C. Hart Merriam Biography


Clinton Hart Merriam was born in New York City on December 5, 1855. However, his wealthy family maintained a large estate in Locust Grove, New York, where he spent his boyhood surrounded by woods and fields brimming with a variety of plants and animals. Merriam spent many hours in the woods exploring the local flora and fauna. At the age of 18, Merriam published a report of his biological studies on mammals and birds. This early exposure encouraged Merriam to have a deep appreciation for nature.

In 1874, Merriam entered Yale University, where he studied biology and human anatomy for 3 years, developing an interest in medicine. From Yale, he went on to Columbia University, where he received his M.D. in 1879. While he was a student his interest in wildlife continued, and he published an account of “The Birds of Connecticut” in 1877.

Although he practiced medicine in Locust Grove from 1879 to 1885, he became one of the founding members of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1883 and developed a growing interest in the study and collection of mammals. In 1884, Merriam described his first new species, Atophyrax bendirii, which is a small shrew. In July 1885, Merriam was named to take charge of the newly established section of ornithology in the Entomological Division of the United States Department of Agriculture. As the chief of what became the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1905, Merriam became a national figure, spending 25 years with the bureau improving the scientific understanding of the birds and mammals of the United States.

Merriam first visited the Colorado Plateau in 1889, publishing the results of abiological survey of the San Francisco Mountain region and desert of the Little Colorado, Arizona, with Leonard Stejneger in 1890. He chose this region because “of its southern position, isolation, great altitude, and proximity to an arid desert.” In conducting the biological survey, it was believed new scientific and economic understanding could be gained by surveying a “region comprehending a diversity of physical and climatic conditions, particularly if a high mountain were selected, where, as is well known, different climates and zones of animal and vegetable life succeed one another from base to summit.” Merriam trekked greatly around and on the San Francisco Peaks, including the cinder hills, Walnut Canyon, Grand Canyon, and the Painted Desert. His expeditions included extensive plant and animal collections and elevation documentation from an aneroid barometer. These studies eventually supported his “life zones” concept of biogeographical elevation gradients.

Selected References

Layne, J.N, and Hoffmann, R.S. 1994. Clinton Hart Merriam, 1919-1921. Pages 28–30 in E.C. Birney, and J.R. Choate (eds.). Presidents: Seventy-five years of mammalogy (1919–1994). American Society of Mammalogists, Special Publication.

Osgood, W. H. 1944. Biographical memoir of Clinton Hart Merriam, 1855–1942. Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: 24, 1–57.