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SAY, THOMAS (1787-1834)

Naturalist, conchologist, and entomologist Thomas Say was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 27, 1787. He was one of four children born to Benjamin Say, a physician, and Ann Bonsall, who was a granddaughter of the early botanist John Bartram. Say attended Westtown Boarding (Friends) School near Philadelphia. In 1827 he married Lucy Way sistare at Mt. Vernon, Indiana. They had no children. Say served with the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry in 1814. His interest in natural history was stimulated by his great-uncle, William Bartram. Say was a cofounder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812 and served a curator from 1812 to 1826 and as professor of zoology in the Museum of Philadelphia from 1821 to 1825.

Between June and September 1820 Say served as zoologist with the Maj. Stephen H. Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains. That party searched for the headwaters of the Red River, made maps of the uncharted Louisiana Territory, and located areas for military posts to protect the American fur trade. Having journeyed through parts of Nebraska and Colorado, the expedition divided into two groups, and Say accompanied Capt. John R. Bell and ten others who entered Oklahoma on August 19, 1820. They followed the Arkansas River through Oklahoma and arrived at Fort Smith, Arkansas, on September 9. Unfortunately, Say's journals were among the items stolen by three soldiers who deserted the party on August 31.

Edwin James's Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the Years 1819 and 20 was published as a record of this expedition. Extensive collections of both plants and animals of all types (both living and fossil) were recorded and taken, with numerous new species identified. Say collected and described the collared lizard (now the official state lizard of Oklahoma) from northeastern Oklahoma.

Thomas Say published extensive papers on entomology, conchology, paleontology, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and crustacea. He is called the father of American entomology and the father of American conchology. He also served on other government-sponsored expeditions and studied and catalogued the vocabularies of American Indian languages and signs.

As a social reformer Say joined other scientists and educators in forming a group at New Harmony, Indiana, in 1826. While in New Harmony he served as editor and frequent contributor to the Disseminator, in which he published some of his findings in entomology and conchology. He died in New Harmony on October 10, 1834.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Joseph Kastner, A Species of Eternity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977). Howard Ensign Evans, The Natural History of the Long Expedition to the Rocky Moutains 1819-1820 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). George J. Goodman and Cheryl A. Lawson, Retracing Major Stephen H. Long's 1820 Expedition: The Itinerary and Botany (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995). Patricia Tyson Stroud, Thomas Say: New World Naturalist (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

Charles C. Carpenter

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