Merriam, Clinton Hart

Source: USFWS

Clinton Hart Merriam (1855-1942), American biologist and ethnologist, who helped found the National Geographic Society (1888) and what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Clinton Hart Merriam spent his early years on his family farm known as Locust Grove in the Adirondack Mountain region of New York State. As early as age 13, Merriam began collecting and preserving bird and animal specimens. He would grow up to become one of America's earliest conservationists.

When Merriam was 16 years old, his father, Congressman Clinton Levi Merriam, took him to meet Spencer Fullerton Baird at the naturalist's Smithsonian office in Washington. Baird was impressed with samples the young man brought along and the following year invited Merriam to accompany him on his Hayden Survey trip into northwest Wyoming to serve as the expedition's naturalist. In 1875 while Merriam was a student at Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School, Baird appointed him to a seasonal post on the U.S. Fish Commission's staff in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Merriam continued his studies and earned his M.D. in 1879 from Columbia University. His father built a museum for him on the grounds of Locust Grove which also served as his office. There Merriam worked on his cherished specimen collection while practicing medicine throughout the community. Legend has it Merriam kept three descented skunks as pets in his office and often carried them along in his pocket while seeing patients. When the young doctor spied interested women coming to call, the skunks were often let loose in the yard to discourage the visit. The pets were kept safely inside, however, whenever he found the young women to his liking.

In 1883, Merriam gave up medicine and turned his life over to his first love, the active collecting of bird and mammal specimens. He published his famous work, originally in two volumes, The Mammals of the Adirondack Region, in 1882 and 1884. During this time Baird offered him the opportunity to accompany an exploration to the Newfoundland and Labrador Seal Fishery where he was to make a "complete collection of skins, skulls and skeletons for the Smithsonian National Museum of all species of seals in the area visited."

In 1884, Merriam became Chairman of the American Ornithologists Union's Committee on Migration which conducted research on the national migration and distribution of birds. It soon became apparent that their work deserved government recognition and support. In February of 1885, with an appropriation of $5,000, Congress created the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy within the Department of Agriculture. Merriam accepted the job as Chief Ornithologist with the provision that he be allowed to spend the hot summer months at Locust Grove instead of in Washington. Congress transformed the agency into the Division of Biological Survey in 1886, and by 1894, Merriam's appropriation had risen to $27,000.

Merriam's field method involved sending groups to collect mammals, birds and reptiles from the region under study which would then be added to representative plant life and other skins and specimens already preserved. These combined collections would then serve as the basis for his scientific report. The method became known as the Merriam Field Method and was the basis of the Biological Survey's many publications. It was also adopted by the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, California. Civil service workers hired by the Biological Survey were given on-the-job training in the Merriam Method.

One of Merriam's major contributions to conservation was his evidence proving that efforts to import exotic species of birds and mammals to curb domestic pests actually caused more harm than good. For example, the English sparrow had been imported to prey on caterpillars which were harming crops. Merriam discovered that instead of destroying caterpillars, the sparrow drove off birds that actually did so, and the number of caterpillars instead had dramatically increased. As a result of Merriam's reports and efforts to prevent bird exploitation by other conservationists such as Iowa Representative John Fletcher Lacey, Congress passed the Lacey Act in 1900. The Act empowered the Department of Agriculture to limit animal imports and aided in the enforcement of interstate trafficking in illegally killed game.

Merriam is remembered by his co-workers in the Biological Survey as a man who "swept people along with his own enthusiasms." He had an "indefinable magnetism...which caused men of his own or even greater stature to be drawn to him quickly."

In addition to running the Survey, training and overseeing field workers and influencing legislation for bird and wildlife regulation, Merriam also edited all the Survey's publications for most of the years he headed the department. He continued his support of the American Ornithologists' Union and was a frequent speaker on natural history topics on their behalf. In 1903 he was selected by President Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow naturalist and close friend since 1884, to serve on the U.S. Board of Scientific Surveys of the Philippine Islands and in 1908 was asked to report on the bird and mammal resources for Roosevelt's newly created National Commission on Conservation.

Merriam was happiest, however, when he was in the field. Throughout his life he combined work and "vacations" conducting exploration around the country. His trips took him through all the continental states as well as Bermuda. According to Merriam's biographer, Keir Sterling, Merriam was "part of the leading edge" of America's conservation movement but was dismayed to find himself "drawn into the growing battle between preservationists and conservationists" of his time. In addition, Merriam grew tired of having to account for his annual appropriation from Congress which he considered "absurdly small" in the first place.

Merriam resigned his position in the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1910 to become a research assistant at the Smithsonian Institution where he conducted investigations of botany, zoology and ethnology and worked on his studies of western Indian tribes in California and Nevada. He died in 1942, leaving a legacy of twenty-nine books and reports as well as more than four hundred papers on biological and ethnological subjects.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



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