Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/September 1882/Sketch of Thomas Say
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Sketch of Thomas Say
By John Sterling Kingsley
THOMAS SAY, the father of American zoölogy, was born in Philadelphia, July 27, 1787. Of his youth we know comparatively nothing. At an early age his parents, who were Quakers, placed him in a boarding-school under the control of the Friends, but Say did not take kindly to the instruction there provided, and acquired nothing but a most intense dislike for his teachers and for all ordinary branches of study. We are justified in ascribing this antipathy on his part to the incompetency of the instructors, for in after-years Say showed an ability and a desire to learn which only the most repressing circumstances could have checked in his youth. Dr. Benjamin Say, the father, was an apothecary, in moderate circumstances; and young Say, after leaving school, was placed for a time behind the counter of his father's shop. After he had acquired some knowledge of the drug business, his father established him in trade with John Speakman, who was a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Through Speakman, Say was induced to join the society, and with this act he began a life of science which has left its impress on every branch of natural history.
Say is considered as one of the founders of the Philadelphia Academy, but this is not exactly so. The academy was founded January 12, 1812, while Say was not elected to membership until April of that year, and his first attendance at the meetings was on April 16, 1812. What was his surprise, on entering the temple of science, to find the whole collection of specimens consisting of "some half a dozen common insects, a few madrepores and shells, a dried toad-fish, and a stuffed monkey!—a display of objects of science calculated rather to excite merriment than to procure respect." In fact, the academy was a social organization. This is shown by its first constitution, the preamble of which runs somewhat as follows (we quote from memory): "Whereas, we believe that we can obtain the same amount of pleasure and enjoyment, and at a less expense, around a common fireside and a common candle, than we can, each at his own fire and beside his own light," etc. With the advent of Say to membership this was soon changed, and the academy took its place among the scientific bodies of the world, a place which it has since occupied, though at times it has seemed to many of its friends that it was not doing the work which it ought. At present, under the able presidency of Dr. Leidy, it promises to take a higher stand than it ever has in the past.
Long before joining the academy, Say had acquired a familiarity with the forms of beetles and butterflies, but without reducing his knowledge to systematic order. Now, on joining a scientific society, he began those investigations on the American fauna which only ceased with his death. His partner, Speakman, fully sympathized with his passion for nature, and willingly did the labor of both in the shop, so that Say might devote all his time and energies to his favorite studies. Soon, however, this comfortable arrangement was brought to an end; the firm of Speakman and Say, in an evil hour, indorsed for friends, and, as a not unnatural result, came to grief. Say then took up his residence in the rooms of the society, making his bed on the floor, cooking his own food, and living at an expense at times not exceeding seventy-five cents a week. Had he, like Thoreau, given an account of his life at this time, it would have been an interesting chapter.
In 1816 he projected a work on American entomology, and in the next year six plates and the accompanying text were printed, but, from a lack of proper pecuniary support, the project for the time fell through, and the work was not properly published until a later date. In 1817 William Maclure and several other men of influence and property joined the academy, and through their efforts the "Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia" was started, and Say began his long list of contributions to knowledge. No complete list of his papers has been published, but the number aggregates nearly one hundred.
In 1818 Say, in company with William Maclure, George Ord, and Titian R. Peale, visited Georgia and Florida on a collecting expedition, and in the next year Say received an appointment as naturalist on Long's expedition to the Rocky Mountains, with Peale as an assistant. Peale is now the only survivor of either expedition, and at a ripe old age continues his scientific labors. The writer has heard many an anecdote of these trips from him. Long's expedition left Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, in May, on a steamboat built for the purpose, and proceeded as far as Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they spent the winter. Daring the next year they went to the Rocky Mountains, and, returning by another route, broke up at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in November. Say appears to have been unfortunate on this expedition. At one time he was in charge of a party of five, making a trip on foot, when the pack-horse broke loose, and they lost both horse and baggage. Later, in charge of another party, he fell in with a number of Kansas Indians, and again lost horses, baggage, and camp equipments. The narrative of Long's expedition was published in two octavo volumes and folio atlas (Philadelphia, 1823), and some of Say's descriptions of the animals and "animal remains found in a concrete state" were given in foot-notes scattered through both volumes.
After the disruption of the party, Say, in company with one or two others, went to New Orleans, and soon returned to Philadelphia. His next trip was with Long's second expedition, which explored the sources of the Mississippi River; but, with the exception of this and one or two minor expeditions, the next few years were spent in Philadelphia.
In 1825 Say left his native city, never to return. William Maclure, who was a man of wealth and refinement, but considerably eccentric withal, had an idea that the "community system" was the true way of living, and, unlike some other dreamers, he proceeded to put his plans into execution. A large tract of land was purchased at New Harmony, Indiana, and there the community was started. Numbers of people, among them Thomas Say, Gerard Troost, and C. A. Lesueur, influenced by the arguments of the projectors and the glowing accounts of the happy life to be led by a people possessing all things in common and working for a common good, removed themselves and theirs to this modern Utopia. The community, however, did not prosper; internal dissensions, as might have been expected, sprang up, and the aid of the courts was invoked. Maclure, utterly disgusted, went to Mexico, and left Say at New Harmony as his agent, to attend to the settling of the affairs of the community. This was not an agreeable task, but, without other means of support, Say was obliged to accept, and continued in this position until his death. This stay at New Harmony was not a period of scientific idleness on the part of Say, as the numerous contributions which proceeded from his pen attest.
At his death his collections arid library came into the possession of the Philadelphia Academy. The insects were submitted to another entomologist for arrangement, but through an unpardonable neglect were allowed to go to complete ruin before their return to the academy, and the types of hundreds of species were thus irrevocably lost. The remainder of his types are principally the property of the Philadelphia Academy, where they are as religiously preserved with his own labels as are those of Linne and Fabricius in London, or of Herbst in Berlin. The number of new species which Say described has probably never been exceeded, except in the cases of those two exceedingly careless workers, John Edward Gray and Francis Walker, of the British Museum. There is this in Say's favor, which can not be said of the two just mentioned, that his descriptions are, almost without exception, easily recognized, and almost every form which he described is now well known. Working as he did without books, and without that traditional knowledge which obtains among the Continental workers, it was unavoidable that he should redescribe forms which were known before; but, owing to the clear insight he possessed, and the discrimination he exercised in selecting the important features of the form before him, his work has never caused that confusion in synonymy which many in much more favorable circumstances have produced.
Say's work was almost wholly the scientific description of the forms which came under his eye, and there is scarcely anything in his writings concerning the habits of animals, or which appeals in the slightest to the popular taste, and his language frequently is not of chaste and classic character. An extract from his "American Entomology" will illustrate this: "During the progress of Major Long's expedition up the Missouri, that enterprising and excellent officer intrusted me with the direction of a small party of thirteen persons, destined to explore the country on the south side of that extended river. After encountering many obstacles and privations, which it is unnecessary to enumerate, the party arrived at the village of the Konza Indians, hungry, fatigued, and out of health. Commiserating our situation, these sons of nature, although suffering under the injustice of white people, received us with their characteristic hospitality, and ameliorated our condition by the luxuries of repletion and repose. Whilst sitting in the large earth-covered dwelling of the principal chief, in presence of several hundred of his people, assembled to view the arms, equipments, and appearance of our party, I enjoyed the additional gratification to see an individual of this fine species of Blaps running toward us from the feet of the crowd. The act of impaling this unlucky fugitive at once conferred upon me the respectful and mystic title of 'medicine-man' from the superstitious faith of that simple people."
Say's two principal works, published separately, were his "American Entomology" in three volumes (Philadelphia, 1824-1828), with fifty-four colored plates; and his "American Conchology," of which only six parts appeared previous to his death. The work on entomology was a credit to himself and to the printer, while almost the only merit possessed by the latter work was the fine plates from the pencil of Mrs. Say. Mr. Say's other published papers will be found in the "Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia," "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society," "Maclurean Lyceum," "Nicholson's Encyclopædia," "American Journal of Science and Art," "Western Quarterly Reporter," reports of Long's expeditions, and several papers which were published separately at New Harmony. His entomological papers have been collected and reprinted, with annotations, by Dr. J. L. Le Conte, in two octavo volumes (New York, 1869).
Besides the work which appears in connection with his own name, almost all of the publications of Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte, while in America, were corrected and arranged for the press by Say. This and other work made such calls upon his time that almost all of his own work was the product of the midnight hours; and this, in connection with his wicked disregard of the demands of his stomach, so undermined his constitution that, when attacked by a fever in his Western home, he had not the strength to rally, and on October 10, 1834, he passed away.
According to the testimony of all who knew him, Mr. Say was a most pleasant and agreeable companion, a thorough student, and a man of the most unpretentious manner. Always ready to assist a friend, his stores of knowledge were freely opened to those who asked, and information was cheerfully granted to all inquirers.