Dall, William Healey

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Dall, William Healey

(b. Boston, Massachusetts, 21 August 1845; d. Washington, D.C., 27 March 1927)

malacology, paleontology.

Dall, a man to whom natural history became a way of life, was the son of Harvard–educated Charles Henry Appleton Dall, a missionary minister, and Caroline Wells Healey, an active writer and lecturer for women’s rights whom all, including her son, held in awe. The senior Dall served a Variety of missions before becoming the first Unitarian missionary in India; form 1855 he saw his family only at long intervals. In 1862 he took his son, then a student at the English High School in Boston, to meet various Harvard professors, including Louis Agassiz. The young Dall had long been collecting natural history specimens and had begun collecting shells avidly when, at the age of twelve, he found a copy of Augustus A. Gould’s beautifully illustrated Report on the Invertebrata of Massachusetts. Agassiz directed Dall in studying mollusks and other subjects; Gould helped him in identifications and entered him as a student member of the Boston Society of Natural History.

Although his father urged him to enter the tea business in India, Dall, through the influence of his maternal grandfather, became a clerk for the Illinois Central Railroad in Chicago. Naturally attracted to the museum of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, he was soon acquainted with its director, Robert Kennicott. In 1865, after the first Atlantic cable had broken, he readily accepted Kennicott’s invitation to join, as naturalist, the Western Union International Telegraph Expedition to Alaska to find an overland telegraph route to Europe.

Thus was Dall launched on his lifework—the exploration primarily of Alaska but also of the Aleutian chain and the Pacific coast. Dall became the scientific director of the expedition in 1866 upon the sudden death of Kennicott. When the installation of the second Atlantic cable terminated the expedition, Dall continued his explorations at his own expense, traveling up the Yukon. River to Fort Yukon. From 1868 to 1870 he studied his collections at the Smithsonian Institution and published Alaska and Its Resources, and enlightening book on the new territory. An appointment, obtained through Spencer F. Baird’s assistance, as acting assistant with the Coast Survey in 1871 enabled Dall to continue his Alaska studies; he commanded four cruises along the Aleutian Islands and almost to Point Barrow from 1871 to 1880. just prior to the fourth trip he married Annette Whitney. From 1881 to 1884 he was assistant with the Coast and Geodetic Survey and then became paleontologist for the U.S Geological Survey, for which he concentrated on Genozoic mollusks. For the Survey he made six trips to the northwest coast from 1890 to 1910 and in 1899 was a guest on the Harriman Alaska Expedition. Throughout his career he used the facilities of the Smithsonian Institution and from 1881 carried the title of honorary curator there.

Dall more than compensated for his lack of a college education. He was awarded an honorary M.A by Wesleyan University (1888), D. Sc.by the University of Pennsylvania (1904), and LL.D. by George Washington University (1915). He was an honorary professor of invertable paleontology at Wagner Free Institute of Science and received its gold medal. Cataloging shells at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu led to an honorary curatorship there. A founder of the Philosophical Society of Washington and a charter member of the Biological Society of Washington, Dall was also an active member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In addition to many other honors, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Phi Beta Kappa, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the California Academy of Sciences.

Dall was an extraordinary well–organized scientist. An indefatigable student of natural history, he devoted countless hours to the arranging of his own immense collections and the other conchological material of the U.S National Meseum. This included the magnificent collection of H. Gwyn Jeffreys, the purchase of which was arranged by Dall. He named 5,427 genera, sub–genera, and species of mollusks and brachiopods, both recent and fossil. In this extensive revision of the classification of the pelecypods, presented largely in “Contributions to the Tertiary Fauna of Florida” (1890–1903), he depended primarily on shell features, particularly the hinge. His classification is still a standard reference, although he erred in assigning to the Oligocene some of the Miocene strata of the Caribbean region.

Dall’s work in Alaska—including the collection of vast number of specimens ranging from coastal to dredged deep–water forms, journal entries and letters, and the compilation of a large library, all at the U. S. National Museum—constitutes a primary source for the area. In addition to Alaska and Its Resources, his publications include studies of the birds, land and marine mammals, fishes, climatology, anthropology, currents, and geology of Alaska and the Aleutians. West coast malacologists are indebted to his Summary of the Marine Shellbearing Mollusks of the Northwest Coast of America from San Diego, California, to the Polar Sea (1921).


I. Original Works. Dall’s bibliography, compiled by Paul Bartsch, Herald Rehder, and Beulah E. Shields—“A Bibliography and Short Biographical Sketch of William Healey Dall,” in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 104, no. 15 (1946), 1–96—includes 1,607 entries, many of them reviews and other short items. A remarkably large number, however, are significant scientific publications, with a range of subjects from mollusks and brachiopods to all aspects of natural history. Already referred to is Alaska and Its Resources (Boston, 1870). Another valuable Alaska publication was Pacific Coast Pilot, Coasts and Islands of Alaska (Washington, D.C., 1883), resulting from his Coast Survey work. Dall’s major malacological work was “Contributions to the Tertiary Fauna of Florida,” Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia, 3, pts. 1–6 (1890–1903). In addition, he contributed the sections on Brachiopoda to the reports of the Coast Survey steamer Blake in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean SeaBulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College, 12 (1886) and 18 (1889)—and the section on Mollusca and Brachiopoda to the reports of the Albatross in Central America and the Gulf of California—ibid., 43, no.6 (1908). His summary of northwest coast mollusks was Bulletin. United States National Museum, 112 (1921). Descriptions of mollusks from many parts of the world appeared in a variety of publications; land snails were summarized in “Insular Landshell Faunas, Especially as Illustrated by the Data Obtained by Dr. G. Baur in the Galapagos Islands,” in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1896), pp. 395–460. A taxonomic catalogue of the animals introduced by Dall is Kenneth J. Boss, Joseph Rosewater, and Florence A. Ruhoff, The Zoological Taxa of William Healey Dall, U.S. National Museum Bulletin 287 (Washington, D. C. 1968).

Dall also wrote a number of short biographical memorials and a full–length appreciative one; Spencer Fullerton Baird: A Biography (Philadelphia, 1915).

II. Secondary Literature. The wealth of memorabilia of Dall at the U.S. National Museum includes personal journal from 1865 to 1927, bound volumes of letters, logbooks of his collections, and autobiographical sketches. W. P. Woodring drew on this material for his memoir on Dall in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of sciences, 31 (1958),92–113, which contains a selected bibliography. The bibliography by Bartsch et al. (cited above) includes a brief biography. An appreciation by C. H. Merriam appeared in Science, 65, no. 1684 (1927), 345–347.

Elizabeth Noble Shor

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Dall, William Healey