MAY
1994

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

05-12-94

Famous Entomologist Lived, Worked In New Harmony

Thomas Say is regarded by many as the father of North American entomology. Born in Philadelphia in 1787, Say became the first American entomologist to compare favorably to European scientists who had gained fame for their descriptive studies of insects.

The young Thomas Say went to Quaker school, helped in his father's pharmacy shop, and collected beetles and butterflies. Although he was interested in natural science, his father prevailed on him to continue in the drug business, which he did rather half-heartedly.

Philadelphia was the site of America's first natural history museum. There were several thousand insects at the museum and animal specimens, including Benjamin Franklin's angora cat and one of George Washington's golden pheasants. The museum was of interest to Say, and when he was not working at the drug business he spent his time there.

By the time he was 25, the drug business had failed and Say devoted the rest of his life to his real love, natural history. When the Philadelphia Academy of Science was founded in 1812, Say was a charter member. He was appointed conservator in charge of the library and collections at the academy. This was not a big job because the collections at the academy at the time consisted of “some half dozen common insects, a few madrepores and shells, a dried toadfish and a stuffed monkey.”

Soon after this, Say went on a collecting trip to Florida, which was terminated abruptly because of the danger of Indian attacks. He was then invited to join Major Stephen Long's scientific expedition into the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase. The expedition eventually reached the Rocky Mountains and, along the way, Say learned about Indians and the fauna of what are now the Midwestern and Western United States.

One of the insects Say described on the Long Expedition was the Colorado potato beetle, that native American insect that became so destructive to potatoes. All in all the Long expedition was a success in spite of the fact that the party struggled back half starved and without most of their horses, and Say had many of his journals stolen by deserters.

Eventually Thomas Say left Philadelphia for good and joined “the boatload of knowledge” a flatboat of scientists headed for New Harmony, Ind., and the Utopian community under development there. It was at New Harmony that Thomas Say died in 1834. In all, Say described over 1,500 species of insects and the inscription on the monument to his memory is an especially fitting one:

Votary of Nature even from a child,
He sought her presence in the trackless wild;
To him the shell, the insect, and the flower
Were bright and cherished emblems of her power.
In her he saw a spirit all divine,
And worshipped like a pilgrim at her shrine.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann