Meet the Explorers
Frank Nicholas Meyer (1875-1918)
Economic Botanist, Plant Geneticist, Photographer
Frank Nicholas Meyer (1875-1918) was born in Amsterdam, began his career at the Amsterdam Botanical Garden where he worked his way up to the position of head gardener in charge of the experimental garden. His aptitude caught the attention of Hugo de Vries (1848-1935), who became his mentor.
Meyer arrived in America in 1901, and obtained work with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). After a year with the USDA, he went to Mexico to collect plants. On his return in 1904, David Fairchild (1869-1954) of the Foreign Plant Introduction Section of the USDA hired Meyer to make a collecting trip to China. When Meyer sailed for China in 1905, he began a 13-year odyssey that led to the introduction of more than 2,000 species of plants. In an arrangement between Charles S. Sargent and Fairchild, Meyer sent the Arnold Arboretum trees and shrubs of ornamental value along with his photographs of plants and landscapes.
Meyer’s first expedition took him to northern China, Korea and Siberia. While in Shanghai in February 1907, Meyer met the Arboretum’s plant explorer Ernest H. Wilson.
During this initial expedition, Meyer concentrated on collecting seeds and scions of fruit trees and other edible plants such as the Chinese pistachio (Pistacia chinensis), wild peach trees (Prunus davidiana) and a dwarf lemon (Citrus x meyeri), as well as ornamentals such as a maple (Acer truncatum), a columnar juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Columnaris’) and the Amur lilac (Syringa amurensis).
In his second expedition, Meyer traveled to the Crimea, and then continued on to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Chinese Turkestan. Political unrest forced him westwards instead of continuing on into China. He journeyed up the Volga, on to St. Petersburg and Western Europe. He returned to the United States in 1912 on the Mauretania, one day behind the ill-fated Titanic.
Meyer returned to China in 1913 with a request from the U.S. Office of Forest Pathology to ascertain whether the chestnut blight disease was of Asian origin. He was able to prove that it had indeed developed in China, but the disease had not decimated the Asian chestnuts species.
In December, he and his party left Beijing for Shanxi and Henan Provinces, all the while collecting numerous specimens, scions and seeds. The expedition returned to Beijing but soon set off for Kansu and the Tibetan borderlands. Later he went north to Lanzhou. Meyer’s last expedition, which began in 1916, was to Ichang and Jingmen. He was forced to spend the winter of 1917 in Ichang because of civil unrest. On June 1, 1918 Meyer boarded a boat for Shanghai, but that evening he fell to his death from the steamer. His body was later found in the Yangtze River 30 miles from Wuhu. He was buried in Shanghai.
In 1920, his former associates at the USDA had a medal struck with funds he had bequeathed them. In recognition of his contributions and service, the Frank N. Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources is presented yearly for service to the National Plant Germplasm System, whose mission is to preserve the genetic diversity of plants.
Frank Meyer was a prolific photographer of the minutia of daily life. With his snapshot camera he captured laborers at their work, bamboo furniture, boatmen hauling lines, a giant cake made with jujubes and hundreds more. In contrast to Ernest Wilson’s grand photographs, Meyer’s are very much of the moment. He was meticulous in explaining not only what was depicted in the image and why it was the way it was.
His captions in this gallery of selected images reflect his empathy with the subject matter and the enthusiasm he held about the potential for improvements in economic botany in the West based on his exploration of the East.
We have been fortunate to digitize our collection of 1344 individual Meyer photographs and their descriptions.
Frank N. Meyer (1875-1918) papers, 1906-1914 [pdf].
Isabel Shipley Cunningham. “Frank Meyer: Agricultural Explorer.” Arnoldia 44:3, 1984 [pdf].