By Bernard Verdcourt
Edgar Alexander Mearns, a great field naturalist who also described over 150 new birds was born at Highland Falls, New York State on 11 September 1856, the son of a Scot, Alexander Mearns and Nancy Mearns (née Carswell). His preliminary education was at the local Donald Highland Institute. His interest in natural history developed early and as early as 1875 he was in correspondence with several European collectors from whom he obtained many specimens. He began a survey of mammals and birds of the Hudson Highlands. Studying medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (later to become Colombia University) he obtained his doctorate in medicine in 1881. He applied to join the army and after passing the Army Medical Examining Board examination had a good deal of time in hand before he received his commission when he entered as a First Lieutenant Assistant Surgeon on 3 December 1883; by the time of his death he held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Medical Corps. He went to New York in October and worked in the American Museum of Natural History. He had already earlier in the year presented them with a series of skins and eggs of North American and European birds. In the short time available to him he named, labelled and catalogued the quite considerable European bird collection at the Museum. His entry into the army curtailed his ambitious project on the Hudson Highlands; what was to be a complete survey of the Vertebrates was a restricted report on the birds alone, based on material he had found himself about his home, published in 1878.
During his army career he travelled a great deal often to places of his own choosing and wherever he went he made time to engage in field survey work. At his first posting, Fort Verde in a desolate and arid part of Arizona, he displayed another interest. He excavated the ruins of an ancient American civilisation in the vicinity and rescued thousands of relics from oblivion and wrote an article on ‘Ancient dwellings of the Rio Verde Valley’ published in Popular Science Monthly for October 1890. Minnesota followed, then a period acting as a surgeon to the Mexican United States International Boundary Commission at El Paso (1892–4) during which he recorded mammals which resulted in a publication Mammals of the Mexican border of the United States. Virginia and Texas were next until the outbreak of the Spanish American War in 1898. This resulted from disturbances in Cuba and the blowing up of the battleship Maine in Havana harbour. The Americans occupied Cuba and the Philippine Islands; under the peace treaty in 1899 Puerto Rico and the Philippines came under American control and Cuba became independent. Mearns served as a Brigade Major in Cuba and later organised the hospital camp at Chattanooga. His time at Fort Yellowstone was rewarding and resulted in valuable collections. Then followed two tours of duty in the Philippines, 1903–4 and 1905–7. He never wasted a moment of his time and it comes as no surprise to learn that on his way to the Philippines on his second tour he had a few hours on Guam on 20 July 1905 and managed to collect 23 species of birds among other things. Whilst in the Philippines he managed to get attached to any punitive expedition which was being launched against the Moro tribes. A story is told that on one of these he shot a rare parrot which fell into a Moro compound; Mearns climbed over the stockade and retrieved it under what was understatedly described as ‘difficulties’! He was at this time in a poor state of health.
He was later stationed at Fort Totten NY in 1902 and in 1909 invited to join the Smithsonian African Expedition of that year led by Col. Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) who had become the 26th President of the United States from 1901–1909. For this expedition Mearns was retired from active service on 1 January 1909 ‘assigned to active duty by his consent’ and ordered to ‘report in person to the President of the United States for duty.’ After travelling over much of Kenya including Mt Kenya the expedition went to the Lado Endave and down the White Nile to the coast. Mearns collected land snails during this expedition which of course was chiefly after big game and birds for the American museums. His activity during this expedition won for him from the local natives the title ‘the man who never sleeps’ (something like mtu asiyelala I imagine!) and Roosevelt stated he was by far the best shot of the party (bird collectors usually are). William Healey Dall (1845–1927) wrote a short account of what he considered were new land snail species (DalI, 1910) and stated ‘[the species] were chiefly of the characteristic East African types, Limicolaria and the like which take a good deal of careful study to work out’. A proposed general report on the collection seems never to have appeared and the collection may still be unnamed. Later Mearns joined the Frick expedition in 1911 which started from Djibouti thence to Dire Dawa, Addis Abeba, Lake Abaya, Galla country, Lake Stephanie, S. Lake Rudolf and Nairobi; he collected 5,000 birds on this expedition and an extensive series of small mammals.
As if birds and mammals were not enough Mearns made huge collections of plants and his name is well known to anyone working on African plants, the epithet mearnsii being not infrequent. He collected plants wherever he went and at the time of his death, Miller of the United States National Museum writing in the Dictionary of American Biography (12: 483) stated his contributions to the National Herbarium were greater than of any other man. Add this to the 7,000 mammals, 20,000 birds, 5,000 reptiles, 5,000 fishes and heaven knows how many invertebrates it is obvious his contributions to the Museum were enormous. He had been elected a patron of the Museum in 1890.
He wrote about 125 scientific and popular papers and books, the first being published in 1878 concerning the capture of several rare birds near West Point NY. One obituary writer emphasises that his great field activity actually prevented him from publishing more scientific work and that his greatest contribution was providing future workers with adequate material on which to work. Most of his life he was of course not close to adequate collections and libraries needed for systematic work. At the time of his death he was in the middle of working up his large African collections and vast masses of notes from the Philippines were still unpublished.
He married Ellen Wittich and they had a son and a daughter; the son, a gifted astronomer, died of diphtheria in 1912 at the age of 26.
He died in Washington DC on 1 November 1916 from diabetes in his 61st year. Sir F. Banting’s cure for the disease with insulin was some six years in the future. He was not buried at Arlington National Cemetery but his wishes were respected. His ashes were kept in the National Museum for some time then buried at the base of a boulder on Plummer’s Island in the Potomac River with a tablet to his memory on a nearby tree.
His name is commemorated in Mearnsia Merr. (= Metrosideros Banks ex Gaertner) (Myrtaceae), Mearnsia a swift from Mindanao and Mearnsella a genus of fishes from the same island. He was a member of the Linnaean Society of New York, a founder member of the American Ornithologists’ Union (in October 1883) and of the National Geographic Society. Colleagues stressed his pleasant personality, that he was never heard to criticise others and was much liked by other fellow officers and his men.
Once again I am indebted to Carol Gokce of the British Museum (Nat. Hist.) Library for leading me to sources of information I would never have otherwise discovered.
List of molluscs described from material collected by Edgar Alexander Mearns in Kenya
Cerastua bambuseti (von Mts.).
Cerastua roosevelti (Dall).
Limicolaria martensiana catharia Dall.