Thomas Say

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Thomas Say
Thomas Say.jpg
Portrait of Thomas Say (1818)
by Charles Willson Peale
Born(1787-06-27)June 27, 1787
DiedOctober 10, 1834(1834-10-10) (aged 47)
Known for"father of descriptive entomology in the United States"
Scientific career
FieldsNatural history, Entomology
InstitutionsAcademy of Natural Sciences

Thomas Say (June 27, 1787 – October 10, 1834) was an American entomologist, conchologist, and herpetologist. His definitive studies of insects and shells, numerous contributions to scientific journals, and scientific expeditions to Florida, Georgia, the Rocky Mountains, Mexico, and elsewhere made him an internationally known naturalist. Say has been called the father of American descriptive entomology and American conchology. He served as librarian for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, curator at the American Philosophical Society, and professor of natural history at the University of Pennsylvania.[1][2]

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.

Say's Phoebe

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, orange-crowned warbler, checkered whiptail lizard, collared lizard, ground skink, western rat snake, and western ribbon snake.[3]

Papilio turnus (= Papilio glaucus), from 'American Entomology'

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

Say described more than 1,000 new species of beetles, more than 400 species of insects of other orders, and seven well-known species of snakes.[4]

Other zoologists honored him by naming several taxa after him:[5]

See also

Frederick Valentine Melsheimer, also considered the "Father of Entomology"


  1. ^ Mallis, 1971
  2. ^ Pitzer, 1989
  3. ^ Say T (1823). In: James E (1823). Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the Years 1819 and '20, by Order of the Hon. J.C. Calhoun, Sec'y of War: Under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long. From the Notes of Major Long, Mr. T. Say, and other Gentlemen of the Exploring Party, Vol. I. Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea. 503 pp.
  4. ^ Schmidt, Karl P.; Davis, D. Dwight (1941). Field Book of Snakes of the United States and Canada. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 365 pp. ("History of the Study of Snakes in the United States", Thomas Say, p. 12).
  5. ^ Hans G. Hansson. "Charles-Alexandre Lesueur". Biographical Etymology of Marine Organism Names. Göteborgs universitet. Retrieved November 27, 2012.
  6. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Say", p. 234).


  • Mallis, Arnold (1971). American Entomologists. Rutgers University Press. pp. 16–25. ISBN 0-8135-0686-7.
  • Pitzer, Donald E. (1989). "The Original Boatload of Knowledge Down the Ohio River: William Maclure's and Robert Owen's Transfer of Science and Education to the Midwest, 1825-1826". Ohio Journal of Science. 89 (5): 128–142.

Further reading

  • Calhoun, John V. (2017). Thomas Say's Hipparchia andromacha: a duplicate illustration of a southeastern butterfly. Southern Lepidopterists' News. 39(4): 163–171.
  • Le Conte, John, ed. (1859). Complete Writings of Thomas Say on the Entomology of North America (two volumes)|format= requires |url= (help). New York: Bailliere Brothers.
  • Mawdsley, Jonathan R. (1993). "The Entomological Collection of Thomas Say". Psyche. 100 (3–4): 163–171. doi:10.1155/1993/59616.
  • Stroud, Patricia Tyson (1992). Thomas Say: New World Naturalist. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Weiss, Harry B.; Ziebler, Grace M. (1931). Thomas Say: Early American Naturalist. Charles C. Thomas.

External links