Awarded by the curators and trustees of the Yale Peabody Museum, the medal was established in 1959 to honor Yale scientist Addison Emery Verrill (1839–1926), one of the 19th-century’s great zoologists known worldwide for his studies of starfish, squids, corals and other marine animals. Through his efforts the Peabody’s zoological collections became one of the most important in the United States. Verrill was also a skillful artist, who “had such powers of visualization that with a stubby bit of pencil he could make a satisfactory drawing of almost any species that he had ever seen.”
The front of the medal bears a likeness of Professor Verrill, while the obverse depicts a starfish representative of his pioneering work in invertebrate zoology. The medal was designed by Robert W. White and struck by the Medallic Art Company.
The Verrill Medal was the idea of S. Dillon Ripley, then director of the Peabody Museum and later Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, "to honor some signal practitioner in the arts of natural history and natural science." Past recipients include Alexander Petrunkevitch, Jean Theodore Delacour, Glenn L. Jepsen, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard S. MacNeish, Ernst Mayr, Norman D. Newell, George Gaylord Simpson, G. Ledyard Stebbins, Rudolph F. Zallinger and John H. Ostrom. In 2007 Peter H. Raven and Edward O. Wilson received the medal, and in 2008 Alison F. Richard was presented with the medal.