Conrad, Timothy Abbott

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Conrad, Timothy Abbott

(b. near Trenton, New Jersey, 21 June 1803; d. Trenton, New Jersey, 8 August 1877),

paleontology, malacology.

Conrad was one of the first American paleontologists to correlate regional Tertiary strata on the basis of their contained fauna, to compare American fossils with foreign fossils, and to attempt intercontinental correlation. He was the son of Elizabeth Abbott and of Solomon White Conrad, a printer, a minister of the Society of Friends, and professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania. The family often entertained such eminent naturalists as Say, Nuttall, and Rafinesque. In this environment young Conrad became so interested in science that he was removed from the rolls of the Society of Friends for taking nature walks on the Sabbath. He attended a Quaker school in West Town, Pennsylvania; and although he never went to college, he taught himself Latin, Greek, French, and natural history. He had a talent for drawing and learned lithography in his father’s printing shop. These skills served him well in later years, when he prepared many of his own illustrations.

In Conrad’s day a naturalist who discovered a new species rarely did more than publish a description of the fossil and place it in his personal cabinet for display. Conrad, however, went on to try to determine its geologic significance. He did this with Tertiary fossils that he collected in the southern and Atlantic states and also with those collected by explorers in the Far West. The resulting papers, together with some on modern marine and freshwater mollusks, the Silurian and Devonian fossils of New York state, the correlation of American and European Cretaceous rocks, and numerous papers on particular genera of mollusks, led to his recognition as an outstanding authority on both paleontology and malacology. He also wrote papers on the general geology of the eastern United States and published the first geologic map of Alabama.

Between 1830 and 1837 Conrad published twentytwo scientific papers, preparing most of the illustrations himself and defraying the cost of publication by subscriptions for collections of specimens and by the sale of his publications. During this time he was often almost destitute. He printed only limited editions of his early papers; and after running off a given number of plates for the first edition, he would grind off the stones used in making its illustrations. If a second edition was needed, the plates were not identical with those in the first edition.

Conrad relied on the hospitality of friends when he was doing fieldwork and financed his expeditions by borrowing from his scientific colleagues, repaying them with collections of specimens. In Alabama he traveled by coach when he had the fare, solicited rides or went afoot when he did not, and made the best of such lodgings as he could find.

In 1837, at the age of thirty-four, Conrad became paleontologist of the New York State Geological Survey and for the first time received a salary. As a result of wise investments in railroad stock he ultimately became financially independent.

Conrad was one of a small group of scientists who in 1840 organized the Association of American Geologists, the predecessor of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was an honorary member of many scientific societies at home and abroad; and although he seemed to make light of these honors, he describes himself in one of his papers as “Paleontologist, State of New York; Member Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; of the Imperial Society of Natural History of Moscow, etc. etc.”

His descriptions of fossils are commonly too brief, and some of his illustrations of small shells are unclear because he made it a practice to draw each specimen at its natural size. Conrad wrote letters and labels on odd scraps of paper in an illegible hand and was often careless in giving references and describing localities. He rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution, holding instead to the viewpoint of special creation, although he accepted Lyell’s uniformitarianism.

Conrad was absent-minded, moody, and often melancholy to the verge of suicide. Although he longed for a home of his own, he never married; and in his later years he was so depressed by failing memory that he sought seclusion. He sometimes wrote poetry, and his letters contained vivid descriptions of the countryside that he so dearly loved. For instance, of South Carolina he wrote:

The pine forest is here and there varied in the low, moist, richer portions of soil, by a growth of oak, hickory, and a variety of less conspicuous trees, nearly every one of which wears a beard of Spanish moss which a Turk might envy, and on almost every limb, stripped of its panoply of leaves, the mistletoe, as if in pity, hangs its emerald and perennial mantle.


I. Original Works. Among Conrad’s most important works are Fossil Shells of the Tertiary Formations of North America (Philadelphia, 1832–1835), repub. by Harris (1893); Eocene Fossils of Claiborne, With Observations on This Formation in the United States, and a Geological Map of Alabama (Philadelphia, 1835), repub. by Harris (1893); and Fossils of the Medial Tertiary of the United States (Philadelphia, 1838–1861), repub. by Dall (1893). Numerous papers were published, primarily in Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 6–8 ; 2nd ser., 1, 2, 4 (1830–1860); American Journal of Science, 23, 39, 41 ; 2nd ser., 1, 2, 41 (1833–1866); Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1–3, 6–9, 12, 14, 16, 17, 24, 26–28 (1842–1875); and American Journal of Conchology, 1–6 (1865–1871). Bibliographies of Conrad’s writings are in Moore and Wheeler (below).

II. Secondary Literature. Works that deal with Conrad’s career are C. C. Abbott, “Timothy Abbott Conrad,” in Popular Science Monthly, 47 (1895), 257–263; W. H. Dall, Republication of Conrad’s Fossils of the Medial Tertiary of the United States With an Introduction (Philadelphia, 1893); G. D. Harris, Republication of Conrad’s Fossil Shells of the Tertiary Formations of North America (Washington, D.C., 1893), which includes Eocene Fossils of Claiborne; J. B. Marcou, ‘The Writings of Timothy Conrad,’ in “Bibliography of Publications Relating to the Collection of Fossil Invertebrates in the United States National Museum,” in Bulletin of the U.S. National Museum, no. 30 (1885), 205–222; G. P. Merrill, “Contributions to the History of American Geology,” in Annual Report of the U.S. NationalMuseum for 1904 (1906), 189–733, see 306, 320, 354, 355, 357, 368, 396, 397, 693; E. J. Moore, “Conrad’s Cenozoic Fossil Marine Mollusk Type Specimens at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 114 (1962), 23–120; and H. E. Wheeler, “Timothy Abbott Conrad (1803–1877), With Particular Reference to His Work in Alabama One Hundred Years Ago,” in Bulletin of American Paleontology, 23 , no. 77 (1935), i–x, 1–159.

Ellen J. Moore