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Clinton Hart Merriam

Clinton Hart Merriam, naturalist, zoologist, and leader for many years in a field of great activity, takes an honored place in the succession of such as Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, and Spencer F. Baird. He was the central figure in a dynamic era connecting the pioneer period of exploration with the present time of experimentation and interpretation. To review his life is to recapitulate the events of this era and to indicate their far reaching effects not only in America but throughout the world.

He was born December 5, 1855 in New York City where his parents were spending the winter. The family home and where he would spend his boyhood days was in Locust Groves NY, in the shadows of the Adirondack Mts. From his early teens he was engrossed with the secrets held in the surrounding woods and fields. He was named Hart after his mother. He had an older brother Charles and a younger sister Florence. Florence would become a prominent Ornithologist in her own right and would later marry Vernon Bailey.

When he was only 16 he traveled to Yellowstone as part of the Hayden Survey. In 1877 he published an account on “The Birds of Connecticut”. In this work he makes the significant statement that “distribution is unquestionably governed by the temperature during the breeding season”. In 1878 he assisted in organizing the Linnaean Society of New York and was elected its first president. He received his M.D. from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia in 1879.

On September 26, 1883 the American Ornithologist Union was formed. Although Merriam was one of the younger members he was named Secretary and would become chief of the committee on Distribution and Migration of Birds, a subject on which preliminary work had been started by Prof. W. W. Cooke. As Secretary it became his duty to draft a memo to congress asking for the appropriation of funds for the development of the Division of Economic Ornithology. The division’s main task was to collect bird migration data. Most of the work done in the early days of the Division of Economic Ornithology and later the Biological Survey contributed directly to the bird migration records that now form the basis of the North American Bird Phenology Program. Merriam would lead the Division for nearly 25 years.

Merriam accomplished much in his life, he published over 500 papers and discovered and described approximately 660 new species of mammals. In his final years he devoted himself almost entirely to studying the vanishing tribes of California Indians. Clinton Hart Merriam died in California on March 19, 1942 at the age of 87.

If you would like to read more about Clinton Hart Merriam please visit: www.nap.edu/html/biomems/cmerriam.pdf

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