Thomas Say (1787-1834)
American Entomology; or Descriptions
of the Insects of North America.
Rare Book & Special Collections
Each shell, each crawling insect, holds a rank
Important in the plan of Him who fram'd
This scale of being.
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
Say went on to publish another definitive work, on American shells,
and approached the subject with the same spirit of adventure
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