Thomas Say (1787-1834)
father of American entomology

Thomas Say was born in Philadelphia and, as a self-taught naturalist, at the age of 25 became a charter member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Living frugally in the Academy building, Say took care of the museum there and became a friend of William Maclure, President of the Academy from 1817 to 1840.

Pictured here is the oil portrait by Charles Willson Peale of Thomas Say in the uniform of the first Long Expedition, 1819. By permission of Ewell Sale Stewart Library, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

In 1818 Say accompanied Maclure and others members of the Academy on an expedition to the off-shore islands of Georgia and Florida. In 1819-20, Major Stephen H. Long led an exploration to the Rocky Mountains with Thomas Say as zoologist, and in 1823, Say served as zoologist in Long's expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

During the 1819-20 expedition, Say first described the coyote, swift fox, western kingbird, band-tailed pigeon, Say's phoebe, rock wren, lesser goldfinch, lark sparrow, lazuli bunting, and orange-crowned warbler.

Thomas Say accompanied William Maclure and other scientists and educators from Philadelphia on the famous "Boatload of Knowledge." The party arrived in New Harmony, Indiana, in January, 1826. One of the passengers was the artist Lucy Way Sistare, whom Say married secretly, near New Harmony, on January 4, 1827.

In New Harmony, Say continued his descriptions of insects and mollusks, culminating in two classics:

Thomas Say, American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America, 3 volumes, Philadelphia, 1824-1828.

Thomas Say, American Conchology, or Descriptions of the Shells of North America Illustrated From Coloured Figures From Original Drawings Executed from Nature, Parts 1 - 6, New Harmony, 1830-1834; Part 7, Philadelphia, 1836. (Some of the illustrations in American Conchology were drawn by Mrs. Say.)

During their years in New Harmony both Thomas Say and naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur experienced considerable difficulties. Sorely needed scientific equipment, publications, and correspondence were often much delayed. The problem was brought to the attention of William Maclure, who wrote from Mexico in June 1831 to Reuben Haines, contrasting the conditions for the two naturalists in the two locations.

"Mr. Say was eating, lodging, and fixed as a hermit in a corner of one of the academy's rooms," wrote Maclure, "working for their journal and with all his industry could not keep it up so as to have a means of publishing his labours."

Maclure wrote that Lesueur had essentially worked for free at the Academy and that the circulation of the Academy's journal was probably less than that of the Disseminator, published in New Harmony.

Maclure went on to describe Thomas Say as "modest and unassuming, not well calculated for scrambling amongst the intrigue and forward ambition" among the scientists in Philadelphia.

Maclure's letter appears in

Josephine Mirabella Elliott, editor, Partnership for Posterity: The Correspondence of William Maclure and Marie Duclos Fretageot, 1820-1833, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, 1994. (See pages 1105-6.)

This book portrays, probably as vividly as any book ever will, the New Harmony community during the years Thomas Say lived there, as well as the far-flung ties between the little town and Philadelphia—and many other places in the world.


In his President's Address to the Indiana Academy of Sciences (Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 41 (1931) 43-70, J. J. Davis of Purdue University spoke on the topic "Entomologists and Entomology in Indiana." His summary of the entomological contributions of Thomas Say is quoted here:

Say was a taxonomist, as were most of the early entomologists, and he described considerably more than 1,000 new species of beetles and over 400 insects of other orders, including species in every important insect order. A hasty check of his writings shows 404 new species definitely listed from Indiana, including eight orders, as follows:

205 Hymenoptera [e.g., bees, wasps, ants]
111 Diptera [e.g., flies, mosquitos]
17 Coleoptera [beetles]
38 Hemiptera [e.g., squash bug, stink bug]
11 Homoptera [e.g., cicadas]
1 Neuroptera [e.g., lacewings]
5 Ephemerida [e.g., mayflies]
16 Odonata [e.g., dragonfiles, damselflies]

Economically Important Insects First Described by Thomas Say:

Melanotus fissilis Say (common wireworm)
Solenopsis molesta Say (thief ant)
Diabrotica longicornis Say (northern corn rootworm)
Blissus leucopterus Say (chinch bug)
Eleodes opaca Say (false wireworm)
Eleodes suturalis Say (false wireworm)
Phytophaga destructor Say (Hessian fly)
Dolerus arvensis Say (wheat strawworm)
Leptinotarsa decimlineata Say (Colorado potato beetle)
Trichobaris trinotata Say (potato stalk borer)
Cassida bivittata Say (striped sweet potato beetle)
Epicaerus imbricatus Say (imbricated snout beetle)
Orchestes pallicornis Say (apple flea weevil)
Anthonomus quadrigibbus Say (apple curculio)
Aegeria exitiosa Say (peach tree borer)
Erythroneura comes Say (grape leaf hopper)
Anthonomus signatus Say (strawberry weevil)
Saperda calcarata Say (poplar borer)
Lixus concavus Say (rhubarb curculio)
Mylabris obtectus Say (common bean weevil)
Scolytus quadrispinosus Say (hickory bark beetle)
Anopheles quadrimaculatus Say (malarial mosquito)
Anopheles punctipennis Say (malarial mosquito)
Culex quinquefasciatus Say (common tropical mosquito)
Melanoplus bivittatus Say (two-striped grasshopper)
Systena taeniata Say (pale striped flea beetle)

The entomological writings of Thomas Say are readily accessible in reprinted form:

John L. Le Conte, The Complete Writings of Thomas Say on the Entomology of North America, two volumes, Baillière Brothers, New York, 1859. Reprinted by Arno Press, New York, 1978.

Two biographies of Thomas Say are

Harry B. Weiss and Grace M. Ziebler, Thomas Say: Early American Naturalist, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois and Baltimore, Maryland, 1931;

Patricia Tyson Stroud, Thomas Say: New World Naturalist, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1992.

Canis latrans Say, first described by Thomas Say [coyote]
Indiana State Insect (Proposed): Pyractomena angulata (Say), [Say's firefly]
Leptinotarsa decimlineata Say, first described by Thomas Say [Colorado potato beetle]
Solenopsis molesta (Say), first described by Thomas Say [thief ant]
Bird names associated with Thomas Say - 4 photos
Insect names associated with Thomas Say - 3 photos
Audubon drawings of birds first described by Thomas Say
Birds named by Say (5 photos)
American Entomology—the book: Say's dedication to William Maclure
Fishes Named in Honor of Thomas Say (drawings by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur)
Thomas Say Award (Entomological Association of America)
New Harmony Scientists, Educators, Writers & Artists
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