Elmer Drew Merrill Records (RG4)

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The New York Botanical Garden
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Collectors: Merrill, Elmer Drew, 1876-1956.
Title: Elmer Drew Merrill Records (RG4)
Dates: 1919-1958
Dates: bulk 1930-1935
Quantity: 2 linear feet, 1 inch; 5 boxes
Call Phrase: Merrill (RG4)

Biography of Elmer Drew Merrill

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 1929-1935.

Merrill was born in East Auburn, Maine on Oct. 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 2500 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. "Flora of Manila", was published in 1914 and an "Enumeration of Philippine Flowering Plants" was 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". For this 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 Loureio 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. His research continued unabated. He added over 110,000 mounted specimens to the University herbarium and published work on China, Borneo and the Philippines.

Beginning with his work in the Philippines, Dr. Merrill's influence on the field of American botany was as lasting in the initiatives and methodologies he established as an administrator as in that of his scientific work. While at California, he invented the "Merrill Case", a carton that can be used for shipping specimens and then as temporary housing in herbaria. 3000 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 NYBG involved his creative use of personnel supplied by public relief agencies. He oversaw the horticultural development of walks, roads, a rock garden and a Perennial Border. Up to 150 men per year were employed in these activities. A like amount of women were employed as mounters, artists, secretaries, librarians, 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 NYBG 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. One such accomplishment was the insertion of literature pertaining to the specimens into their folders in the herbarium. These were culled from Photostats of the literature, 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 method 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.

Beginning with Brittonia, which Merrill established in 1931, he advocated for the naming of periodicals with 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 was the job to coordinate nine separately endowed units in the field of botany. He had the specimens in the Linnaean herbarium microfilmed and made available to the world's scientific community.

He studied Kuntz, Rafinisque and others and revealed many combinations unrecorded in the Index Kewensis, which affected the nomenclature of plants in America and 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 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. 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 that voyage based on a collection of unidentified material he discovered at the British Museum.

In all, he described over 3000 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 had 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 he 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 official U.S. delegate to the Fifth Pacific Science Congress in Vancouver in 1933, as President of the Botanical Society of America in 1934, as President of the Section of Taxonomy and Nomenclature of the Sixth International Botanical Congress in Amsterdam in 1936. 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 his 70th 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…"

He died on February 25, 1956 in Forest Hills, Mass. 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 be awarded to "that individual within the entire field of botany irrespective of race, creed or nationality who was considered worthy of such an award".

He was married to the former Mary Augusta Sperry in 1907. They had four children: Lynne, Dudley Sperry, Ann, and Wilmans Noyes who died in infancy.

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.


Howard, Richard A., 1956. Elmer Drew Merrill, (1976-1956). Journal of the Arnold Arboretum, 37 (July 1956), 197-216
Robbins, William J. 1958. Elmer Drew Merrill, (1876-1956). National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, 32, 274-333.
Verdoorn, Frans, ed. 19 46. Merrilleana, Chronica Botanica 10 (3-4): 127-394.

Scope and Content

The Elmer Drew Merrill Records (1929-1958) documents 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 organized into three series:
Series 1: Biographical Material, 1956-1958, Arranged chronologically.
Series 2: Correspondence, 1929-1935, Arranged geographically.
Series 3: Elmer D. Merrill Library, 1956, Arranged by subject.


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, Joseph, 1862-1936.
Clemens, Mary Strong, 1873-1968.
Ling nan da xue (Guangzhou, China)
Archbold Expedition to New Guinea.
Botanical exploration -- Indonesia -- Java.
Botanical exploration -- New Guinea.
Loureiro, João de, 1710-1791. Flora Cochinchinensis.
Merrill, Elmer Drew, 1876-1956 -- Library.
Metasequoia glyptostroboides.
New York Botanical Garden -- History -- Sources.
New York Botanical Garden Archives.
Pacaraima-Venezuela Expedition, Inc.
Plants -- China -- Guangzhou.
Plants -- Indonesia -- Java.
Plants -- Indonesia.
Plants -- Malay Archipelago.

Related Material

The New York Botanical Garden

PP--Elmer Drew Merrill Papers

RG3--Records of the Chief Executive Officer - William J. Robbins

RG4--Henry A. Gleason Records

RG2--Records of the Board of Managers

University of Oregon

A79--Merrill, Elmer Drew. Correspondence/Metasequoia glyptostroboides, Hu 1946-1956

Harvard University. Arnold Arboretum

Elmer Drew Merrill Archives

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Merrill (RG4), 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, February 1999, with grant funding from The National Endowment for the Humanities. (NEH-PA 23141-98). Converted to EAD in December 2006 by Kathleene Konkle under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH-PA 50678-04).

Container List


Series 1. Biographical Material.

Scope and Content:

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.

Box Title Date
1 Biographical Material 1956-1958

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Series 2. Correspondence.

Scope and Content:

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 material related to his administrative duties at the NYBG. The story of the development of the Perennial Border in the Garden is told in that folder. Especially noteworthy is his consulting association with Lignan University in China which resulted in numerous specimens 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 are in this series.

The following is a list of correspondents included in this series:

Berger, Alwin, 1871-1931
Brown, William Henry, 1884-1939
Ch'in Jê-c'hang, 1899-
Christopherson, Erling, 1898
Degener, Otto, 1899-
Handel-Manzetti, Heinrich Freiherr von, 1882-1940.
Hill, Arthur William, 1875-1941
Hu, Hsien-su, 1894-
Kanehira, Ry oz-o
Keissler, Karl von, 1872-
Krukoff, B.A.
Martelli, Ugolino, 1860-1934
Metcalf, Franklin Post, 1892
Quisumbing, Eduardo, 1895
Ramsbottom, John, 1885
Samuelson, Gunnar, 1885-1944
Seward, Albert Cyril Tenison

Box Title Date
1 Africa n.d.
1 Australia n.d.
1 Austria n.d.
1 Belgium n.d.
1 Borneo n.d.
1 Brazil, Krukoff Expedition n.d.
1 British Honduras n.d.
1 Canada n.d.
1 China, A-C n.d.
1 China, D-L n.d.
1 China, Lingnan University n.d.
1 China, M-Y n.d.
1 Cuba n.d.
1 Denmark n.d.
1 Dominica n.d.
2 England, A-H n.d.
2 England, Hill, Arthur W. n.d.
2 England, K-Y n.d.
2 England, Unidentified Signature n.d.
2 France n.d.
2 Germany n.d.
2 Guatemala n.d.
2 Hawaii n.d.
2 India and Ceylon n.d.
2 India, Roerich Museum n.d.
2 Indo-China n.d.
3 Italy n.d.
3 Japan n.d.
3 Java n.d.
3 Korea n.d.
3 Maylay States n.d.
3 Maylay States, Clemens Borneo Collection n.d.
3 Netherlands n.d.
3 New Guinea-Archbold Expedition n.d.
3 New Guinea-Clemens Expedition n.d.
3 New Zealand n.d.
3 Norway n.d.
3 Philippines, B-M n.d.
3 Philippines, Q-W n.d.
3 Poland n.d.
3 Portugal n.d.
3 Puerto Rico n.d.
3 Puerto Rico, Nolla, José Antonio B. n.d.
3 Scotland n.d.
3 Siam n.d.
3 Singapore n.d.
3 South America n.d.
3 South America, W.R. Grace Co. n.d.
4 Spain n.d.
4 Sumatra n.d.
4 Sumatra, Krukoff Expedition n.d.
4 Sweden n.d.
4 Switzerland n.d.
4 U.S., Arnold Arboretum n.d.
4 U.S., California Academy of Science, 1930 n.d.
4 U.S., California Termite Committee n.d.
4 U.S., Chicago World's Fair Centennial Celebration n.d.
4 U.S., Department of Agriculture n.d.
4 U.S., Edison, Thomas n.d.
4 U.S., Gray Herbarium n.d.
4 U.S., Miner, Ray Waldo n.d.
4 U.S., National Recovery Administration n.d.
4 U.S., Oeder, 'A Century Old Herbarium' n.d.
4 U.S., Record-Z n.d.
4 U.S., UCLA (Epping) n.d.
4 U.S., Venezuela (Pacaraima-Venezuela Expedition) n.d.
4 U.S., Washington State Museum (University of Washington) n.d.
4 U.S., Walker, Egbert H. n.d.
4 U.S., Walker, Elda R. n.d.
4 U.S. Walther, Eric n.d.
4 U.S., Works Progress Administration n.d.
4 U.S.S.R. n.d.
4 Wales n.d.
4 Perennial Border n.d.
4 1915-1929 n.d.
4 A-W 1936-1956

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Series 3. Elmer D. Merrill Library.

Scope and Content:

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.

Box Title Date
4 Elmer D. Merrill Library Inventory n.d.
5 "A Commentary of Loureiro's Flora Cochinenis" 1919
5 "A Commentary of Loureiro's Flora Cochinenis", Inserts 1919
5 "A Commentary of Loureiro's Flora Cochinenis" 1934
5 "A Commentary of Loureiro's Flora Cochinenis", Inserts 1934

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