Born in Philadelphia in 1787, Thomas Say, a self-taught naturalist, is today known as the father of American entomology. Entomology is the science that deals with the study of insects. During his lifetime of studies, Say published extensive papers on entomology, conchology (scientific study of mollusk shells), paleontology (the study of prehistoric life), mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and crustacean. However, his famous book, American Entomology is said to have transformed American natural history from an enjoyable pastime of those who were intrigued by it, into a legit scientific field.
The Father of American Entomology, Thomas Say, 1787-1834.
Early on in his scientific studies, Say was quickly appointed a key member of America's varied and extensive expeditions in exploration and discovery of the unknown. Having gone on several prior explorations, in 1826, Say's explorations led him down the Ohio River on what was called the Boatload of Knowledge. Say was accompanied by other individuals from the East Coast and, unbeknownst to him at the time, his future wife Lucy. They were headed to establish what they thought would be an Indiana utopia. Even though Say served as captain of the Boatload of Knowledge, and was in charge of this particular operation, his number one priority remained the study of natural history, and he never really focused on the ideological paradise there was to be found in New Harmony, Indiana.
Whether or not the success of the new utopian paradise was affected directly or indirectly by Say's focus and drive, the proposed community flopped in less than two years due to the lack of organization and feuding between affluent community members. Shortly after the New Harmony community failed, Say was asked to return east, but he and his wife chose to remain in New Harmony, Indiana, where he went on to publish his two most famous works: American Entomology and American Conchology.
Today, Say is honored for founding the science of entomology and conchology in the United States. As an entomologist, Say studied all the various aspects of the biology of insects, including their ecology, behavior, genetics, physiology, biochemistry, taxonomy, systematics and population dynamics. Say died in 1834 at the age of 49, and was said to have spent the last years of his life in vigorous study of natural history, even to the point of choosing intense studies in lieu of eating and his own well-being. Say was laid to rest in New Harmony, Indiana, and the following passage was written on his grave stone so that all visitors can appreciate his unique passion for the natural world.
Botany of nature, even from a child,
He saw her presence in the trackless wild;
To him the shell, the insect and the flower,
Were bright and cherished
Embers of her power.
In her he saw a spirit life divine,
And worshiped like a Pilgrim at the shrine.
The firefly species proposed for the honor of being the state of Indiana's official insect – Pyractomena angulata (Say), also known as "Say's Firefly," was named and described by Thomas Say in 1824. Though scientists do not know the exact location that Say studied and collected Pyractomena angulata, they do know that it was in New Harmony, Indiana; therefore, it was deemed a good fit for the state insect, in honor of Thomas Say himself.