American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Reason

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American Naturalist

American Entomology
Thomas Say (1787-1834)
American Entomology; or Descriptions
of the Insects of North America.

Philadelphia: 1824-28
Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Each moss,
Each shell, each crawling insect, holds a rank
Important in the plan of Him who fram'd
This scale of being.

--Stillingfleet

This epigram graces the three-volume work American Entomology: or Descriptions of the Insects of North America (1824-28), the masterwork of Thomas Say (1787-1834), the father of American entomology. The engraving of the butterfly Papilio turnus reproduced here is typical of the meticulously detailed and beautifully conceived plates throughout the work.

The drawings were done either by Say himself, or, as in this case, by Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885), the son of Charles Willson Peale, based on observations taken from nature in the course of various expeditions to the South, the Rocky Mountains, the Minnesota River Basin, and Mexico. After finishing this work, Say went on to publish another definitive work, on American shells, and approached the subject with the same spirit of adventure and reverence that informed his work on insects. As he wrote, "It is an enterprise that may be compared to that of a pioneer or early settler in a strange land," and he did much to advance Americans' understanding of the natural world they encountered as they moved inexorably across the continent.

Son of a wealthy Quaker merchant, Say himself chose to sacrifice material comforts for the sake of science and was chronically ill from the malnutrition he experienced as a young man. In the 1830s he followed British philosopher Robert Owen to Indiana, where Owen established the utopian community of New Harmony. While the utopian experiment failed and Owen returned to England, Say remained in New Harmony and made it the base for all his scientific expeditions.

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