Professors Squabble Over Seeds From China's Living Fossil Trees

There is a big fight in the tree-world. Two professors are waging a bitter war over a fast-growing tree, believed extinct for many millions of years.

In 1941 a Chinese University employee stumbled across a giant coniferous tree--the Metasequoia--in remote central China. Ever since scientific journalists have squabbled as to whether Elmer D. Merrill, Arnold Professor of Botany, emeritus, or Ralph W. Chaney, professor of Paleontology at the University of California, is responsible for sending expeditions to bring back and distribute seeds from this "living fossil."

"Credit is credit in any man's language . . . ," Merrill grumbled yesterday. "Chaney had nothing to do with it; the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University deserved all the credit."

Claims have been made that Chaney, and not Merrill, imported the seeds. No denials of such claims, appearing in the press, seem to have been made. According to Merrill, even some foresters and botanists do not know the facts.

The history of this controversial introduction seems simple--on the surface. In 1941 a certain T. Kan found, 140 miles northeast of Chungking, a strange tree preserved beneath a temple to the God of the Land. Because it was winter, however, Kan was unable to collect suitable botanical material.


Technically this discovery was still a rumor until 1944 when a forester brought back to Professors H. H. Hu and W. C. Cheng specimens of leaves and cones from three trees that local inhabitants called, "shui-sa" (water fir). Since the material was fragmentary, Hu and Cheng were unable to classify the tree, and so Cheng sent an expedition in 1946. Harvard-trained Hu received part of the material from this trip and forwarded speciments to the Arboretum.

On July 23, 1947 Merrill instigated an expedition to the Chinese interior; the Arboretum financed it with a grant of $250, equivalent to $9,750,000 in Chinese dollars under the Nationalist Government. "I think it was one of the best investments we ever made," Merrill said recently.

Smith of '95

The grant was from a special gift to the Arboretum by Harrison W. Smith '95. Chaney later contributed $25.

The first seeds reached Boston on January 5, 1948 by air mail; some were planted at the Arboretum and others distributed elsewhere. Several weeks later, the bulk shipment containing hundreds of thousands of seeds arrived. The Arboretum distributed some 600 seed packets to botanists all over the globe and sent large bulk parcels to American and foreign institutions--including Chaney at the University of California--for redistribution.

Chaney then fiew to China in March 1948 to study the environment of the Metasequoia. Previous to this, however, the announcement of the discovery appeared in "Science" on February 6. "The manuscript of this had been seen and approved by Chaney before he hopped off to China," Merrill said.

"Yet all over the West. Merrill continued, "Chaney is being credited with having introduced the seeds. During the season he was in China all cones had long since fallen and no Metasequoia seeds were available. He spent three days there, took some publicity photographs, and started back. He did bring back two or three small living plants on his return late in March, but even before Chaney left California seedlings of the Metasequoia were actually growing there."

Merrill does concede that Chaney makes no claims to having introduced the seeds in purely scientific and botanical circles; only the press accords Chaney credit.

Planting Time

In a paper published by the American Philosophical Society in February 1951, Chaney writes, "Seeds which he (Merrill) received in January 1948 were generously shared with me and others, and were widely planted across North America and in Europe during the ensuing weeks For the first time in nearly a socre of million years, Metasequoia lived again in the Western hemisphere as a result of Merrill's distribution of those seeds."

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