Just the facts, ma’am: Resources on Harriet Bell Merrill

We don’t know much about limnologist and Amazon traveler Harriet Bell Merrill, but what we do know is very much at risk of an impending Error 404 error.

Amazonian yerbe mate cups Merrill donated to the Milwaukee Public Museum

Merrill was one of the first limnologists in the country, and possibly the first female limnologist to be hired by an American university (the University of Wisconsin). She was an expert in tiny, algae-eating lake crustaceans known as Cladocera, and she went above and beyond the call of duty by traveling twice to South America to conduct fieldwork (1902-1903 and 1907-1909). Unfortunately, she died as her career was peaking, and for the next 75 years, she was almost entirely forgotten by her field. But in the 1990s, her grandniece brought her out of total obscurity by publishing a biography, and the University of Illinois stepped up to preserve her papers.

Why do we care? Well, Merrill kept remarkably detailed journals and wrote A LOT of letters to her friends, not only about her scientific work, but also vivid descriptions of Brazil and about the cultures she encountered during her fieldwork. She brought back South American items for Wisconsin museums, and some of her travel stories were published in a local newspaper. Her solo journeys were all the more unique because she was in ill-health for the better part of her adult life.

So here’s what we’ve got: There are two newsletter articles that provide a solid foundation of factoids about her life. The first is from UW-Madison’s limnology department, and the second is from the Wisconsin Academy Review. The latter is written by Merrill’s grandniece and biographer, Merrilyn Hartridge, who contributed significantly to the limnology piece, too.

Limnology News, 1990
Wisconsin Academy Review, 1995

I’ve uploaded PDFs here because there’s no permanent link to the WAR piece (you have to search through a special, pain-in-the-ass database) and because I don’t think anyone at Wisconsin will really mind.

Harriet Bell Merrill (center)

*There are two significant date discrepancies: Merrill’s date of death and the year she was hired by the University of Wisconsin.

Okay, so here’s what we know about Ol’ Hattibel:

  • Born 1863, Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
  • Stood five feet tall and weighed 100 pounds.
  • Enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1888, graduated summa cum laude in 1890.
  • Graduate work at Cornell University, University of Wisconsin, Woods Hole, University of Chicago.
  • Received master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1893.
  • Honorary Fellow at the University of Chicago until 1896.
  • Director of the Physiology and Biology Departments at Milwaukee’s East Side High School from 1890 to 1894 and South Side High School from 1894 to 1899.
  • Organized the science curriculum and taught general chemistry, organic chemsitry, general biology, zoology, vertebrate and invertebrate anatomy, physiology, and psychology at Milwaukee Downer College from 1897 to 1899.
  • Vice president of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences (no date).
  • On the board of the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
  • Member of the Laurea Honor Society and Kappa Alpha Theta.
  • Went to South America in 1902-1903 (sailed aboard the SS Byron) and again in 1907-1909 (that time, she visited Brazil, Venezuela, Trinidad, British Guiana, Curacao). Took her trademark men’s boots and a book of poems by Rudyard Kipling.
  • The Milwaukee Sentinel published some of her letters about her travels in 1902 and 1903.
  • She collected “ethnographic artifacts” for the Milwaukee Public Museum (yerba mate cups and bombilla, among other items).
  • Gave public lectures at Cornell University, University of Chicago, and University of Wisconsin.
  • Wrote a pamphlet called “Ferns of the Dells of Wisconsin-Kilbourn City” that featured her writing and photos.
  • Collected around 700 samples and identified more than 82 South American taxa, some of which were new to science.
  • Hired as an assistant professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin to analyze the results of her South American expeditions. (Limnology says she was hired in 1910, but Hatridge says 1900.)
  • Began PhD work in 1914 with Charles Zeleny at the University of Illinois.
  • Hartridge says Merrill died of “myocarditis” on April 10, 1914, at the age of 52. However, the University of Illinois says she died in 1915, and the Wisconsin limnology department is more specific with April 10, 1915.
  • Diaptomus Merrilli is named for her.

Now that we have all these facts and figures out of the way, I plan to come back to Merrill again for something more fun, mainly because I want to write the headline: “These men’s boots are made for walkin.'”

I start Thursday for Asuncion and the Iguazu Falls. I have been told that no more than a half dozen white women have ever seen them. I can’t send my photographs from here but am getting a considerable amount of zoological material. We started out on horseback through dense foliage about 20 miles from the falls, whose roar from the cataracts echoed through the forest. Moisture spilled from every leaf end under an eerie green canopy and there was such a tangle of growth as to cause all forms of life to develop into eccentric forms in the struggle for survival. We continued on foot through barbed barricades of epiphytes and parasites. Underfoot, the Selaginella was equally precarious and I sunk in up to my boot-tops every step of the way. Some tree trunks with 6 in. thorns sticking out in bunches grabbed my clothing and by the time we got to a clearing, I felt I had awakened from a nightmare. At last we reached our destination. From Harriet Bell Merrill’s 1902 notebook

Reading List


2 thoughts on “Just the facts, ma’am: Resources on Harriet Bell Merrill

  1. Merrill was also a lecturer at the Milwaukee Public Museum, what we would now call a museum educator. Her years there is the subject of an extensive article that I am currently writing. It’s unfortunate that the only biography written about Merrill was by her niece Hartridge who never met her. Hartridge’s book focuses mainly on Merrill’s time in South America and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but little about her time at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and her conclusions on Merrill seem to come purely from her over active imagination and not on primary documents. For all those who read the Hartridge book, please keep in mind Hartridge worked in television and thus she wrote a very sentimental and sappy biography about this important but little known scientist. She also unfortunately re-wrote all of Merrill’s letters to such an extent that they are not Hattie Bell Merrill’s words but Hartridge’s who must have been very silly, superficial woman. Hartridge also seems to have had a very misinformed concept of educated women of the nineteenth and early twentieth century as evidenced by her unflattering title, “The Anandrous Journey” implying that despite all of the scientific work this woman did and her extensive teaching career, the fact that she was never married seemed, in Hartridge’s mind, significant enough to give the biography a title that raises questions about Merrill’s sexuality. Thanks for you informative site and allowing me to add information, Valerie


  2. If there are other resources that might help me dig deeper into Harriet Merrill’s contributions to limnology in S America I would appreciate any leads. I’m currently helping a researcher here in Brazil to better define the birth of limnology in Brazil and was working under the impression that there were no predecessors to Stillman Wright. Obviously Harriet was here before Stillman but details are lacking of her direct contributions just as the Stillman contributions are difficult to assess. mberigan@berigan.com


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