John Campbell Merriam

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John Campbell Merriam (October 20, 1869 – October 30, 1945) was an American paleontologist. The first vertebrate paleontologist on the West Coast of the United States, he is best known for his taxonomy of vertebrate fossils at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, particularly with the genus Smilodon, more commonly known as the sabertooth cat.


He was born in Hopkinton, Iowa the son of the postmaster and proprietor of a general store. It seems that he may not have had a close relationship with his brother Charles E. Merriam Jr. (five years younger), who went on to University of Chicago as a political scientist and found of the Social Science Research Council. Certainly, their intellectual trajectories were quite distinct: while Charles was a hardball political scientist, John Campbell was a paleontologist whose science verged into Christian mystical telology (see Stock) (check for more biographic details on brother C.E. Merriam).

As a young man, he began collecting Paleozoic invertebrate fossils near his Iowa home. He received a bachelor's degree from Lenox College in Iowa, then went to the University of California to study geology and botany under Joseph Le Conte. He later went to Munich, Germany to study under the famous paleontologist Karl von Zittel. In 1894 he returned to the U.S. and joined the faculty at the University of California, teaching and performing research in both vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology.

In 1901 one of his lectures on paleontology inspired the young Annie Montague Alexander, who financed and took part in his expedition that year to Fossil Lake in Oregon. Alexander, who went on to a lifelong career as a paleontological benefactress, financed his subsequent expeditions to Mount Shasta in 1902 and 1903, as well as his famous 1905 Saurian Expedition to the West Humboldt Range in Nevada. During this expedition Merriam unearthed 25 specimens of ichthyosaur, many of them considered the finest every found.

In 1903 he was recognized as an Associate Member of the Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell.[1]

In 1912 he was appointed chairman of the Department of Paleontology at the University of California. That same year he began his famous studies of vertebrates at the La Brea Tar Pits. He and his students categorized many of the vertebrate fossils found at the site. The smilodon was later established as the California state fossil.

In 1918 he co-founded the Save-the-Redwoods League, which began significant preservation efforts after Merriam traveled the Redwood areas of Humboldt County, California in 1922 seeking to spare its old-growth the effects of logging he witnessed in Redwood forests closer to San Francisco.

In 1920 he was appointed dean of faculties, but he left that same year to become president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C.. He departure caused the university to combine the Paleontology Department with the Geology Department, angering Merriam's benefactress, Annie Alexander, who subsequently founded and endowed the university's Museum of Paleontology. As the head of Carnegie Institution, Merriam's administrative duties led to a reduction in his research for the rest of his career. He accomplishments as president included helping advance the educational programs of the National Park Service, as well as helping to preserve the California redwoods.

Merriam was a founding member of the Galton Society and cautious political supporter of eugenics.


  1. ^ "Boone and Crockett Club Archives". 

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