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)
Nationality American
Known for"father of descriptive entomology in the United States"
Scientific career
Fields Natural history, Entomology
Institutions Academy 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]

Herpetology Study of amphibians and reptiles

Herpetology is the branch of zoology concerned with the study of amphibians and reptiles. Birds, which are cladistically included within Reptilia, are traditionally excluded here; the scientific study of birds is the subject of ornithology.

American Philosophical Society United States historic place

The American Philosophical Society (APS), founded in 1743 and located in Philadelphia, is an eminent scholarly organization of international reputation that promotes useful knowledge in the sciences and humanities through excellence in scholarly research, professional meetings, publications, library resources, and community outreach. Considered the first learned society in the United States, it has played an important role in American cultural and intellectual life for over 270 years.

University of Pennsylvania Private Ivy League research university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania is a private Ivy League research university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is one of the nine colonial colleges founded prior to the Declaration of Independence and the first institution of higher learning in the United States to refer to itself as a university. Benjamin Franklin, Penn's founder and first president, advocated an educational program that trained leaders in commerce, government, and public service, similar to a modern liberal arts curriculum.


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.

Philadelphia Largest city in Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, known colloquially as Philly, is the largest city in the U.S. state and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the sixth-most populous U.S. city, with a 2018 census-estimated population of 1,584,138. Since 1854, the city has had the same geographic boundaries as Philadelphia County, the most populous county in Pennsylvania and the urban core of the eighth-largest U.S. metropolitan statistical area, with over 6 million residents as of 2017. Philadelphia is also the economic and cultural anchor of the greater Delaware Valley, located along the lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, within the Northeast megalopolis. The Delaware Valley's population of 7.2 million ranks it as the eighth-largest combined statistical area in the United States.

John Bartram American botanist

John Bartram was an early American botanist, horticulturist and explorer. Carl Linnaeus said he was the "greatest natural botanist in the world."

William Bartram American naturalist

William Bartram was an American naturalist. The son of Ann and the naturalist John Bartram, William Bartram and his twin sister Elizabeth were born in Kingsessing, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a boy, he accompanied his father on many of his travels to the Catskill Mountains, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, New England, and Florida. From his mid-teens, Bartram was noted for the quality of his botanic and ornithological drawings. He also had an increasing role in the maintenance of his father's botanic garden, and added many rare species to it.


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.

Charles Alexandre Lesueur French naturalist

Charles Alexandre Lesueur was a French naturalist, artist, and explorer. He was a prolific natural history collector, gathering many type specimens in Australia, southeast Asia and North America and was also responsible for describing numerous species, including the spiny softshell turtle, smooth softshell turtle and common map turtle. Both Mount Lesueur and Lesueur National Park in Western Australia are named in his honor.

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.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas Pre-Columbian inhabitants of North, Central and South America and their descendants

The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the Pre-Columbian peoples of North, Central and South America and their descendants.

William Maclure geologist, cartographer, social theorist

William Maclure was an Americanized Scottish geologist, cartographer and philanthropist. He is known as the 'father of American geology'. As a social experimenter on new types of community life, he collaborated with British social reformer Robert Owen, (1771–1854), in Indiana, United States.

Geology The study of the composition, structure, physical properties, and history of Earths components, and the processes by which they are shaped.

Geology is an earth science concerned with the solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which they change over time. Geology can also include the study of the solid features of any terrestrial planet or natural satellite such as Mars or the Moon. Modern geology significantly overlaps all other earth sciences, including hydrology and the atmospheric sciences, and so is treated as one major aspect of integrated earth system science and planetary science.

Say's Phoebe Thomas Say's Phoebe.jpg
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]

Stephen Harriman Long American explorer

Stephen Harriman Long was a U.S. army explorer, topographical engineer, and railway engineer. As an inventor, he is noted for his developments in the design of steam locomotives. He was also one of the most prolific explorers of the early 1800s, although his career as an explorer was relatively short-lived. He covered over 26,000 miles in five expeditions, including a scientific expedition in the Great Plains area, which he famously confirmed as a "Great Desert".

Rocky Mountains Major mountain range in western North America

The Rocky Mountains, also known as the Rockies, are a major mountain range in western North America. The Rocky Mountains stretch 3,000 km (1,900 mi) in straight-line distance from the northernmost part of British Columbia, in western Canada, to New Mexico in the Southwestern United States. Located within the North American Cordillera, the Rockies are distinct from the Pacific Coast Ranges, Cascade Range, and the Sierra Nevada, which all lie farther to the west.

Missouri River major river in the central United States, tributary of the Mississippi

The Missouri River is the longest river in North America. Rising in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana, the Missouri flows east and south for 2,341 miles (3,767 km) before entering the Mississippi River north of St. Louis, Missouri. The river drains a sparsely populated, semi-arid watershed of more than 500,000 square miles (1,300,000 km2), which includes parts of ten U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Although nominally considered a tributary of the Mississippi, the Missouri River above the confluence is much longer and carries a comparable volume of water. When combined with the lower Mississippi River, it forms the world's fourth longest river system.

Papilio turnus (= Papilio glaucus), from 'American Entomology' Papilio glacusSayP040CAA1.jpg
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.

Mississippi River largest river system in North America

The Mississippi River is the second-longest river and chief river of the second-largest drainage system on the North American continent, second only to the Hudson Bay drainage system. Its source is Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and it flows generally south for 2,320 miles (3,730 km) to the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains all or parts of 32 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces between the Rocky and Appalachian mountains. The main stem is entirely within the United States; the total drainage basin is 1,151,000 sq mi (2,980,000 km2), of which only about one percent is in Canada. The Mississippi ranks as the fourth-longest and fifteenth-largest river by discharge in the world. The river either borders or passes through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

New Harmony, Indiana Town in Indiana, United States

New Harmony is a historic town on the Wabash River in Harmony Township, Posey County, Indiana. It lies 15 miles (24 km) north of Mount Vernon, the county seat, and is part of the Evansville metropolitan area. The town's population was 789 at the 2010 census.

Indiana state of the United States of America

Indiana is a U.S. state in the Midwestern and Great Lakes regions of North America. Indiana is the 38th-largest by area and the 17th-most populous of the 50 United States. Its capital and largest city is Indianapolis. Indiana was admitted to the United States as the 19th U.S. state on December 11, 1816. Indiana borders Lake Michigan to the northwest, Michigan to the north, Ohio to the east, Kentucky to the south and southeast, and Illinois to the west.

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:

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).

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Further reading