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Merrill, Elmer Drew, 1876-1956. Papers of Elmer Drew Merrill (1922-1956): A Finding Aid

TheArnold Arboretum of Harvard University


The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University
June 2003

© 2003 President and Fellows of Harvard College

Last update 2016 June 14

Descriptive Summary

Repository: Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130.
Call No.: IB EDM
Location: Archives.
Title: Papers, Elmer Drew Merrill
Date(s): 1922-1956
Creator: Merrill, Elmer Drew 1876-1956
Quantity: 1.3 Linear Feet (2 Boxes)


Access to Finding Aid record in Hollis Classic or Hollis.

Other descriptions of this material

Current version of this finding aid is available at the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

Processing Information:

Sheila Connor, February 2003. Revised June 2006, 2008, and March 2010.

Acquisition Information:

The Elmer Drew Merrill papers were acquired during his tenure from 1935-1946, and thereafter until 1956. This collection was then transferred from the Arnold Arboretum’s departmental holdings to the Arboretum’s Archives in 1986 when the Archive was established.

Terms of Access:

Researchers seeking to examine archival materials are strongly encouraged to make an appointment. The Director, or an office of origin, may place restrictions on the use of some or all of its records. The extent and length of the restriction will be determined by the Director, office of origin, and the Archivist and will be enforced equally for all researchers.

Terms of Use:

The copyright is held by The President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Arnold Arboretum Archives of Harvard University. The copyright on some materials in the collection may be held by the original author or the author's heirs or assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining written permission from the holder(s) of copyright and the Arnold Arboretum Archives prior to publishing any quotations or images from materials in this collection.

Photocopies may be made at the discretion of the Arnold Arboretum Archives staff. Permission to make photocopies does not constitute permission to reproduce or publish materials outside the bounds of the fair use guidelines.

Biographical Note

Elmer Drew Merrill (1876-1956) was both a productive scientist and an able administrator. Director of the Arnold Arboretum from 1935 to 1946, Dr. Merrill initiated steps toward more efficient use of resources and a greater focus on horticulture. Merrill specialized in the flora of Asia and published nearly 500 papers and books.

Elmer Merrill was born and raised in East Auburn, Maine. He graduated from the University of Maine in 1898, and stayed on as a graduate assistant in natural science, earning a master’s in botany even though no formal training was offered in the field. Recognized as a major contributor to the field of botany by the 1930’s, Merrill received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from University of Maine, Harvard University, and later from both the University of California and Yale. In 1899, he took a job in Washington DC as an assistant agrostologist (a specialist in grasses) at the Department of Agriculture.

In 1902, Merrill went to the Philippines, where he was a botanist for the USDA and the Bureau of Forestry. He spent the next 22 years working toward compiling a comprehensive flora of the Philippines, visiting every large island and many of the smaller ones. He taught botany at the University of the Philippines and became director of its Bureau of Science in 1919.

Dr. Merrill returned to the United States in 1924 to become dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of California and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station. He led a reorganization of a faculty of 350 that emphasized upgrading of academic training of staff, added buildings and equipment, augmented the budget significantly, and stressed fundamental research, with a goal of “a university education on the basis of agriculture, [as] opposed to vocational instruction in agriculture” (Merrill, 1953, p.363).

>Despite Dr. Merrill’s heavy administrative responsibilities, he found time for work in systematic botany, adding hundreds of thousands of mounted specimens to University herbaria and publishing papers and books.

In 1929, Merrill accepted an appointment as director of the New York Botanic Garden. Despite severe budgetary constraints arising from the Great Depression, Merrill was able to use workers from work relief programs to upgrade the grounds and for extensive herbarium work.

In 1935, at the age of 59, Dr. Elmer Merrill came to Harvard University as Arnold Professor and administrator of botanical collections. His appointment of Donald Wyman to the new position of horticulturist signaled an emphasis on the living collection and on publications and activities educating the gardening public. Dr. Merrill campaigned from the outset for consolidation of the separate units within the Harvard botany department, decrying the duplication of effort and expense, and laid the groundwork for the Bailey Plan of reorganization that was proposed in 1946. His administration had to deal with the destruction caused by the devastating hurricane of 1938 and the labor shortages during World War II.

Merrill’s knowledge of the Pacific Islands and their flora proved extremely useful during the war. Dr. Merrill compiled a handbook of “Emergency food plants and Poisonous plants of the islands of the Pacific,” which was published by the War Department and used as the basis for survival manuals issued to the troops.

Dr. Merrill continued his research after his retirement in 1946. His funded programs of field work, contacts with botanists in Asia, and Arboretum grants led to locating fruiting trees of Metasequoia in China, which Merrill described as a “living fossil” and delighted in widely distributing its seeds. Dr. Elmer Merrill, through a productive lifetime of work, was responsible for building the body of scientific knowledge through the compilation of over one million sheets of herbarium specimens and hundreds of publications.

After his first year at Harvard, Merrill transferred his headquarters from the Gray Herbarium to Jamaica Plain. He lived on the Arboretum property at 690 Centre Street until his death in 1956. In addition to the nearly 500 publications, Merrill was also an active correspondent. The letters primarily reflect Merrill’s years from 1935-46 as Administrator of the Botanical Collections, but also include earlier letters from 1924 and the collection extends beyond his retirement into 1954.

Known for his keen abilities as an administrator, the letters give details of Merrill’s policies of promoting plant collecting by native botanists, which produced herbarium specimens collected from China, India, Java, the Philippines, Japan, and elsewhere. Letters promoting botanical exchanges and collaboration with other institutions such as the Fairchild Tropical Garden, the Smithsonian, University of California, USDA, Duke University, New York Botanical Garden, Missouri Botanical Garden, Instituto Miguel Lillo-Argentina, Instituto Biologic-Colombia, Royal Botanic Gardens-Kew, Imperial Forestry Institute-England, Botanic Gardens Brisbane, Australian National University, etc. are included.

Numerous letters to Harvard administrators include financial statements and discussions of the Case Estates, Atkins Institute, Bussey Institution, Gray herbarium, Harvard Forest, Innisfree Estate, the Rose Garden Fund, the Rock Garden Fund, staff appointments, and fundraising.

Scope and Content

The Merrill collection is comprised primarily of correspondence, though it also contains biographical information, memoranda, and approximately 12 photographs. Topics covered in the material include administrative policies and decisions, fundraising, grants for botanical field work, herbarium expansion & specimen loans, plant collecting expeditions & subscription, plant identification & nomenclature, plant & seed exchanges, literature exchanges, and staff appointments.


The Merrill collection is organized in 3 series:

Container List