Portrait of Thomas Say (1818)
by Charles Willson Peale
June 27, 1787|
|Died||October 10, 1834
New Harmony, Indiana
|Fields||Natural history, Entomology|
|Institutions||Academy of Natural Sciences|
|Known for||"father of descriptive entomology in the United States"|
Thomas Say (June 27, 1787—October 10, 1834) was an American naturalist, entomologist, malacologist, herpetologist and carcinologist. A taxonomist, he is widely considered the father of descriptive entomology in the United States. The Entomological Society of America maintains several series of publications and awards named for him.
Early life and education
Born in Philadelphia into a prominent Quaker family, Thomas Say was the great-grandson of John Bartram, and the great-nephew of William Bartram. His father, Dr. Benjamin Say, was brother-in-law to another Bartram son, Moses Bartram. The Say family had a house, "The Cliffs" at Gray's Ferry, adjoining the Bartram family farms in Kingessing township, Philadelphia County. As a boy, Say often visited the family garden, Bartram's Garden, where he frequently took butterfly and beetle specimens to his great-uncle William.
He became an apothecary. A self-taught naturalist, Say helped found the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP) in 1812. In 1816, he met Charles Alexandre Lesueur, a French naturalist, malacologist, and ichthyologist who soon became a member of the Academy and served as its curator until 1824.
At the Academy, Say began his work on what he would publish as American Entomology. To collect insects, he made numerous expeditions to frontier areas, risking American Indian attacks and hazards of traveling in wild countryside. In 1818, Say accompanied his friend William Maclure, then the ANSP president and father of American geology; Gerhard Troost, a geologist; and other members of the Academy on a geological expedition to the off-shore islands of Georgia and Florida, then a Spanish colony.
In 1819–20, Major Stephen Harriman Long led an exploration to the Rocky Mountains and the tributaries of the Missouri River, with Say as zoologist. Their official account of this expedition included the first descriptions of the coyote, swift fox, western kingbird, band-tailed pigeon, rock wren, Say's phoebe, lesser goldfinch, lark sparrow, lazuli bunting and orange-crowned warbler.
In 1823, Say served as chief zoologist in Long's expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. He traveled on the "Boatload of Knowledge" to the New Harmony Settlement in Indiana (1826–34), a utopian society experiment founded by Robert Owen. Say was accompanied by Maclure, Lesueur, Troost, and Francis Neef, an innovative pedagogue. There he later met Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, another naturalist.
On January 4, 1827, Say secretly married Lucy Way Sistare, whom he had met as one of the passengers to New Harmony, near the settlement. She was an artist and illustrator of specimens, as in the book American Conchology, and was elected as the first woman member of the Academy of Natural Sciences.
At New Harmony, Thomas Say carried on his monumental work describing insects and mollusks, leading to two classic works:
- American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America, 3 volumes, Philadelphia, 1824–1828.
- 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, 1830–1834; Part 7, Philadelphia, 1836.
During their years in New Harmony, Say and Lesueur experienced considerable difficulties. Say was a modest and unassuming man, who lived frugally like a hermit. He abandoned commercial activities and devoted himself to his studies, making difficulties for his family.
Say died, apparently from typhoid fever, in New Harmony on 10 October 1834, when he was 47 years old.
Legacy and honors
Other zoologists honored him by naming several taxa after him:
- Dyspanopeus sayi (S. I. Smith, 1869) – Say's mud crab
- Portunus sayi (Gibbes, 1850) – a swimming crab of the family Portunidae
- Porcellana sayana (Leach, 1820) – an Atlantic porcelain crab
- Lanceola sayana (Bovallius, 1885) – an amphipod from the family Lanceolidae
- Calliostoma sayanum Dall, 1889
- Diodora sayi (Dall, 1899)
- Oliva sayana Ravenel, 1834
- Sayella Dall, 1885
- Propeamussium sayanum (Dall, 1886)
- Appalachina sayana (Pilsbry in Pilsbry & Ferriss, 1906) – a land snail in the family Polygyridae
- Pituophis catenifer sayi (Schlegel, 1837) – the bullsnake
- Sayornis (Bonaparte, 1854) – a genus in the tyrant flycatcher family;
Frederick Valentine Melsheimer, also considered the "Father of Entomology"
- John L. Le Conte, The Complete Writings of Thomas Say on the Entomology of North America, two volumes, Baillière Brothers, New York, 1859
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to American Entomology (Thomas Say).|
- Thomas Say (1787–1834), father of American entomology, Indiana University
- "Thomas Say in New Harmony", Notes from Underground
- The entomological collection of Thomas Say PDF
- Pomacea paludosa (Say, 1829)
- Paintings of The Cliffs, the Say family home on the Schuylkill River at Gray's Ferry, by David Kennedy
- Tomb of Thomas Say, The Naturalist Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Plan of Say Burial Ground, at 3rd and Arch Streets in Philadelphia