Edmund Heller was born in Freeport, Illinois on May 21, 1875. When he was thirteen, he moved with his parents to Riverside, California, which he thereafter considered his home. As a boy, he spent much time collecting birds and their eggs in the area near Riverside. He was joined in this collecting by Harvey M. Hall, later a noted botanist.
Heller entered Stanford University in 1896 and received his A.B. in 1901. An opportunity arose for Heller to collect on the Galapagos Islands during the Hopkins-Stanford Expedition in 1898, and together with Robert E. Snodgrass, Heller spent 7 months on the islands. In 1900, the United States Biological Survey employed Heller as assistant to Wilfred Hudson Osgood in his Alaskan investigations.
Following his graduation, Heller joined the Field Columbian Museum as western field collector and worked in California, Oregon, Lower California, Mexico and Guatemala. In 1907, Heller accompanied Carl Ethan Akeley on the Field Museum's African expedition.
Upon his return, Heller was appointed curator of mammals at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) of the University of California. While with the MVZ, Heller participated in the 1908 Alexander Alaskan expedition and made the report on the mammals collected.
Heller spent the years 1909-1912 with the Smithsonian-Roosevelt and the Rainey African Expeditions. A more detailed account of these expeditions can be found in the introduction to Series 3 and 4.
In 1914, the United States Biological Survey conducted field investigations in Canada to secure information concerning the habits and distribution of large game mammals. Heller accompanied the Lincoln Ellsworth expedition to the Dease River-Telegraph Creek area of British Columbia and later to Alberta.
The National Geographic Society and Yale University jointly sponsored an expedition to Peru in 1915 to explore newly discovered ruins of an Incan civilization at Machu Picchu, northwest of Cuzco. Specialists in various fields were chosen to accompany the party. Heller, as expedition naturalist, supervised the collecting of 891 mammal specimens, 695 birds, about 200 fishes and several tanks of reptiles and amphibians.
In 1916, Heller joined Roy Chapman Andrews and Yvette Borup Andrews on the American Museum of Natural History Expedition to China. A more detailed summary of this expedition can be found in the introduction to Series 7.
When Paul J. Rainey, with whom Heller had traveled to Africa, was appointed official photographer for the Czech army in Siberia, he invited Heller to accompany him to Russia. From the summer of 1918 until the end of World War I, they traveled by rail across Siberia to the Ural Mountains and back to their starting point.
In 1919, Heller took charge of the Smithsonian Cape-to-Cairo Expedition. Upon his return, he worked briefly for the Roosevelt Wild Life Experiment Station making a field study of large game animals in Yellowstone National Park. He was then appointed assistant curator of mammals at the Field Museum under Wilfred Hudson Osgood. During his six years in that position, Heller made trips to Peru in 1922-1923 and to Africa from 1923-1926.
Heller's trip to Africa was his last collecting effort. After his return, he resigned his position at the Field Museum and became director of the Milwaukee Zoological Garden, a position that he held from 1928 to 1935. From 1935 until his death in 1939, Heller was director of the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco.