Say, Thomas, 1787-1834Variant names
Thomas Say (1787-1834) was a naturalist, entomologist, conchologist and explorer. The son of physician-apothecary Bejamin Say and his wife Ann Bonsall, granddaughter of the botanist John Bartram (1699-1777), Say was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 27, 1787. His mother died when he was six. Say’s connections with his great-uncle naturalist William Bartram (1739-1823), Bartram’s friend and neighbor the ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) and Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), whose museum in the State House contained important shell and insect collections, inspired the young Say to study natural history. He was an “indifferent” student at the Westtown (Friends) Boarding School, where he studied for three years. Say’s father discouraged him from the pursuit of natural history, trying to interest him instead in the family apothecary business. Both his grandfather Thomas and his father Benjamin were physician-apothecaries who had founded hospitals, and from 1802-1812, Thomas helped his father in the apothecary shop and at his father’s suggestion studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania medical school, probably taking courses with Dr. Say’s colleagues Caspar Wistar (1761-1818) and Benjamin Rush (1745-1813).
Sometime around 1812 Say entered into partnership with apothecary John Speakman; however, the poor business acumen soon caused the enterprise to fail. In the meantime, in 1812, Say and six friends founded the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP) for “the advancement and diffusion of useful, liberal, human knowledge.” After being named curator of the new institution and editor of its Journal, Say dedicated himself exclusively to the study of natural history, abandoning his unsuccessful career as an apothecary. After his father’s death, Say lived frugally, sleeping at the Academy, tending its small museum, studying his own collection. In the fall of 1814 Say, a member of a family of “fighting Quakers,” enlisted as a dragoon in the First Troop of the Philadelphia City Cavalry in the War of 1812 and was stationed briefly at Mount Bull at the head of the Chesapeake Bay to monitor enemy troop movements.
Afterward, from 1817 until 1825 Say was as an explorer on several private and government-sponsored expeditions to the southeastern and western portions of the United States, or what was to become the United States. During 1817-1818 Say accompanied Scottish geologist William Maclure, the new president and benefactor of the Academy of Natural Sciences, on an expedition of the coastal islands of Georgia and Spanish Florida along with the young naturalist and scientific illustrator Titian Peale (1799-1885) and Academy Vice-President George Ord (1781-1866). Although thwarted by hostile Indians, the 1817 Florida Expedition was the first privately funded collecting endeavor of its kind and established a model for American natural history museums by observing and collecting many new species. Results of the expeditions were presented in oral reports and in publications of the newly-founded Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences, edited by Say.
In 1819-20, Say served as chief zoologist on Major Stephen H. Long’s (1784-1864) expedition to the Rocky Mountains, during which he named and described many hitherto unknown species of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and shells. Say also studied the culture of Native American tribes in the area and was particularly sympathetic to the symbiotic relationship between these indigeneous peoples and the wildlife of the region.
In 1821, Say became curator of the American Philosophical Society and then professor of natural history (including geology) at the University of Pennsylvania in 1822. The following year he joined another expedition of Major Long as zoologist and “antiquary” (paleontologist) to St. Peter’s River at the headwaters of the Mississippi. The expedition moved as far north as Lake of the Woods in Canada and across the northern portion of Lake Superior. Say collected enough insect specimens to accurately represent North America in his American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America (3 vols, 1824-28). The first part, with illustrations by Titian Peale, Hugh Bridport, and Charles Alexandre Lesueur (1778-1846) and William Wood, was published in Philadelphia and established Say’s reputation as the preeminent American zoologist.
Say’s life took a fateful turn as he and Lesueur accompanied Maclure to visit Robert Owen’s utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana. Maclure, who was interested in social and educational reform, had visited Owen’s model factory and school in Scotland one year earlier and helped him purchase the land for the New Harmony community on the banks of the Wabash River. After the arrival of Maclure, Say and other Philadelphia scientists and educators in January 1826 on the famous “Boatload of Knowledge,” the educational program at New Harmony was organized under the aegis of the School Society over which Maclure soon gained financial control. Maclure’s plan was to make the New Harmony school an institute for scientific instruction, and he wanted Say to administer it. As a result, Say, who was completely dependent upon his patron Maclure for his livelihood, spent the remainder of his life in New Harmony, except for a trip to Mexico with Maclure in 1827-28 and a brief visit to Philadelphia. As the utopian community gradually dissolved through internal strife, Maclure transformed the school into a center for scientific research, complete with a school press and a journal entitled the Disseminator of Useful Knowledge.
In January 1827 Say married Lucy Way Sistare, a teaching apprentice at the Pestalozzian school in Philadelphia opened by Marie Duclos Fretageot in 1823. Say’s ANSP colleague, the naturalist/artist Lesueur, taught drawing at the school, and Sistare received instruction from him as well as from John James Audobon (1785-1851). She had gotten to know many naturalists through Fretageot’s school and thereby became involved in the plans of Maclure, Say, and other members of the Academy to help establish an Owenite utopian community at New Haromony, Indiana. On the way to New Harmony Sistare became acquainted with Say, thirteen years her senior, and the two married on January 4, 1827. The couple had no children of their own, although Lucy taught drawing to some of the Owenite children.
Say continued his work of describing insects and mollusks in New Harmony, completing the publication of the final volumes of his American Entomology and his American Conchology, or Descriptions of the Shells of North America Illustrated From Coloured Figures From Original Drawings Executed from Nature (Parts 1-6, New Harmony, 1830-34; Part 7, Philadelphia, 1836). His wife Lucy Way Sistare Say illustrated much of her husband’s American Conchology, rendering sixty-six of the work’s sixty-eight plates, and adding the color to individual impressions in painstaking detail.
Conditions at New Harmony as well as the isolation Say experienced there took their toll on his morale and eventually his health. Worn out by stomach, liver and intestinal problems, Say succumbed to typhoid fever and died on October 10, 1834 at the age of 46.
Thomas Say has been called the “father of American descriptive zoology.” He made numerous contributions to American science. His pioneering works on entomology and conchology established those sciences in the United States. He named approximately 1,500 new North American insects, preparing the ground for the identification of disease carriers such as the American dog tick (which carries Rocky Mountain Fever) and a mosquito species found to carry malaria. Say was the first to describe crop-damaging insects such as the chinch bug, Colorado potato beetle, peach tree borer, walkingstick, and Hessian fly, among others. Fellow entomologists praised his invertebrate descriptions. In 1840 German entomologist Wilhelm Ferdinand Erichson wrote that “in brevity I see that no one excels the American Say, who published descriptions so concise that they hardly go beyond the extent of diagnosis, nevertheless, so clear that you will hardly ever find doubtful a form exhibited by him.” He also described and classified more than twenty-five mollusks that have proven to have medical significance, such as the North American freshwater mollusk Pomatiopsis lapidaria, a potential transmitter of the disease schistsomiasis, and the snail Helisoma bicarinatus that carries cattle disease.
One of Say's most innovative insights appeared in his 1818 article on fossilized shells for Benjamin Silliman’s American Journal of Science and Arts in which he suggests the use of the fossil record for dating rock strata. Perhaps most significant were his labors at establishing the independent authority of American scientists to name and describe their own flora and fauna, without sending specimens to Europe.
During his lifetime, Say was elected to membership in several scientific organizations, including the American Philosophical Society in 1817 (serving as its curator in 1821), the Société Philomatique of Paris in 1818 and the Linnean Society of London in 1830.
From the guide to the Thomas Say papers, 1819-1883, 1955, 1819-1883, (American Philosophical Society)
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