Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Thomas Say's Weevils, with Special Reference to His Curculionites Pamphlet and the Extant Type Material

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Thomas Say's Weevils, with Special Reference to His Curculionites Pamphlet and the Extant Type Material

Article excerpt

The entire destruction of his original specimens would be the subject of much greater regret, were it not for the fact that his descriptions are so clear as to leave scarcely a doubt regarding the object designated.

-John Lawrence LeConte, The Complete Writings of Thomas Say on the Entomology of North America, 1859

THE ABOVE STATEMENT was made by a man I (and many others) deeply revere as one of the most astute and accomplished coleopterists of his time. John LeConte and George Horn's research, based on a sound morphological knowledge, careful observations, extensive held and collections work, and close collaboration with many contemporary entomologists, resulted in the only comprehensive publication on North American weevils to date (LeConte and Horn 1876) and constitutes an impressive landmark. Regrettably, the absolute tone with which the undeniable decline of Thomas Say's insect collection was presented to the reader almost accomplished what the author already had taken as fact. Given the large number of publications dealing with Say's life, his collection, and the species he described, it is indeed tempting to tag along in the wake of unsupported generalizations made outside a concise context for more than a century. The prevailing perceptions were apparently further consolidated by views expressed in Thaddeus Harris's letters, some of which were published by Scudder (1869), again leaving out essential information necessary to fully understand the underlying context. Harris, who had obtained permission from the Academy of Natural Sciences to study Say's insects, in order to prepare a planned annotated catalogue of the insects of Massachusetts, was shocked when he, eager and full of expectations, received in 1836 the dilapidated, dermestid-ridden remnants of his much-valued friend's collection. Without the necessary facilities, materials, and experience, Harris was unable to cope with the damage and eventually returned the collection without the much-needed curation. Although he was never formally blamed for negligence in this matter, his immaculate reputation as a researcher became suddenly connected with this unfortunate development. In this essay, I am presenting the historical background for one specific component of Say's entomological oeuvre, i.e., the Curculionites pamphlet (Say 1831-32) he had published to claim authorship priority for the American species that were about to be described by European entomologists in the seminal tomes of Genera et Species Curculionidum (Schönherr 1833-45). For a better understanding, I start with a brief description of the developments that set the stage for Say and his naturalist contemporaries. All details concerning the identities, repositories, and necessary nomenclatural changes for the 132 weevil species described by Say (out of ca. 1,150 beetles, according to Morris 1846) will be documented in an entomological journal. The acronyms in the footnotes refer to the following document repositories: MCZ = Ernst Mayr Library, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Cambridge; MfN-HBSB = Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Historische Bild- und Schriftgutsammlungen; ANSP = Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Archives.

Fathers and Godfathers

The roots of the first coleopterological studies in North America can be traced to activities at the court of Charles I, Duke of Brunswick. It was a booming time for culture and science, immediately at the onset of Sturm und Drang. Abbot Jerusalem, a well-traveled and educated scholar, became the duke's chaplain and the Hereditary Prince's tutor. On Jerusalem's recommendation, the duke founded in 1745 the Collegium Carolinum ("Charles's College," today's Technical University) and in 1753 the Herzogliches Kunst- und Naturalienkabinett (today's Natural History Museum). August Wilhelm Knoch, the entomologically interested son of another chaplain at the court, accepted in 1775 the position of hausmeister at the Collegium and devoted himself to the study of insects (Zincken 1818). …

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