Pilsbry, Henry Augustus, 1862-

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Henry A. Pilsbry (1862-1957), Dean of American Malacologists, was associated with the Academy of Natural Sciences for 70 years. At the Academy, he served as conservator, curator and head of the Department of Shells, but he was also the internationally recognized authority in the field of land mollusca. He wrote and edited many volumes of the Manual of Conchology and, from 1889 until his death, was an editor of the journal Nautilus, which he founded. A member of many scientific expeditions, he traveled all over the United States, to the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands, and to Australia.

Pilsbry was born on December 7, 1862 on a farm near Iowa City, Iowa to Dexter R. and Elizabeth Anderson Pilsbry. Pilsbry was “interested in animals and plants from an early age, and made collections of them as a boy,” (American Malacological Union, page 1). He obtained his education from the public schools of Iowa City and earned his bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Iowa in 1910. During his scholarship at the University of Iowa, his interest in geology, fossils, and zoology developed under the teaching of Professor Samuel Calvin. According to Pilsbry, “after his school days, [he] had to make a living and worked in newspaper and book printing houses in Iowa City and Davenport, Iowa, and finally New York, [but] all [his] spare time … was spent in country trips mainly after fossils and mollusks,” (Pilsbry, page 58).

George W. Tryon of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and author of the Manual of Conchology responded to a letter Pilsbry sent regarding shells and “changed the course of [his] life,” (Pilsbry, page 58) by asking him to visit him in Philadelphia. Pilsbry took the position of Tryon’s assistant at the Academy of Natural Sciences on December 1, 1887 and, after the death of Tryon on February 8, 1888, became Conservator of the Conchological Section and served as editor of the Manual of Conchology from 1889 to 1932. He also founded and edited the Nautilus, a publication previously titled the Conchologist’s Exchange, in 1889. He served as conservator of the Conchological Section from 1888 to 1895 when its budget was transferred to the Department of Mollusks. He became the curator of that department and continued in that capacity from 1895 until his death.

During his tenure at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Pilsbry became known as “the world’s leading authority on North American land shells” (Unidentifiable obituary). He established himself as the leading authority on Cirripedia, or barnacles, “since Charles Darwin … through his 1907 monograph, mainly based on the collections of the United States National Museum,” (American Malacological Union, pages 2-3). He authored more than one thousand scientific papers and many volumes including Land Mollusca of North America .

Pilsbry served as consulting malacologist to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu; honorary foreign correspondent of the Zoological Survey of India; corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London; and honorary member of the Conchological Society of Britain and Ireland, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Madrid, Royal Zoological Society of Belgium, the Birmingham (England) Natural History and Philosophical Society, and the California Academy of the Sciences. He also served as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and as a member of the American Society of Naturalists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In addition to serving as a member of the American Malacological Union, he also had the honor of serving as its first president. He received the Joseph Leidy Award from the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1928. In 1954, the Academy created the Henry A. Pilsbry Chair of Malacology in his honor. He earned honorary degrees of doctor of science from the University of Iowa in 1900, the University of Pennsylvania in 1940, and Temple University in 1941.

In 1957, Pilsbry suffered a heart attack while in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He recuperated at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia and then traveled to visit with his daughter in Florida. He died in Lantana, Florida on October 26, 1957. At the time of his death, he was survived by his two daughters, Elizabeth and Grace. His wife Adeline Avery Pilsbry had died on November 13, 1924.

Pilsbry is described as “among the most productive taxonomists ever to pick up a magnifying glass; … [his] immersion in the world of shelled creatures was so intense and over such a long period … that he became a veritable institution,” (Smith).


American Malacological Union. “Scientific Contributions Made from 1882 to 1939 by Henry A. Pilsbry, Sc.D.," 1940.

Pilsbry, Henry A. “The First Years,” Frontiers: A Magazine of Natural History . December 1937.

Smith, Charles H., Joshua Woleben and Carubie Rodgers. A Biographical History of Biogeography . http://web2.wku.edu/~smithch/chronob/PILS1862.htm (accessed December 22, 2009).

Unidentifiable Obituary (located in Biographical Files, Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia).

From the guide to the H. A. Pilsbry papers, Bulk, 1900-1953, 1885-1957, (Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn American Philosophical Society Archives. Record Group IIj, 1898-1988 American Philosophical Society
creatorOf H. A. Pilsbry papers, Bulk, 1900-1953, 1885-1957 Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. corporateBody
associatedWith American Philosophical Society. corporateBody
associatedWith Hirase, Yoichiro, 1859-1925 person
associatedWith Richards, Horace Gardiner, 1906-1984 person
associatedWith Tryon, George W. (George Washington), 1838-1888 person
associatedWith United States. Bureau of Fisheries. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Philadelphia (Pa.)
South America


Birth 1862-12-07

Death 1957-10-26



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