(b. Roxbury, Massachusetts, 14 February 1832; d. Ilchester, Maryland, 26 May 1872),
Stimpson was the son of Herbert Hawthorne Stimpson and Mary Ann Devereau Brewer. The Stimpsons were an Episcopalian family which had settled in Massachusetts during the seventeenth century. The Brewers were an old Virginia family. During the middle of the nineteenth century the father was a prosperous stove merchant in Boston, having invented the “Stimpson range,” which became well-known throughout New England. Stimpson’s boyhood was spent near Harvard College in Cambridge, which was then a village with green fields and shaded groves. Here he developed such an interest in natural history that, at the age of fourteen, he presented himself to Augustus A. Gould, the author of the Invertebrata of Massachusetts (1841). Gould was so impressed with young Stimpson that he gave him a copy of his book and brought him to the attention of Louis Agassiz, William G. Binney, and other members of the Boston Society of Natural History. He soon began assisting Binney in the study of land snails.
Stimpson graduated from Cambridge High School in 1848, winning the school’s highest academic award. Stimpson’s father, a practical man with little education, could not envision the study of natural history as a profession. William therefore went to work for a firm of civil engineers, but his employer reported that he was too fond of collecting land snails to make a good surveyor. He then spent one year at the Cambridge Latin School. After a trip to the island of Grand Manan, New Brunswick, to dredge for marine invertebrates, he was reluctantly permitted to become a special student in Agassiz’s laboratory at Harvard College in October 1850. On 4 December 1850 he was appointed curator of mollusks at the Boston Society of Natural History. He held this post until 18 May 1853, when, at the age of twenty-one, he was chosen as naturalist for the United States North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition, commanded by Cadwalader Ringgold and, later, by John Rodgers.
The expedition, which lasted until 1856, visited Madeira, South Africa, Australia, the Coral Sea, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Aleutian Islands. Stimpson collected over 5,000 specimens, mostly invertebrates, and made notes and drawings of over 3,000 of them. From the time the expedition returned until 1865, he was in charge of the invertebrate section of the Smithsonian Institution. Stimpson described the Crustacea and other invertebrates collected by the expedition except for the mollusks, which were sent to A. A. Gould. In 1860, Columbia University awarded Stimpson an honorary M.D. in recognition of his knowledge of marine invertebrates. Five years later, he was appointed director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, which was then moving into a new fireproof building.
Stimpson took with him to Chicago ten thousand jars of Crustacea, at that time the largest collection of its kind in the world: the invertebrates, except mollusks, of the North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition, including the types of J. D. Dana; and his own collection of shells dredged from Maine to Texas; he later received the United States Coast Survey collection of deep-sea Crustacea and mollusks dredged in the Gulf Stream by L. F. de Pourtalès in 1867 and 1868. All these, including Stimpson’s notes and drawings and the plates and text of the reports that were to augment the brief descriptions of the northern Pacific Crustacea and Mollusca, which he and Gould had published without figures, were destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871.
Stimpson’s health had never been very good, and he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1872, at the age of forty. He was survived by his wife, Annie Gordon, and a son, Herbert.
Aside from his faunal studies and monographs, Stimpson is remembered as the first naturalist to dredge systematically along the Atlantic coast and for the description of 948 new species of marine invertebrates.
I. Original Works. An annotated list of Stimpson’s published works is available in Mayer (see below). Among his more important works are “Synopsis of the Marine Invertebrata of Grand Manan; or the Region About the Mouth of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick,” Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 6 , no. 5 (1854); “Researches Upon Hydrobiinae and Allied Forms,” Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection, 7 , no. 4; “Preliminary Report on the Crustacea Dredged in the Straits of Florida, by L. F. de Pourtalès, Pt. 1, Brachyura,” in Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College, 2 (1871), 109–160.
II. Secondary Literature. See W. H. Dall, “Some American Conchologists,” in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 4 (1888), 129–133; W. K. Higley, “Historical Sketch of the Academy,” in Special Publications of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, no. 1 (1902), 14–26; R. I. Johnson, “The Recent Mollusca of Augustus A. Gould,” in Bulletin, United States National Museum, no. 239 (1964), 19–28, which contains excerpts from Stimpson’s unpublished journal made on the North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition; and A. G. Mayer, “Biographical Memoir of William Stimpson,” in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, 8 (1918), 419–433.
Richard I. Johnson