Skip to main content

Elmer Drew Merrill (1876-1956) papers, 1922-1956.


Elmer Drew Merrill served as Director of the Arboretum from 1936 until 1946 and as Emeritus Professor until 1956. The collection is comprised mainly of his administrative correspondence from 1935-46 which includes his position as Administrator of Botanical Collections at Harvard University and also includes one year, 1903, of his correspondence as Botanist for the Bureau of Agriculture and Forestry as well as some other letters and memoranda written before 1935.


  • 1920-1956


General Physical Description note

(4 file drawers and 8 volumes)

Terms of Access

This collection is open for research. 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.


7 linear feet

The collection is comprised primarily of Merrill’s correspondence and memoranda from 1935-46. The Merrill collection also contains biographical information, a substantial amount of which was assembled by Richard A. Howard, photographs, selected publications, and five reels of microfilm.

Biographical note

Elmer Drew Merrill (1876-1956) and his twin brother Dana were born in the small village of East Auburn, Maine on October 15, 1876, the last of Mary Adelaide (Noyes) Merrill (c1845-1893) and Daniel C. Merrill’s (1837-1925) six children. Elmer and Dana, the only two of the Merrill’s surviving children to continue their education and attend the Edward Little High School in Auburn, in 1894 entered Maine State College at Orono, which three years later became the University of Maine. The twins graduated in 1898, and Elmer, valedictorian of his class, remained an additional year working as an assistant in the Department of Natural Science earning and a master’s degree in 1904 in recognition of his work. Merrill would later donate the personal collection of 2,000 specimens he accumulated during this time to the New England Botanical Club Herbarium held at the Harvard University Herbaria.

Merrill took the United States Civil Service examination in 1899 to apply for two open positions at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington DC. Offered both, he chose to become Assistant Agrostologist to Frank Lamson-Scribner (1851-1938) (born Franklin Pierce Lamson), an authority on the classification of grasses and a pioneer pathologist, and also a graduate of Maine State College at Orono. When President William McKinley established the Second Philippine Commission (the Taft Commission) in 1901, the Insular Bureau of Agriculture was created in Manila. The Bureau needed a botanist and Lamson-Scribner urged Merrill to accept the position. After a 64-day transit on the U.S. Army transport “McClellan,” he arrived in Manila in April 1902 to find the Field Station to which he had been assigned consisted of one small, empty house. Merrill, almost immediately holding the additional position as Botanist for the Bureau of Forestry, spent the next 22 years compiling a comprehensive flora of the region and rebuilding the botanical library and herbarium collections that had been destroyed during the Spanish American War.

In May 1907 Merrill married Mary Augusta Sperry (1873-1965), a native of Illinois, in Manila. After they wed the Merrills sailed for the United States, stopping in China and Japan and spending time in Washington, DC, and New England. Their return journey, which lasted until 1908, included visits to the herbaria and libraries of Kew and the British Museum, and botanical institutions in Leiden, Berlin, Geneva, and Florence. Merrill had become an Associate Professor at the University of the Philippines in 1912 and eventually became head of the Department of Botany at the University. Ultimately all botanical work in the Philippines came under the aegis of what became, in 1906, the Bureau of Science. In 1919 Merrill assumed the directorship of the Bureau and when he left the Philippines in 1923, the herbarium had grown to over 250,000 specimens, its library was one of the most complete in Asia, and The Philippine Journal of Science, established through his backing and support, had been in publication since 1906. Tragically both the library and herbarium were destroyed during World War II, just one day before the liberation of Manila. Arboretum staff member Ida Hay describes this period Merrill’s career in “E. D. Merrill, From Maine to Manila” Arnoldia 58 (1) 1998.

In 1924 Merrill returned to the United States to become Dean of the College of Agricultureat the University of California, Berkley and simultaneously Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station. At the College he led a reorganization of a faculty of 350, revised the entire curriculum, emphasized academic training of staff, added buildings and equipment, augmented the budget significantly, and stressed fundamental research. In 1925, Merrill established the journal Hilgardia, named for Eugene Woldemar Hilgard (1833-1916) who organized the Agriculture Department of the University of California and was founding director of the California Agricultural Experiment Station.

In 1927, Merrill announced effective June 1st of that year he would be taking a partial leave from the University of California to become Director of the newly established California Botanic Garden located in Mandeville Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains. According to Richard Howard during his brief directorship Merrill had an administration building and greenhouses constructed, brought twelve hundred species of plants under cultivation, established seed and plant exchanges, started a library, and created an herbarium of 180,000 mounted specimens. The botanic garden lasted only a few years beyond his directorship and its herbarium was eventually transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles.

Merrill accepted a joint appointment as Director-in-Chief of the New York Botanic Garden and Professor of Botany at Columbia University in 1929 and with the onset of the Great Depression arrived at the Garden in 1930 to face a very difficult financial situation. Despite severe budgetary constraints Merrill was not only able to sustain but improve many of the Garden’s programs both internally and externally by taking advantage of personnel supplied by the Works Progress Administration. The institution’s buildings were rehabilitated and in the Garden men laid walks and roads, installed fences, and constructed a rock garden. In the herbarium and library women worked as mounters, librarians, secretaries, clerks, artists, and technicians. The herbarium collection was completely rearranged, its operation improved, and its specimens counted for the first time. Once the substantial backlog of unmounted material was complete, specimens were mounted for other institutions including the Arnold Arboretum and the Gray Herbarium. Merrill had also added, in 1931, a new publication devoted to the technical field of botany that he named Brittonia for Nathanial Lord Britton (1859-1934), Secretary of the Garden since its inception in 1895, its Director-in-Chief until 1929, and the man whom Merrill had succeeded.

At the age of 60, in 1935, Elmer Drew Merrill became Administrator of Botanical Collections at Harvard University. Merrill succeeded Oakes Ames (1874-1950) who had served as Chairman of the Division of Biology under a Council created by the Harvard Corporation in 1927, acting as not only Supervisor of the Arboretum for eight years, but also of the Biological Laboratory and Botanic Garden in Cuba, and the Botanical Museum. However Merrill’s was a new position created to oversee nine separate institutions: the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts; the Atkins Gardens and Research Laboratories in Cuba (now the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden); the Botanical Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Bussey Institution adjacent to the Arboretum in Jamaica Plain; the Farlow Library and Museum and the Gray Herbarium in Cambridge; the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts; and, in 1937, the Maria Moors Cabot Foundation for Botanical Research. As Administrator of Botanical Collections Merrill campaigned for consolidation of the separate units within the Harvard botany departments, decrying the duplication of effort and expense and laying the groundwork for a report entitled Botany and Its Applications at Harvard, proposed in 1945, by Arnold Arboretum staff member and Harvard Professor of Plant Anatomy Irving Widmer Bailey (1884-1967). This report, more commonly known as the "Bailey Report" or “Bailey Plan,” recommended unifying botanical activities and combining the University's botanical libraries and herbaria, then housed in separate buildings, in "a single unit in as close proximity to the Biological Laboratories as possible." The plan was approved by the Harvard Corporation in January 1946 and the Harvard University Herbaria building that was intended to house the integrated collections was completed in February 1954.

In addition to his role as Administrator of Botanical Collections, Merrill became Arnold Professor of Botany in 1936. Transferring his headquarters from the Gray Herbarium to Jamaica Plain he became Director of the Arnold Arboretum the following year. Merrill proved to be an extremely productive scientist and an exceptional administrator who initiated an efficient use of resources and focused the Arboretum’s research on Asiatic plants. He increased the herbarium by more than 220,000 specimens and greatly enlarged the library. Merrill addressed management of the Arboretum’s living collection by creating the new position of Horticulturist in 1935 and appointing Donald Wyman (1904-1993), who would continue to serve as such under two more directors, Karl Sax (1946-1954) and Richard A. Howard (1954-1978). Although he did not initiate a new Arboretum publication with his penchant for single name titles of journals Merrill transformed the Contributions from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University into Sargentia and The Bulletin of Popular Information of the Arnold Arboretum into Arnoldia and explained his reasoning in “A Simple Change in Name.”

Merrill served the Arnold Arboretum during difficult and tumultuous times as Director until 1946 and as Emeritus Professor until 1956. At first there was little opposition to the many changes that would occur under the Bailey Plan. However, in 1949 as the details of the consolidation unfolded, Oakes Ames, who had originally accepted the plan, voiced his concerns to the Committee on Biological Sciences about the legality of moving the Arboretum’s herbarium and library and a substantial part of its endowed income to Cambridge. Members of the Harvard Overseers Committee to Visit the Arboretum then charged that the transfer of resources from Jamaica Plain violated the terms of the James Arnold Trust that endowed the Arboretum from its inception. And in 1953, the members of the newly formed Association for the Arnold Arboretum, Inc. launched a campaign against the University to prevent the removal of the Arboretum's library and herbarium. As an administrator Merrill initially supported the goals of the Bailey plan, but he too came to believe, as both his predecessor Oakes Ames and his successor Karl Sax (1892-1973) did, that its implementation would have extremely adverse effects on the Arnold Arboretum. Merrill spoke strongly against the plan publically and although he continued his research and remained extremely productive his last years at the Arboretum were often frustrating and sometimes unpleasant. After a long and public debate and an equally protracted legal battle by the Association for the Arnold Arboretum, Inc. to have the issue decided in court, finally in 1966, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled 3-to-2 in favor of the University and Arboretum’s research collections were moved to Cambridge.

Merrill and his wife Augusta lived on the Arboretum property at 960 Centre Street until his death in 1956. Merrill willed his personal papers and his library of 2,600 volumes to the New York Botanical Garden whose Board of Managers established The Elmer Drew Merrill Fund “to be applied to official publications from The Garden or for 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.”

Elmer Drew Merrill was a major contributor to the field of botany. During his lifetime he built herbaria and libraries and launched journals and botanic gardens. Within his area of research he amassed over one million sheets of herbarium specimens, described approximately three thousand new species from eastern Asia, and authored nearly 500 publications. He was also an active correspondent and his letters reflect both his Directorship of the Arboretum and his role as Administrator of the Botanical Collections. The majority of the letters are dated from 1935-1946, but the collection also includes letters from 1924 and extends beyond Merrill’s retirement into 1954. Known for his keen abilities as an administrator, the letters give details of his policies and decisions. Numerous letters to Harvard administrators include discussions regarding 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. Topics covered in the material include fundraising, grants for botanical field work, herbarium expansion and specimen loans, plant collecting expeditions and subscription, plant identification and nomenclature, plant and seed exchanges, literature exchanges, and staff appointments. Also included are his interest in promoting plant collecting by native botanists, which produced herbarium specimens collected from China, India, Java, the Philippines, Japan, and elsewhere. Letters promoting 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, and Australian National University are included.

“Elmer Drew Merrill 1876—1956; A Biographical Memoir” by William J. Robbins includes a detailed description of the many honors conferred upon Merrill (p.291-292), a detailed chronology of his life (p.297-301), a complete bibliography of his writings, and a listing of articles about Merrill (p.304-333). Robbins also lists the seven plant genera – Merrillia Swingle, Merrilliobryum Brotherus, Merrilliodendron Kanehira, Merrilliopeltis Hennings, Merrillosphaera Shaw, Sinomerrillia Hu, and Elmerrillia Dandy— dedicated to Merrill and notes that there are also approximately 220 binomials with a specific name also honoring him and then recounts that “ When Merrill referred to these names which immortalized him, he was accustomed, with a twinkle in his eye, to translate Merrilliopeltis as "Merrill's hide."

Arrangement note

Missing Title
  1. Series I: Biographical Material
  2. Series II: Photographs
  3. Series III: Memoranda
  4. Series IV: Correspondence
  5. Series V: External Committee Minutes
  6. Series VI: Publications


The Elmer Drew Merrill papers were transferred from the Arnold Arboretum’s departmental holdings to the Arboretum’s Archives in 1984 when the Archive was established. The material was acquired principally from 1935-1946 and thereafter until 2003.

Related Archival Materials note

Merrill archives are held at the New York Botanical Garden and at the Botany Libraries Archives located on the Harvard campus at the Harvard University Herbaria, see also Records of the Arnold Arboretum “Controversy,” 1945-1966.

Processing Information note

1999 Sheila Connor, revised 2012 Carrie Thompson and Sheila Connor

Finding aid prepared by Liz Francis
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Arnold Arboretum Archives Repository

The Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library is a specialized collection devoted to the study of temperate woody plants. We collect works on botany, horticulture, floras, urban forestry and taxonomy. The library contains more than 25,000 volumes and 40,000 photographs, and includes an archive that both documents the Arboretum's history and is a repository for 19th, 20th, and 21st century horticultural and botanical collections.

125 Arborway
Jamaica Plain MA 02130 USA