium held at the University of Melbourne, 25-27 May 1988, edited by P. S. Short. Victoria, Australia: Australian Systematic Botany Society Inc., 1990.

Howe, Marshall A. “Chaplain Joseph Clemens,” Journal of the New York Botanical Garden 37 (1936): 117-118.

Langdon, R. F. “The Remarkable Mrs. Clemens,” In People and Plants in Australia, edited by D. J. and S. G. M. Carr. Sydney: Academic Press, 1981.

Scope and Content

The Mary Strong Clemens Papers (1912-1934) documents three collecting expeditions by Mary Strong and Joseph Clemens. It contains typewritten and mimeographed determination lists, photographs and transmittal correspondence. The photographs document their expedition through Chihli and Shan-tung 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.


The collection is organized into two series:
Series 1: Collections. 1929-1934. Arranged alphabetically by expedition.
Series 2: Photographs. 1912-1913.


Access restrictions

This collection is open for research with permission from Mertz Library staff.


Requests for permission to publish material from the collection should be submitted in writing to the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden.

Indexing Terms

The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
Clemens, Mary Strong, 1873-1968 -- Archives.
Methodist Episcopal Church -- Missions -- History.
Plants -- Malaysia -- Kinabalu, Mount (Sabah)
Plants -- Malaysia -- Sarawak.
Smith, J. J. (Johannes Jacobus), 1867-1947. Additions to the orchid flora of Borneo.
Bo Hai (China) -- Description and travel -- Photographs.
China -- Social life and customs -- 1912-1949 -- Photographs.
New York Botanical Garden Archives.
Orchidaceae -- Borneo.
Plants -- Indonesia -- Gede Mountain.
Shandong Sheng (China) -- Description and travel -- Photographs.

Related Material

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

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

The Mary Strong Clemens Papers (PP), Archives, The New York Botanical Garden.

Acquisition Information

This collection was transferred to the New York Botanical Garden Archives.

Processing Information

Originally processed by Laura Zelasnic, Project Archivist, May, 1999, with grant funding from The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH-PA-23141). Converted to EAD in July 2006 by Kathleene Konkle under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH-PA 50678-04).

Container List


Series 1. Collections.

Scope and Content:

This series consists of typewritten and mimeographed determination lists, duplicates and transmittal correspondence from their expeditions to Mt. Kinabalu, N. Borneo and Mt. Gede, W. Java. Determinations were made by 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.

Folder Title Date
1.1 Mt. Kina Balu, N. Borneo and Mt. Gede, W. Java 1931-1932
1.2 Mt. Kina Balu Collection II (British N. Borneo) 1933
1.3 Mt. Kina Balu Collection, Correspondence and Packing Label 1934
1.4 Sarawak, Borneo, copy 1 1929
1.5 Sarawak, Borneo, copy 2 1929
1.6 Sarawak, Borneo, Orchidaceae 1929
1.7 Sarawak, Borneo, Misc. Identifications and Correspondence 1929-1931

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Series 2. Photographs.

Scope and Content:

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.

Folder Title Date
1.8 Photographs 1912-1913

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