C. Hart Merriam (1855-1942)


    Clinton Hart Merriam was born in New York City on December 5, 1855.  Through his father, a businessman and elected member of the U.S. Congress, Merriam met Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian Institution in 1871. This led to Merriam's work as a naturalist during the summer of 1872 in Yellowstone as part of the Hayden Geological Survey.  He studied biology and anatomy at Yale, and obtained an M.D. through Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1879. He retained an interest in natural history and published studies of animals while he practiced medicine.

    In 1883, Merriam dedicated himself full-time to scientific work. He was a charter member of the American Ornithologists' Union and acted as chair of the Committee on the Migration of Birds. He was employed by the Bureau of Biological Survey, a predecessor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and served as its chief from 1905 to 1910.  The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a time fraught with change, both in the scientific world and society as a whole.

    During this time, Merriam developed his celebrated "life zone" theory, which posited that "temperature extremes were the principal desiderata in determining the geographic distribution of organisms." Merriam also championed taxonomic "splitting,” which elicited criticism among his peers, most notably the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. An alliance with Edward Harriman on scientific work in Alaska led, in 1910, to Harriman's (now) widow setting up a trust fund to underwrite Merriam's research activities, freeing him to resign from his agency post.

    Throughout his career, Merriam had taken an interest in American Native culture. While still chief of the Biological Survey, he had published numerous works on California's Native Americans. His early connection with Teddy Roosevelt, as they debated scientific classification, led Merriam to attempt to influence the president on Indian affairs.

    Merriam's work sparked a great deal of debate and interest within the scientific community of his time, and his work on life zones influences biologists and ecologists even today. His surveys and research studies on the food habits of various animal and bird species remain lasting contributions to the wildlife management field.