18 July 2005

The life and times of Thomas Say 3

Thomas Say was an accomplished and prolific naturalist not only for the standards of his time, but even for ours. He published a considerable number of scientific papers (102 to be exact, according to Summers1 and including several posthumous ones). Among the animal groups he worked with are aquatic and terrestrial molluscs, insects and other arthropods, including crustaceans, sea stars (echinoderms) and vertebrates (tortoises, mammals).

Almost all of his papers concerned zoological taxonomy and they were mostly devoid of theoretical ideas, except for a sentence here and there that gives us but a glimpse of what he might have been thinking when he was trying to classify a particular specimen. For example, in his 1821 description of Helix elevata (now Mesodon elevatus), he said that the species seemed to be “distantly related to [Mesodon] thyroidus”. There is no way of knowing what he had in mind when he was talking about the “relations” of different species with each other. He was familiar with the French naturalist Lamarck’s taxonomical works, because he cited them several times, but we don’t know if he had also read his ideas on evolution.

Say left behind many letters that offer additional insight on his outlook on nature and life2, 3.

Regarding his primary natural history interest, this is what he said: you will see in the “Journal” that I have been describing the Crustacea of our waters; but my dear sir, I assure you that Shells and Crustacea are but secondary things with me, INSECTS are the great objects, of my attention, I hope to be able to renounce everything else & attend to them only.
[Letter to J.F. Melsheimer, 6 November 1817]

According to Stroud’s biography3, Say was not a very religious person. For example, this is what he wrote in a discussion of Native American myths that personify animals: That the inferior animals did, in ancient times, march to battle with simultaneous regularity, that they conversed intelligibly, and performed all the different actions of men, many of them appear to admit, with as much faith as many equally absurd doctrines are believed in Christendom.
[In Edwin, J., ed. Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, 1823; cited in Stroud3.]

Say was 47 when he died in New Harmony. But he had certainly lived a full and interesting life. So, it is perhaps fitting to end these series of posts about him with the following words from one of his letters.

…it does not seem to be the length of time we exist, but the number of interesting or agreeable incidents that crowd it, that make the lease of life worth holding.
[Letter to C. L. Bonaparte Columbus, Ohio, 13 July 1826]

1. Summers, G. 1982. A bibliography of the scientific writings of Thomas Say (1787-1834). Arch. Nat. Hist. 11:69-81.
2. Weiss, H.B. & Ziegler, G.M. 1931. Thomas Say - Early American Naturalist. Charles C. Thomas.
3. Stroud, P.T. 1992. Thomas Say - New World Naturalist. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Previous posts on the life and times of Thomas Say
No. 1
No. 2

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