In 1905, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Seed and Plant Introduction recruited Frank Meyer, a native of Holland who had immigrated to America in 1901, to gather economically useful plants in China. Through an arrangement between Charles Sprague Sargent, the Director of the Arboretum and David Fairchild, Chairman of the USDA Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, Meyer was to send to the Arboretum trees and shrubs of ornamental value along with images of his travels.
(1905–08, 1909–12, 1912–15, 1916–18)
Frank Meyer, born Frans Meijer in Amsterdam, began his horticultural career at age 14 working as a gardener’s helper at the Amsterdam Botanical Garden. An able assistant, he worked his way up to the position of head gardener in charge of the experimental garden. Meyer’s aptitude caught the attention of the director of the experimental garden, Hugo de Vries (1848-1935) a professor of botany at the University of Amsterdam, who became Meyer’s mentor and under whom he continued to work at the Botanic Gardens. With de Vries’ encouragement and assistance, Meyer became proficient in French and English and also studied botany at the University of Groningen.
At age 22, Meyer set out for America by way of England and arrived in the United States in late 1901. A letter of introduction from de Vries helped him obtain a position with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). After a year with the USDA, Meyer went to Mexico to study and collect plants. Upon Meyer’s return in 1904, David Fairchild (1869-1954), Chairman of the Foreign Plant Introduction Section of the USDA, hired Meyer to make a collecting trip to China for the department.
When Frank Meyer sailed for China in 1905 as an agricultural plant explorer for the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, he began a 13-year odyssey that that included four major expeditions that resulted in the introduction of more than 2,000 species and varieties of a wide range of economic plants. Through an arrangement worked out between Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927), Director of the Arnold Arboretum, and David Fairchild, Meyer sent to the Arboretum trees and shrubs of ornamental value along with his photographs of plants and landscapes.
Meyer’s first expedition, which lasted two and half years, took him to the Ming Tombs Valley, Mongolia, Manchuria, and Korea and Siberia, where he collected seeds and scions of fruit trees and other edible plants for the USDA, and ornamental woody plants for the Arboretum. During the expedition, in Shanghai in February 1907, Meyer met the Arboretum’s plant explorer Ernest Henry Wilson. Meyer returned to the United States in 1908 and spent the next year visiting his plant introductions at agricultural experiment stations. In the fall of 1909 he returned to the Far East by way of Europe where he visited Kew and other botanical gardens on the continent. Meyer traveled to the Crimea where he made several significant discoveries, and then continued on to Azerbaidzhan, Armenia, Turkmenestan and Chinese Turkestan collecting numerous specimens for the U.S.D.A. and the Arnold Arboretum. The beginning of 1911 found Meyer and his party exploring and collecting along the border of Mongolia and Siberia. Political unrest forced him westwards instead of continuing on into China. He journeyed up the Volga and then on to St. Petersburg and western Europe. He returned to the United States in April 1912 on the Mauretania, one day behind the ill-fated Titanic.
After a brief sojourn in America, Meyer returned to Asia with a request from the U.S. Office of Forest Pathology to ascertain whether the chestnut blight disease was of Asian origin. Meyer reported in early June that he had found evidence of chestnut blight in China, but the disease had not decimated the Asian chestnuts species. In December 1913, he and his party left Beijing for Shanxi and Henan Provinces, all the while collecting numerous specimens, scions and seeds. He had intended to explore Kansu but the loss of his interpreter and the presence of bandits curtailed his activities. The expedition returned to Beijing but soon set off for Kansu and the Tibetan borderlands. In November 1914 he went north to Lanzhou and finally began the return trip to Beijing at the beginning of 1915. After packing his specimens and collecting additional materials at Fairchild’s request the party traveled south to Hangzhou by way of Nanjing and on to Shanghai and Japan, where he also found evidence of chestnut blight, and finally to America.
Meyer’s fourth and last expedition was to Ichang and Jingmen and began in mid-1916. He was forced to spend the winter of 1917 in Ichang because of civil unrest. In May 1918 he collected his belongings and traveled down the Yangtze on a boat bound for Hangou. On June 1, 1918 Meyer boarded a steamer for Shanghai. That evening Frank Meyer 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.
Frank Meyer’s photographs document his four expeditions to eastern China and Manchuria. He especially loved to explore isolated areas and capture what he saw. Trees needlessly cut down or stripped of bark upset Meyer and his images illuminate the passion that he held for nature. Meyer’s captions reflect his empathy with the subject matter and reflect the enthusiasm he held about the potential for improvements in economic botany in the West based on his exploration of the East. His primarily interest in economic plants allowed him to attend to the routine aspects of daily life and included among his 1,320 images are: farmers and others going about their work, manufacturing techniques and scenes of market places. Even his images of plants often include local people or architectural backgrounds.
In 1920, his former associates at the USDA had a medal struck as a tribute to Meyer with funds he had left to them as a bequest. In recognition of Meyer’s contributions, dedication, and service to humanity, The Frank N. Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources is presented each year for distinctive service to the National Plant Germplasm System.
The Frank N. Meyer (1875-1918) papers, 1906-1914 finding aid is available on our website.