Thomas Say and his Love for Beetles

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
in: American entomology :
A Description of the Insects of North America
by Thomas Say

On July 27, 1787, American self-taught naturalist, entomologist, malacologist, herpetologist and carcinologist Thomas Say was born. A taxonomist, he is widely considered the father of descriptive entomology in the United States.

Thomas Say attended Westtown Boarding School near Philadelphia and his father discouraged him from the pursuit of natural history, trying to interest him instead in the family apothecary business and around 1812, Say even entered into partnership with apothecary John Speakman, but the enterprise failed very soon [2]. His interest in natural history was stimulated by his great-uncle, William Bartram. Say was a cofounder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812 and served a curator from 1812 to 1826 and as professor of zoology in the Museum of Philadelphia from 1821 to 1825 [1]. During his career, Thomas Say took part in several expeditions. In 18191820Major Stephen Harriman Long led an exploration to the Rocky Mountains, which Say accompanied as a zoologist. The expedition party searched for the headwaters of the Red River, made maps of the uncharted Louisiana Territory, and located areas for military posts to protect the American fur trade. Unfortunately, Thomas Say’s journal entries from the expedition were stolen by soldiers, who apparently left the party during the expedition. However, records of the expedition were still published and large collections of the flora and fauna of the area were described. Say himself, collected and described several species including the collared lizard, which is on this day the official state lizard of Oklahoma [1].

The scientist became curator of the American Philosophical Society and then professor of natural history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1822. He took part in another expedition the year after, functioning as zoologist and paleontologist to St. Peter’s River at the headwaters of the Mississippi. The expedition made it all the way up to Lake of the Woods in Canada and across the northern portion of Lake SuperiorSay managed to collect enough insect specimens to accurately represent North America in his American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America, which was published in three volumes between 1824 and 1828 [2].

Say’s scientific reputation grew after he published the first volume and he is now considered as the father of American entomology and conchology. After finishing this work, Say went on to publish another definitive work, on American shells, and approached the subject with the same spirit of adventure and reverence that informed his work on insects. As he wrote, “It is an enterprise that may be compared to that of a pioneer or early settler in a strange land,” and he did much to advance Americans’ understanding of the natural world they encountered as they moved inexorably across the continent [3].

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture on “International Entomology: Changing the World, One Bug at a Time” by Rick Foster.

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