Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/June 1895/Timothy Abbott Conrad
By Dr. CHARLES C. ABBOTT.
IN Philadelphia, early in the present century, there was a strongly developed taste for natural-history pursuits, and eager collectors of the local fauna naturally became so acquainted and thrown together that the formation of a club and then the organization of the Academy of Natural Sciences were the logical outcome. Previous to this, local zoölogy had not been overlooked, as the quartos of the American Philosophical Society show, and Peale's Museum was also an incentive to natural-history studies; but all was more or less chaotic until the academy came into existence. Then fresh enthusiasm was roused and every member became a collector, and every collector a describer of new species. To-day these old naturalists would irreverently be called “species mongers”; but if possibly there was a little less “science” in their labors, all credit is due them for excellent intentions, and every evidence of careful, correct, and valuable work, which has not had to be done over. Looking back to the time when Say, Nuttall, Rafinesque, Lesueur, Vanuxem, Troost, Harlan, Morton, and Conrad filled the pages of the academy's journal, we get a glimpse of a remarkable company, who collected eagerly and studied carefully their “finds” and spicily defended their positions when the great question of “priority of publication” came up. These men were not given to theorizing; evolution was not in their vocabularies, although we see at times some evidence of looking beyond a species to its real significance. De Maillet's strange book had been translated and informally discussed, but, as a general thing, no one troubled himself with Lamarck, or all accepted Cuvier without question. In short, these Philadelphia naturalists gathered specimens all day, and when they had the material sat up all night describing new species. And among them all there was no one more eager in the quest and more popular with his fellows than Solomon White Conrad, the father of the subject of the present sketch. That the elder Conrad was a remarkable man all who remember him assert without reserve. That he was a popular one, the fact that his house was a favorite gathering place for all the scientific notables of the city clearly proves. His was the first natural-history salon opened in Philadelphia, and being a matter of six days in the week, instead of at stated intervals, was fully as popular as the celebrated Wistar parties.
A descendant of Thones Kunders (subsequently anglicized to Dennis Conrad), who left Crefeld, Germany, July 24, 1683, and settled at Germantown, then nine miles from Philadelphia, but now in the city limits, like his American ancestry, Solomon W. Conrad was a strict Quaker and an approved minister of that faith. His father was John Conrad, a blacksmith, and Solomon was born July 31, 1779, and died October 2, 1831. Of his early life nothing is positively known, but it is probable that he was apprenticed to a printer or bookseller. It is known that a strong fancy for scientific study was early developed, and the fears of his friends were realized that he would not be successful in business, because of attention divided between his shop and his cherished specimens at home. His partner ruined him financially. His herbarium is now in the possession of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. As evidence that the country was more attractive than the shop on Market Street, I quote the following from the manuscript journal of a nephew: “My father, . . . with Solomon Conrad, would take long walks in search of new specimens. I went with them once on a stroll along the banks of the Schuylkill, when they saw at the same time, in the shallow bed of the river, a fine lot of mussels. Both rushed to the spot, regardless of the rough stones and splashing of the muddy water, the broad tails of their plain coats standing out behind and their arms reaching out in front, eager to secure the prize.” In the spring of 1829 Solomon Conrad, who at that time had acquired a wide reputation as a mineralogist and botanist, was elected Professor of Botany in the University of Pennsylvania, and delivered, May 1st, his introductory address. In The Friend of fifth month, 9, 1829, the late Roberts Vaux, of Philadelphia, gives the following estimate of the lecture: “With a succinct review of the history of botany he very happily blended some biographical notices of the distinguished men to whom the science owed its origin and illustration. He traced with great acuteness and perspicuity the analogy of vegetable and animal life, admitting the limit of human knowledge. Every view that he furnished of the subject, upon which he is so well qualified to impart instruction in all its details, was just and forcible, while the simplicity of his manner and chasteness of his style were by no means the least interesting traits of the lecturer.” The venerable Frederick Fraley, Esq., of Philadelphia, recently informed me that he was present at the introductory lecture referred to, and that Mr. Vaux had in no wise allowed his enthusiasm to outrun his discretion.
On June 21, 1803, when his father was but twenty-four years old, Timothy Abbott Conrad was born. His mother was then staying at the home of her father, four miles from Trenton, N. J., in Burlington County, New Jersey. To this birthplace young Conrad became so strongly attached that he yearly made pilgrimage thereto, even when no representative of the family lived there. In his purely literary writings he so frequently refers to the place that he was once twitted about it, but without effect.
“Timothy,” remarked an old Friend, “was thy grandfather the only man who ever lived in the country?”
“Other men exist in the country, but no one else lived like my grandfather,” he replied.
Brought up, when with his parents, in so scientific an atmosphere, and when at his birthplace so delightfully surrounded not only by congenial kinsfolk, but Nature in her most attractive guise, it is little wonder that Conrad became a naturalist. Mr. Fraley tells me that, when a youth in early teens, Conrad was the “president” of an “Academy of Science” of which he, Mr. Fraley, was “secretary,” and that it was conducted with all the decorum and good faith of the institution after which it was modeled.
Conrad was educated at select schools under the superintendence of Friends, but really educated himself, so far as the “higher branches” were concerned, acquiring without a teacher a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek, and French. His skill in drawing was remarkable and early developed. He not only made all his own illustrations, but did considerable for others, as the shells, seaweed, and other small objects on some of Audubon's plates of birds. Before seriously taking up the special studies that subsequently made him famous, he wrote many sketches of a popular character, and occasionally drifted into verse. His father being a publisher and printer, Conrad entered the establishment as a clerk, reluctantly probably, and there learned the printer's art, and when his father died, in 1831, he continued the business for a short time, but the love of natural history was too strong to be overcome, and he gave up the shop and its belongings. Because of a preference for walking afield to attending religious services, a committee of Friends called upon Conrad, and, not accepting his explanation, they directed his name to be stricken off their roll of membership. Conrad did not like their action, and probably it is due to this that he seldom afterward attended any religious gathering, occasionally dropping into some country Quaker meeting, but always, as he said, for old times' sake and not spiritual profit.
In 1831 he was elected a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and, some years after, of the American Philosophical Society. Of many foreign learned societies he was a correspondent, but, keeping no record of such elections, the names and dates of election have been lost.
Conrad's first volume bears date of 1831, and has the following title: American Marine Conchology, or Descriptions and Colored Figures of the Shells of the Atlantic Coast. Of this little volume, printed for the author, Conrad says in his preface, “it is designed to supply a deficiency which has long been felt by the cultivators of American natural history.” The work contains seventeen plates, all drawn by the author, and colored by hand by his sister. In 1834 Conrad published New Fresh-water Shells of the United States, with Lithographic Illustrations and a Monograph of the Genus Anculotus of Say. Also, A Synopsis of the American Naiades; Philadelphia, Judah Dobson, 108 Chestnut Street, May 3, 1834. The full title of this little volume, with precise date of publication (not much larger than the title is long) is given, because even then questions of priority had arisen, and others laid claim to some of Conrad's species. This unhappy wrangling was kept up for many years. Prof. Dall refers to this, as we shall see further on, as “numerous controversies, which are now ancient history.” Conrad's own version should be given. He claimed that the editions of his publications were largely bought up and destroyed by a worker in the same field, and this explains the rarity of some of his writings. In the preface of the little volume above mentioned the author says: “While residing in the mansion of my kind and hospitable friend, Judge Tait, of Claiborne, Alabama, where I was employed in collecting the organic remains of the vicinity, I occasionally made excursions up and down the Alabama for the purpose of procuring fresh-water shells. I have succeeded in obtaining some species which I believe to be new, and hope to fix by accurate delineations and descriptions.” The result was the little book, which is dedicated to the late Charles A. Poulson, of Philadelphia, a prominent conchologist in his day, and one of Conrad's financial backers in his several expeditions south in search of both recent and fossil shells. In 1834, in the Journal (old series) of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, Volume VII, Conrad published Observations on the Tertiary and More Recent Formations of a Portion of the United States, which appears to have been his first communication to that body. In 1841 the Proceedings of the Academy were commenced, and a new series of the Journal in quarto. In the former, from Volume I to Volume XXXVI, Conrad's contributions appear in every year; the articles varying from two to a dozen in number. In the first four volumes of the new journal he has eleven contributions, all of which are profusely illustrated. In 1836 Conrad published Monography of the Family Unionidæ, or Naiades of Lamarck (fresh-water bivalve shells), of North America. Illustrated by Figures drawn on Stone from Nature. Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1836. This work, like the Marine Conchology, was never finished. It would seem as if the magnitude of the work had not occurred to him at the time, or that he was soon tired of any subject that he took up, but the real difficulty was a want of financial support. There were never enough subscribers to meet the expense of publication. At this time, too, his health was very bad, and he seemed to lose all interest in every undertaking. “A period of moping would usually end in his writing some verses which nobody would praise, and this seemed sufficiently to nettle him, to rouse him thoroughly, and he would become again enthusiastic in the matter of shells and fossils.”
In 1837 Conrad was appointed Geologist of the State of New York, and after resigning the position remained as paleontologist of the survey until 1842. “He prepared official reports on the fossils collected by the United States exploring expedition under Wilkes; by Lieutenant Lynch's expedition to the Dead Sea; by the Mexican Boundary Survey, and some of the surveys for a railroad route to the Pacific undertaken under the supervision of the War Department. Many papers were written by him on the Tertiary and Cretaceous geology and paleontology of the eastern United States and published in the American Journal of Science, the Bulletin of the National Institution, the American Journal of Conchology, Kerr's Geological Report on North America, and other publications. A list of Conrad's papers, which covers most of those bearing on paleontological topics, may be found in Miscellaneous Publications of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, No. 10; Bibliography of North American Invertebrate Paleontology, by Drs. C. A. White and H. Alleyne Nicholson Washington, Interior Department, 1878. It contains a hundred and twelve titles” (Dall).
In 1832 Conrad published Fossil Shells of the Tertiary Formations of North America. Illustrated by Figures drawn on Stone from Nature. Vol. I. Philadelphia, 1832. It is dedicated to Samuel George Morton, M. D. In 1838 Conrad published Fossils of the Tertiary Formations of the United States. Illustrated by Figures drawn from Nature. Philadelphia: J. Dobson. These are known generally as the Eocene and Miocene volumes, and both, as original editions, are extremely rare. They have recently been reprinted in facsimile: the former by Mr. G. D. Harris of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.; and the latter by the Wagner Free Institute, under the editorial supervision of William H. Dall, of the National Museum. In his introduction Prof. Dall says: “Students of the American Miocene and the later Tertiary deposits of the New World are well aware of the importance to them of Conrad's work, usually referred to by the title of The Medial Tertiary. There can be little doubt that the scarcity of this work and its predecessor, the Eocene volume, is the chief cause of the delay in investigating our rich and interesting Tertiary beds.”
Prof. Dall, in considering Conrad as a paleontologist, remark as follows: “Mr. Conrad had several peculiarities; he wrote his letters and labels frequently on all sorts of scraps of paper, generally without date or location. He was naturally careless or unmethodical, and his citations of other authors' works can not safely be trusted without verification, and are usually incomplete. He had a very poor memory, and on several occasions had redescribed his own species. This defect increased with age, and, while no question of willful misstatement need arise, made it impossible to place implicit confidence in his own recollections of such matters as dates of publication. He himself says in a characteristic letter to F. B. Meek, written in July, 1863: ‘I go on Monday to help H—— ferret out my skulking species of Palaeozoic shells. May the recording angel help me! God and I knew them once, and the Almighty may know still. A man's memory is no part of his soul.’
“In spite of this constitutional defect, Conrad had an acute and observant eye, and an excellent, if sometimes hasty, judgment on matters of geology and classification. He was in advance of his time in discriminating genera, and in field researches and work on the specimens showed more than ordinary capacity. In those branches of his work which required knowledge of literature and systematic research he took less interest and pains.
“Like many shy people, he was brought rather than ventured into numerous controversies, which are now ancient history, and need not be further alluded to. But the sketch just given will enable readers to understand the origin of much that is irritating to those who are obliged to rely upon Conrad's work and find in it slips and errors so obvious that they seem unpardonable. He had the defects of his qualities, but whether for good or evil he was the principal worker in the field of Tertiary geology in America for many years. He has left a voluminous literature, and neither his faults nor his virtues can by any method be ignored.”
When Darwin's Origin of Species was published, Conrad became intensely interested in the discussions that wonderful book provoked. He did not take the theory up as subject-matter for an essay; but contented himself with innumerable notes and memoranda that I found on loose slips of paper after his death. He was bitterly opposed to evolution; considered Agassiz the world's greatest naturalist, and predicted that Darwin's “wild speculations” would soon be forgotten. Every geological age came, Conrad held, to a complete close, and the life of the succeeding one was a wholly new creation. These utterly crude and untenable views he held to, to the last.
It would be unjust to the memory of the subject of this sketch to pass over without notice his characteristics as a man and author. Conrad was something besides a profound paleontologist. This his friends well knew: but for the writer of this sketch to deal with this phase of Conrad's personality is a rather delicate matter. As his nephew, I might say too much; as his biographer, I wish not to say too little.
Conrad was of small stature, thin and homely, yet he had, as an intimate friend recently said, a refined countenance. There was a kindly light in his eyes that words can not describe nor the cunning of the artist depict. I have said “homely”; this on his own authority, for in his poem The Watermelon he declares:
The poet may sing of the Orient spices,
Where I bathe the dry wings of the spirit, and sprinkling
As a conversationist, Conrad had few superiors, but a weakness of his voice made it difficult for him to be heard, and it was only when with two or three intimate friends that this quality shone out. He avoided large gatherings and never spoke in public. He had a keen sense of humor and was an inveterate punster. His memory was “very bad” scientifically, says Prof. Dall, but it was remarkably good so far as poetry was concerned, and when walking alone in the country he would repeat aloud long passages from the works of his favorite authors. His fondness for poetry led him to writing verses, some of which were printed in the Philadelphia papers as early as 1828; and his latest effort bears date of 1874. In 1848 Conrad published The New Diogenes, a Cynical Poem. This is well described in the subtitle. It consists of some twenty-five hundred lines of fault-finding. The edition was very small and is not yet exhausted. In 1871 the writer undertook to bring together the scattered short poems, and found thirty-two of these, mostly in the corners of newspapers and two in manuscript. The little volume was “privately printed.” It bears the title, A Geological Vision and Other Poems. Trenton, N. J., 1871.
In his non-scientific writings Conrad invites a comparison with Thoreau, but, while loving the outdoor world as devotedly, he always had an eye to physical comfort, and preferred, at the end of a long tramp, a good bed at a tavern to sleeping out of doors. So too, probably, did Thoreau, but then to say so does not sound so prettily in a book.
Timothy Abbott Conrad died in Trenton, N. J., August 9, 1877, the last of the prominent group of early Philadelphia naturalists, who paved the way for the more philosophical biologists of the present day.