Discovery December 1998Montana State University-Bozeman
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Naturalist Thomas Say Followed in
Footsteps of Famous Explorers

by Evelyn Boswell

Thomas Say

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had no scientists, artists, doctors and naturalists traveling with them on their expedition to the Northwest almost 200 years ago.

Unlike the explorers who led later scientific expeditions across America, Lewis and Clark performed many of those functions themselves, says Stuart Knapp, Lewis and Clark expert and interim dean of the College of Agriculture at MS.

"At that time, knowledge for its own sake was secondary," Knapp commented.

The first government-funded expedition,however, did contribute to the renown of at least one naturalist who lived in the early 19th century, Knapp said.

Thomas Say, a kind of Renaissance man naturalist, was "greatly influenced by a wide range of specimens in the Charles Wilson Peale Museum in Philadelphia, particularly those collected by Lewis and Clark," Knapp reported during a recent seminar on Say.

Say identified several animals collected during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, including a coyote found near Chamberlain, S.D., a short-tailed shrew, Plains gray wolf and Swift fox. He went on to travel with two expeditions that followed the Lewis and Clark Expedition: the S.H. Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819 and the long Expedition to St. Peter's River in 1823.

"Say was really the first person to study a wide range of indigenous insects and describe them in a scientific form," Knapp continued. "... At 32, he was considered the most brilliant zoologist in the country."

Like many scientists in the early 1800s, Say had interests that ranged far beyond one specialty, Knapp added. He was the son and grandson of two physicians and was trained as a pharmacist, but he founded the Entomological Society of America and is sometimes referred to as the founder of American entomology. He was among the first to use fossils to date geological strata. He was a charter member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

On a more personal note, Say joined an experimental community at New Harmony, Ind., where he met his future wife,Lucy. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society.

"Say was destined to be a physician, but he rejected the idea of practice," Knapp said. "He decided to study nature, inspired by his great uncle, William Bartram."

Bartram, incidentally, was a botanist who had been asked to join the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but declined, saying he was too old.

Other associates of Say were Titian Peale,an artist and naturalist who also traveled with the Long Expeditions. Say once hosted Prince Maxmillian of Germany for five months at New Harmony.The man who had probably the biggest influence on Say, though, was William Maclure, his patron. Maclure became a great benefactor to the Academy of Natural Sciences, and it was he who convinced Say to move to the experimental community in Indiana.

Say died in 1834 when he was 47 years old,Knapp said. He apparently died from typhoid fever.

"It was a time when people began to stay in the laboratory and do science from within a particular focus," Knapp said. "Natural history collections that had been so popular in the earlier part of the 19th century essentially stopped. People went out and brought things back and worked on it, much like researchers do today."

Evelyn Boswell writes for Communications Services and the Vice President for Research Office.



© 1999 Montana State University-Bozeman