200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 130: “Pioneer in a Strange Land ”

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three plates of insect illustrations from American Entomology
Three plates from Thomas Say's American Entomology. Plate 1 (left) shows the pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor). Plate 32 (center) shows three species of sawflies or horntails. Four species of ground beetles are shown in Plate 45 (right).

Pioneer in a Strange Land

Thomas Say’s American Entomology (1824–1828) was the first of several major natural history publications by Academy members to follow in the tradition of Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology. As with Wilson’s magnum opus, American Entomology’s three volumes were graced with colorful illustrations, of which fellow member Titian Peale created more than half. Although it was praised by naturalists on both sides of the Atlantic, American Entomology failed to generate much interest among the public. (The publisher grudgingly completed the third and final volume of this unprofitable book.) Much of the public’s lack of interest can be explained by the common preference for birds over insects, but the contrast in prose also played a role. Say’s often technical treatment of morphology and identification compared unfavorably to Wilson’s engaging accounts of bird songs and nesting habits.

In writing American Entomology, Say noted that precious little work had been done on American insects. He compared his enterprise to “that of a pioneer or early settler in a strange land,” and he expressed the hope that this “first attempt of its kind in this country” would help pave the way for his successors. Say described more than 1,500 insect species over his lifetime, and only a fraction of these appeared in American Entomology. According to a recent estimate, there are approximately 91,000 known insect species in the United States, so the comparison to a pioneer or early settler is apt. Given that there may be an additional 73,000 species remaining to be scientifically described, one could make the case that, in this respect at least, the country also remains unsettled.

Learn more about the fascinating history of Thomas Say and his natural history contributions.

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