Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Two views of a male pipevine swallowtail, identified by Say as Papilio philenor (=Battus philenor), the first plate in American Entomology, Volume 1. State Library of Pennsylvania

Two views of a male swallowtail from the first plate in American Entomology, Volume 1. State Library of Pennsylvania

Thomas Say was a keen observer of living things. In a scientific era that cherished primacy in classification and description, Say was renowned for his work. He named approximately 1,500 North American insects and scores of other species. This accomplishment alone could justify scientist Benjamin Silliman’s assertion that Say “has done more to make known the zoology of this country, than any other man.” Say’s greatest fame, however, rests upon his life’s devotion “to natural science without other means of support.” Biographer Patricia Stroud has written, “Thomas Say can be considered one of the first true American professionals in a field . . . [previously] thought of as an amateur pursuit.” Paradoxically, this was the triumph and tragedy of his life.


Early Life

Thomas Say was born in Philadelphia on June 27,1787, to Dr. Benjamin Say (1755-1813) and his wife, Ann Bonsall (d. 1793), while members of the American Constitutional Convention labored in the nearby State House to forge “a more perfect union.” Say faced poverty throughout his adult life, but ironically he was the son of one of the richest men in the city. Although his father and grandfather were practical physician-apothecaries, Say became a naturalist, the first professional zoologist, which earned him little money.

Say probably received his primary education at a Philadelphia Friends School, but in 1799 at age 12 he was enrolled at a new Quaker boarding school in nearby Westtown, Chester County. The youthful Say cared little for his teachers or the subjects they taught.

Despite a lack of enthusiasm for school, Say showed keen interest in natural history from an early age. His great uncle William Bartram (1739-1823) encouraged him and his companions – his brother Benjamin and some of the children of Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) – to contribute specimens to his extensive collections. Say also loved to visit Peale’s Philadelphia Museum with its specimens of preserved birds, fish, mammals, plants, insects and fossils. Stroud suggests that Peale’s son, the first Titian Peale (1780-98), might have ignited Say’s lifelong interest in insects.

After Say completed his secondary education in 1801, he helped his father in the pharmacy, a respectable and remunerative business. He also enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He seemed destined to become a physician-apothecary like his father and grandfather before him.

From 1801 through 1814 Say entered the pharmaceutical trade, studied medicine, failed in business, lost his father and cofounded an enduring scientific society, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He also fought in the War of 1812, joining the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. These experiences forged the mettle of his character, even as they revealed Say’s resilience and scientific ingenuity.


The Academy of Natural Sciences

Say, apothecary John Speakman and dentist Jacob Gilliams were dedicated amateur naturalists who often gathered with friends at Speakman’s pharmacy to discuss scientific matters. At one gathering Speakman suggested that the group should hold regularly scheduled meetings. This led to the first official meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Speakman’s house on Saturday, January 25,1812. According to the minutes, Say was absent from the meeting, but he was present on March 17 when Professor Samuel Jackson suggested the name Academy of Natural Sciences. The members agreed “the exclusive object of the society should be the cultivation of the natural sciences.” On May 7 they elected officers; Say was chosen as conservator.

After forsaking the world of business, the 25-year-old Say took up residence in the academy he helped to found. He worked continually, always making himself available to members and visitors to retrieve books and specimens. He existed on the simplest fare, usually bread and milk. Years of overwork and poor diet eventually undermined his health.

Say’s curatorial responsibilities grew quickly in proportion to the academy’s expanding collections. During 1813 he began to offer lectures at the academy, and he wrote an original essay on the science of entomology, the study of insects. According to academy historian Edward Nolan, Say’s “reports of original research” replaced “the reading of extracts from encyclopedias or journals.”

During its early years, the academy embodied the nationalistic temper of American science, exemplified by Thomas Jefferson’s refutation of the Comte de Buffon, the renowned French naturalist. Buffon argued that America’s cold, humid climate had retarded the development of its species, prompting Jefferson to respond with detailed comparative tables in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia. Members of the new society sought to connect their humble institution with the national and international scientific communities. They extended academy membership to many prominent Americans, as well as “corresponding” Europeans. New members were nominated at every meeting. Early candidates included French naturalist Francois Andre Michaux (1770-1855) and Scottish businessman and philanthropist William Maclure (1763-1840).

Maclure’s election in June 1812 and his monetary contributions assisted the struggling institution. It was Say’s good fortune that Maclure entered his life just a few months after his father’s death. The older man, an accomplished geologist, recognized Say’s extraordinary talents and supported his dedication morally and financially. Say sensed a kindred spirit in Maclure and soon developed a filial devotion for his new friend and patron, It was Maclure’s generosity that enabled Say to pursue natural science in a full-time, professional capacity.

Thomas Say wore his Long Expedition uniform for this 1819 oil portrait by Charles Willson Peale. ANSP Archives Collection 2011-025

Thomas Say wore his Long Expedition uniform for this 1819 oil portrait by Charles Willson Peale.
ANSP Archives Collection 2011-025

In February 1817 the Academy of Natural Sciences pursued another strategic endeavor – publication of a scientific journal. The ostensible purpose of the new Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was outreach to the public and the scientific community. They wished to communicate “facts and observations” of public interest, but especially to inform “persons engaged in similar pursuits.” The journal’s editorial policy was bluntly empirical and determined to “exclude entirely all papers of mere theory.”

Already actively involved in the daily operations of the academy, Say was an obvious candidate to edit the journal. He was encouraged by Maclure, who became the institution’s president in December 1817. The new journal suffered no lack of scholarly material. The first issue contained articles on mollusks by Say, gastropods by new member Charles Alexandre Lesueur (1778-1846) and Rocky Mountain sheep by academy vice president George Ord (1781-1866). Say, a frequent contributor, offered articles on insects and crustaceans during the journal’s first two years of existence. These and other publications, along with correspondence, became his primary avenues into the international scientific community.

Say’s main zoological interests focused on invertebrates. The phyla Arthropoda, including insects, arachnids and crustaceans, and Mollusca were neglected areas of American natural history. Say’s contributions to conchology (malacology today) predated his 1817 writings in the journal. Samuel Augustus Mitchell (1790-4868), a Philadelphia publisher with rights to the second American edition of William Nicholson’s British Encyclopedia, asked Say to contribute an article on conchology in 1816. The essay, which named and described many new species of mollusks, attracted international attention and became the basis of American conchology.

Say’s interest in entomology is first documented by articles in the June and July 1817 issues of the journal on new species of beetles and the Hessian fly. In late 1817 the first indication of a future American Entomology appeared when Say published a 28-page prospectus with six plates. In the preface he declared the need for a study on American entomology, because very little had been done in the United States, unlike Europe, where insects were “most observed [and] most studied.” A lack of scholarly resources and “the obscurity of the distinctive characteristics” of insects hampered American research. He undertook the work with “considerable hesitation:’ so it is not surprising that he was forced to temporarily abandon the project, which his publisher considered too costly.

Although Say initially followed the Linnaean system of classification, he was among the first American naturalists to employ Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Pierre Andre Latreille’s natural system of classification. He complained that many naturalists blithely categorized specimens by referring readers to a particular “cabinet” or museum collection. By contrast, Say insisted that species should be observed in their natural environment. He was also critical of Linnaeus for the brevity and insufficiency of his descriptions. For example, Say’s 1822 article on the Oestrus ovis, or bot fly, explained that although “every describer” should be concise, he ought not hesitate to use “as many expletives as will . . . obviously distinguish his object.” Doubtless, Say achieved a balance between brevity and precision. German entomologist Wilhelm Ferdinand Erichson wrote, “no one excels the American Say, who published descriptions so concise . . . so clear that you will hardly ever find a doubtful form.”


Explorer and Field Naturalist

Late in the autumn of 1817, Say embarked on the first of several scientific expeditions that marked a new phase in his career. Maclure invited Say, George Ord and the second Titian Peale (1799-1885) to join him on a voyage to islands off the coast of Georgia and then Spanish Florida. It was an inauspicious time for a trip, because covert American encroachments across the Georgia border incited violence among Florida Indians. Despite a letter of safe conduct, the expedition was cut short, missing the prime season for Florida insects. Say complained to Pennsylvania entomologist John Melsheimer that “in consequence of this cruel & inhuman war that our government is . . . waging against these poor wretches . . . our voyage was rendered abortive’ As a result, he obtained “very few Insects:’ and those few were insignificant.

A species Say encountered on the Long Expedition and later described in Volume 1 of American Entomology: the western cicada killer (top, female; bottom left, male). State Library of Pennsylvania

A species Say encountered on the Long Expedition and later described in Volume 1 of American Entomology: the western cicada killer (top, female; bottom left, male). State Library of Pennsylvania

Ten months after his return to Philadelphia in May 1818, Say was appointed zoologist on Major Stephen Long’s expedition. This U.S. government-funded exploration was the first to include scientists. Its scientific goals were to discover new species of North American plants and animals, to investigate fossilized remains and to study the Native American tribes they encountered. Say’s appointment was a measure of his zoological renown for naming new animal species. He joined leader Stephen Long (1784-1864), geologist Augustus Jessup (1797-1859), landscape painter Samuel Seymour (1775-1823) and Titian Peale, whose job it was to sketch and preserve the specimens collected.

The party left Pittsburgh on May 5, 1819, steaming down the Ohio River on the Western Engineer, a specially constructed shallow-draft steamboat. Despite numerous obstacles and boat repairs, the expedition reached St. Louis by June 9. They were soon forced to abandon their ailing botanist William Baldwin, who was later replaced by Edwin James (1797-1861). Proceeding on foot and later on horseback, Say’s detachment traveled to Fort Osage on the farthest reaches of the frontier, then journeyed another 200 miles to Council Bluffs. There they constructed a winter base, where Say conducted ethnological and zoological studies.

That spring new orders redirected the expedition up the Platte River. After reaching the Rocky Mountains, the company divided in two to explore the Arkansas and Red rivers before beginning the 1,000-mile trek east across the Great Desert. Back in Missouri by mid-September, Say and fellow travelers Seymour and James contracted malaria, but recovered sufficiently to resume their journey by November 1. With Peale they traveled by riverboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, then caught a packet to Philadelphia, arriving home in late December 1820.

The first Long Expedition failed in its primary mission to identify the sources of the Platte and Arkansas rivers. Nevertheless, thanks to Say, the report made accurate observations on Native American tribal life and customs. He also broke new ground with some of the first descriptions of American predators, such as the coyote, the swift fox and the Great Plains gray wolf, as well as new species of rats, squirrels, shrews, bats, reptiles, snails and insects. When soldiers stole Say’s horse and saddlebag with five of his notebooks, he lost all of his writings on Indian customs, history and vocabularies, together with species descriptions and observations of animal habits. Only his prodigious memory allowed him to reconstruct the information for Edwin James, who compiled the 1822 Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains. Say also managed to save the insect specimens he had collected.

After returning to Philadelphia, Say resumed his curatorial duties at the academy and published many descriptions from the Florida and Long expeditions in the journal and other scientific publications. His articles described Thysanura (now Zygentoma), which includes silver fish; Myriapoda, containing millipedes and centipedes; and Arachnida, such as scorpions, mites, ticks and harvestmen. Oddly, he considered himself unqualified to describe spiders without “further investigation.” He also contributed articles on American univalve shells, such as land and sea snails from the Florida and Long expeditions and marine shells discovered in Georgia and East Florida.

Two types of spider wasp that Say observed on the Long Expedition as illustrated in Volume 3 of American Entomology. State Library of Pennsylvania

Two types of spider wasp (top and bottom left) that Say observed on the Long Expedition as illustrated in Volume 3 of American Entomology. State Library of Pennsylvania

During the second half of 1821 Say began the daunting task of assessing and describing the discoveries of the Long Expedition. By an earlier agreement, the collections were deposited at Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, following the precedent of Lewis and Clark. The Long Expedition returned with 60 new and rare animal hides, numerous land and freshwater mollusks, and several thousand insect specimens. Say preserved the insects, while Peale’s son Reubens (1784-1865) worked on other fauna.

Say’s zoological fame added new academic and curatorial commitments to his already crowded schedule. In 1821 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society and named its curator. That spring he was named professor of zoology by the Trustees of Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, responsible for lectures on natural history. Finally, in March 1822 the University of Pennsylvania appointed him professor of natural history. Biographers Harry B. Weiss and Grace B. Ziegler doubt that he delivered many lectures, because he reported to a friend that he was “recently occupied with preparations for another Exped[ition] .. . for the exploration of the St. Peter’s river & the 49° of latitude.”

The 1823 Long Expedition to St. Peter’s River (Minnesota River) was primarily a topographical surveying journey to establish accurate measurements of latitude and longitude. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun’s primary goal was to fix the location of the 49th parallel, the northern boundary of the United States, and allay tensions between American and British traders. After receiving his orders, Long asked Say to join him as zoologist. Besides the topographical objectives, the expedition’s scientific aims were to describe the flora, fauna and minerals of the region and to investigate the lifestyles and customs of Native American tribes in the area.

The second Long Expedition embarked from Philadelphia on April 30, 1823, on the first leg of a six-month, 4,000-mile journey to Chicago, then on to Dubuque, up the Mississippi River to Fort Anthony, and terminating at the intersection of the Red River and the 49th degree of latitude along the Canadian boundary. On their homeward journey, they traveled on the cutter Dallas down Lake Huron to Detroit, across Lake Erie to Buffalo, then overland to Rochester, and by canal to Albany. They arrived back in Philadelphia on October 26, 1823, “healthy and exhilarated.”

Unlike the first Long Expedition, the second one accomplished its political objective to establish the location of the northern boundary of the United States on the 49th parallel. The expedition also discovered much new geographic information about the northern portion of the country drained by the Mississippi and Red rivers. Say, not a botanist, gathered few plant specimens, instead focusing almost entirely on insects. While the North American Review noted the Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of the St. Peter’s River contained a 150-page appendix on natural history focused largely on insects, many scholars considered Say’s Native American data the most valuable information.


American Entomology

Frontispiece of Volume 1 of American Entomology. State Library of Pennsylvania

Frontispiece of Volume 1 of American Entomology. State Library of Pennsylvania

Although the Florida and Long expeditions distracted Say from his work on American insects at the academy, his new observations from various sections of the country gave him considerable material for the three-volume American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America. He continued his contributions to the journal, including a long essay on new beetles he encountered on the expedition to the Rockies, but he devoted most of his energies to American Entomology. Volume 1 was published by Samuel Augustus Mitchell in 1824. Say modeled the work from its inception on Edward Donovan’s Natural History of British Insects. Say intended his book do for America’s insects what Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology (1808-25) did for birds. He dedicated the work to William Maclure, “a successful cultivator, and munificent patron, of the Natural Sciences.”

The illustrations for Volume 1 of American Entomology were the work of Titian Peale, who made the drawings, and Cornelius Tiebout (c.1773-1832), who engraved the plates. Tiebout was noted for introducing English stippled engraving, or the use of small dots, to America. Other artists, including Hugh Bridport (1794-c.1868), William W. Wood and Lesueur, joined Peale in illustrating Volume 2. Volume 3 was entirely illustrated by Peale and Lesueur.

Say’s descriptions in Volume 1 are concise, detailed and empirical with remarks about the insect’s organs and appendages. Unlike Donovan’s descriptions, Say’s often omit common names. Say also interacts with traditional authorities Carl Linnaeus and Johan Christian Fabricius on classification, as well as advocates of natural classification, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Pierre André Latreille.

Reviews of Volume 1 by the press and learned societies in America were generally favorable. North American Review, however, questioned whether Say had not unwisely limited “himself so exclusively to rigid science” that the book contained little of interest to the “unskilled.” His response was to make Volume 2 more anecdotal in style and utilitarian in purpose.

Male and female walkingsticks in American Entomology, Volume 3. State Library of Pennsylvania

Male and female walkingsticks in American Entomology, Volume 3. State Library of Pennsylvania

Uninterrupted by expeditions, Say made significant progress on American Entomology. Volume 2 appeared in 1825, opening with a long essay on Aegeria exitiosa (Synanthedon exitiosa), or peachtree borer. Say was the first entomologist to describe this agricultural pest, which attacks gardens, orchards and even forest trees. He prescribed several remedies, citing contemporary horticulturalists. These involved hot water, a lime wash and sulphur applied to the tree trunk and roots.

Another description in Volume 2, remarkable for its detailed discussion is Ichneumon fly. Say explains how the insect’s parasitic reproductive behavior of depositing tiny eggs on caterpillars “of suitable magnitude” benefits humankind when its ravenous larvae devour the young of gypsy moths or cabbage loopers.

In summer 1825 Say finished work on Volume 3 of American Entomology, surveying numerous species of American beetles, bees and butterflies. He was captivated by the Phasmatidae family of insects, popularly known as walkingsticks. Concerned to dispel old superstitions of sticks or leaves coming to life, he explained that “their deceptive appearance” probably protects them “from their enemies the birds.” Also noteworthy is his brief description of new species of the family Pompilidae, or spider wasps, that sting their prey (spiders or caterpillars), then deposit them in underground nests along with their eggs. His final description profiled the familiar Danaus plexippus, or monarch butterfly, named by Linnaeus in 1745. Say added a detail about its food source – different species of Asclepias, or milkweed.

Despite Say’s progress on the manuscript of American Entomology, a new adventure soon distracted him, so that Volume 3 remained unpublished until 1828. During the summer of 1825 Say joined Maclure, Lesueur and other academy colleagues on a seven-week tour of mineral sites in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Throughout the journey the conversation focused on the Welsh philanthropist Robert Owen (1771-1858) and his proposal for a utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana. Maclure, whose interests were largely educational, was intrigued by Owen’s experiment.

Two views of the monarch butterfly from American Entomology, Volume 3. State Library of Pennsylvania

Two views of the monarch butterfly from American Entomology, Volume 3. State Library of Pennsylvania

Three months later on December 8, 1825, Say found himself on the Ohio River in a keelboat named the Philanthropist with his future wife Lucy Sistare (1801-86), Maclure and Lesueur. They were heading for Owen’s New Harmony. There Maclure intended to establish a school and scientific institute. With characteristic fortitude, Say took charge when the boat encountered ice on the river, Later, he was designated “captain” because of his “unusual composure.” Nevertheless Say was relieved that Maclure paid all the bills, because Say’s own funds were nearly exhausted. Despite undaunted courage, intellectual talents, and a prodigious scholarly output, Say was and continued to be dependent upon Maclure.

In order to please Maclure, he participated in the utopian experiment of New Harmony far removed from the city, the libraries and collections he loved. Why had he gone to New Harmony and why did he stay? As he explained to an old friend in 1829, the reason was quite simply “poverty.” He confessed that he had expected to return to Philadelphia after a few days in New Harmony and a visit to Mexico. “But, finding that Mr. M. concluded to remain here, & having no resort for living in Philadelphia, I could not choose but remain also.”

Even after Owen’s community collapsed in 1827, Say remained in New Harmony, his wife Lucy by his side. The publication of his magnum opus on the insect world but a memory, he remained a caretaker of this frontier outpost on the banks of the Wabash until his death on October 10, 1834.


For More Information

The most recent biography of Thomas Say is Patricia Tyson Stroud’s Thomas Say: New World Naturalist (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992). It is a comprehensive treatment of Say’s career as a naturalist and full-time practitioner in entomology and malacology. The first book-length biography of Say was Thomas Say, Early American Naturalist by Harry B. Weiss and Grace B. Ziegler (Charles C. Thomas, 1931), which includes useful chapters on Say’s friends and associates, his wife Lucy, and important letters and manuscripts.

Narratives of the Long expeditions are featured in Edwin James’ two-volume An Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the Years 1819 and ’20 (H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1823) and William Hypolitus Keating’s two-volume Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of the St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods (H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1824). Keating was the geologist on the second Long Expedition; his set includes an appendix that contains Say’s notes on American insects and Native American cultures and languages. A recent study on the first Long Expedition, Howard Ensign Evans’ The Natural History of the Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, 1819-1820 (Oxford University Press, 1997), contains excerpts from James’ volume and commentary.

Original copies of the three volumes of Thomas Say’s American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America (Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1824-28) are held in the Rare Collections of the State Library of Pennsylvania. All of Say’s entomological works, including American Entomology, were published in the two-volume Complete Works of Thomas Say on the Entomology of North America (1859), edited by John L. LeConte, which also contains a biographical memoir of Say by George Ord.


Iren Light Snavely Jr. is Rare Collections librarian at the State Library of Pennsylvania. He was formerly a project archivist at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. His article “Biography of the Feathered Tribes: Alexander Wilson Ornithology” appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.