Thomas Say

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(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 27 July 1787; d. New Harmony, Indiana, 10 October 1834)

entomology, conchology.

One of the generation of self-taught naturalists, Say was an indifferent scholar in the Quaker boarding school he attended until the age of fifteen. His father, Benjamin Say, and his grandfather, Thomas Say, had both been physician-apothecaries, public-spirited philanthropists, and founders of hospitals: they were also noted as “fighting Quakers” for the colonial cause. Say’s mother, Anna Bonsall Say. died when he was six years old. She was a granddaughter of John Bartram, and through this relationship Say became acquainted with the beetle and butterfly collections of William Bartram, for whom he collected specimens.

Say’s father tried to discourage his son’s early interest in natural history but inadvertently opened the door wider by putting him into partnership in the apothecary business with John Speakman. The partners’ lack of business acumen soon brought the shop to failure; but the meetings of a congenial group of friends, occasionally in the back of the shop, led to the founding (1812) of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, with Say among the charter members. His father having died. Say lived frugally in the Academy building, tended the small museum, and studied his own collections. Here his friendship developed with William Maclure, president of the Academy from 1817.

In 1818, with Maclure, George Ord, and T. R. Peale, Say went on an expedition to the Sea Islands of Georgia and Spanish Florida, where they were thwarted by hostile Indians. The next year Say became chief zoologist on Major Stephen H. Long’s exploration of the tributaries of the Missouri River, and in 1823 he was zoologist on Long’s trip to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Say declined the offer to be the expedition historian, but in addition to the many hitherto unknown animals he collected, he also gathered a great many plants. The explorers concluded that the treeless expanse between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers offered no possibilities for future settlement and would indefinitely remain the home of numberless bison and a few Indians.

Maclure persuaded Say to accompany him to New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825. This idealistic community, the dream of Scottish industrialist Robert Owen, had been established as an escape from the harshness of clamoring cities and as a proof that beauty, culture, and science could flourish where all worked willingly together. It failed. Say was among its victims, for, although hopeless at financial matters, he stayed as Maclure’s agent after the latter’s departure; and the malarial climate on the Wabash River contributed to Say’s early death.

Say effectively did scientific work at New Harmony, and there he continued the study of mollusks that he had begun in Philadelphia. In 1816 he had published the first paper on American shells by an American. At New Harmony he completed and printed American Conchology. He also produced the third volume of American Entomology, which had been well under way. These works were illustrated by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and by the talented Lucy Way Sistaire, whom Say had married at New Harmony. He also published descriptions of more than a thousand new species of insects.

New Harmony attracted the attention of scientists throughout the world, many of whom visited the community. Say’s reputation led to his becoming a foreign member of the Linnean Society of London and the Zoological Society of London, and a correspondent of the Société Philomathique of Paris.

Say’s studies of insects, on which he spent the greater time, had few predecessors in the United States. The first book on American insects appeared of individual insects or groups went back as far as Paul Dudley’s account of bees in 1723 and Moses Bartram’s work on the seventeen-year cicada in 1767. The emphasis was on economic insects, as evidenced by Thomas Jefferson’s participation on a committee to study the Hessian fly in 1792. Amateurs in the United States customarily sent specimens to Europe for identification, especially after the impetus given to the subject by Réaumur in the six-volume History of Insects (1734–1742). Say’s entry into entomology changed that, for his published descriptions were accurate and readily usable by others. Although entirely too trustful of others and excessively modest, he had a delightful personality, and he readily identified specimens for a growing list of American collectors. He was familiar with American and European literature on insects and was a natural taxonomist, showing excellent judgement in selecting the significant features of each species so that his descriptions did not leave taxonomic confusion. Say described many important economic insects, which bear his name. Although he urged others to study also the habits of insects, he did little of that himself.

Unfortunately, after his death, Say’s collection of insects was long neglected before it was finally established at the Academy of Natural Sciences and many of the type specimens were hopelessly damaged by dermestids.


I. Original Works. Say’s two major works were American Conchology, 6 vols. (New Harmony, 1830–1834), and American Entomology; or Descriptions of the Insects of North America, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, (1817–1828); both are classics in their fields. His first publication of shells (the first by an American) was “Conchology,” in Nicholson’s British Encyclopedia, American ed. (1816–1817). Say’s papers on insects were gathered into The Complete Writings of Thomas Say on the Entomology of North America. John L. LeConte, ed., 2 vols. (New York, 1859), with biography by George Ord. Some of Say’s descriptions of specimens and some of his narratives are included in the reports of Long’s two expeditions.

II. Secondary Literature. For accounts of Say’s prominence in early American science, see William J. Youmans, Pioneers of Science in America (New York, 1896). 215–222; and Bernard Jaffe. Men of Science in America (New York, 1944), 130–153. See also William H. Dall. “Some American Conchologists,” in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 4 (1888), 98–102; and E. O. Essig, A History of Entomology (New York, 1931), 750–756.

Elizabeth Noble Shor

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