«BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS PART OF VOLUME VIII BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIR OF WILLIAM STIMPSON 1832-1872 ALFRED GOLDSBOROUGH MAYER PRESENTED TO THE ACADEMY AT THE ...»
NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
PART OF VOLUME VIII
ALFRED GOLDSBOROUGH MAYER
PRESENTED TO THE ACADEMY AT THE ANNUAL MEETING. 1917
CITY OF WASHINGTON
PUBLISHED BY THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCESMarch, 1918
BY AI^RIiD GOLDSBOROUGH MAYER
William Stimpson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on February 14, 1832; the son of Herbert Hathorne Stimpson and Mary Ann Devereau Brewer.
The Stimpsons were of the old colonial and Revolutionary stock of Massachusetts, the earliest known member of the family being James Stimpson, who was married in 1661, in Milton. William Stimpson's father was an ingenious inventor, and a leading merchant of Boston in the mid decades
NATIONAL ACADEMV BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOL. VIIIof the nineteenth century. It was he who invented the "Stimpson range/' famous in its day throughout New England. He also made improvements in rifles, devised the first sheet-iron cooking stove, and suggested the placing of the flange on the inside of railway car wheels instead of on the outside, as had been the custom. His son was to inherit his energy, love of social life, enthusiasm, arid brilliant wit. Indeed, in so far as we are now able to determine, the qualities which gave character to Stimpson's spirit were all present in his father.
Of his mother we know little, for she died at an early age.
In William Stimpson's boyhood his father moved from Roxbury and built a house in the charming village of Cambridge, and in the green fields and shaded groves of this region young Stimpson was to mature that love of nature which seemed born within him and which throughout life was to dominate his every thought and action.
When fourteen years of age he read with delight Edwin Swett's work upon geology, and soon after this a copy of Gould's Invertebrata of Massachusetts filled him with exultant enthusiasm as is so charmingly told by Dr. Dall in his biography of Stimpson.
In school he was a brilliant pupil, for he graduated from the Cambridge High School in 1848, winning the gold medal, the highest prize of the school. In September, 1848, he entered the Cambridge Latin School, and that he did well in his studies we have good evidence in the mastery he displays in the use of Latin in the description of marine animals in his Prodromus of 1857-60.
His father looked with disfavor and even with alarm upon the son's tastes for the natural sciences, realizing that there was no "living" to be made through such studies. Thus it was that in 1849 the boy agreed, obedient to the paternal advice, to enter the engineering office of Fletcher and Parker, of Boston.
Here, though his heart was elsewhere, his head was efficient, for he made a true calculation of the cost of constructing the Boston and Lynn Railroad. It is amusing, however, that his estimate was rejected as being too costly, but when the road was completed it was found to be correct. This surely must have pleased his father, who was at the time the President of
WILLIAM STIMPSON MAYERthe Cambridge Horse Railroad, but his opposition to the son's career as a naturalist was only overcome when William Stimpson received the appointment as naturalist of the North Pacific Exploring Expedition in 1852.
The year 1849 was memorable, however, for things other than Stimpson's attempt to force himself to become an engineer, for he joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the Cambridge meeting, and also in August he became a member of the Boston Society of Natural History, to whose volumes he was soon to contribute many notable papers.
In 1848 he had begun the study of shells with W. G. Binney, and in October, 1850, he broke finally away from the distasteful affairs of engineering, and became a student under Louis Agassiz at Cambridge.
In September, 1849, Stimpson had made his first attempt at dredging, and in July, 1851, he visited Eastport and Grand Manan for this purpose, this being the beginning of that long series of expeditions which were to entitle him to be recognized as the first naturalist systematically to dredge along the American coast. Those who accompanied him never forgot the enthusiasm, cheerfulness, and brilliant, always kindly, wit of Stimpson, genial lover of mankind and of nature as he was.
A reflection of his rare and lovable spirit appears in the "Summer Cruise on the Coast of New England," by Robert Carter, published in Boston in 1888, wherein "The Professor" is Dr.
Stimpson, and the artist is his friend Robert Kennicott.
No hardship ever deterred Stimpson in this labor of his heart's desire, and in 1849 he enlisted as a member of the crew of a fishing smack in order that he might dredge off the Newfoundland Banks.
So spontaneous and irresistible was Stimpson's merriment that on one occasion a friend who had just heard one of his stories quite lost his hold and fell off the main boom into the water while the schooner was speeding down the wind, and when rescued from a watery grave he declared the story was well worth the experience.
But it would be quite unjust to Stimpson to convey the impression that he was simply a jovial, large-hearted, enthusiastic
NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOL. VIIIman of red blood and adventurous spirit, for he was one of the most assiduous, efficient, and careful observers our country has produced; one who had not only the energy and genius to collect, but also to describe his collections. His descriptions are models of conciseness and clarity. He took pains to designate the type of each genus and to give the exact locality, depth, or other factors of situation for each species. He drew and colored his drawings well, but it is to be regretted that, due to the high cost of reproduction, very few of his descriptions are accompanied by figures. This defect he hoped to remedy, however, in the final publications, the materials and figures for which were destroyed in the Chicago fire; and thus the full fruition of his remarkably energetic life was lost to the world.
But to return to our narrative. From December, 1851, to April, 1852, he was with Agassiz at Charleston, South Carolina, paying all his own expenses and accompanying his master more as a collaborator than as an assistant or a pupil. This led to his first quarrel with the great Agassiz, who had assumed somewhat the role of Zoological Pope of America. It seems that Stimpson went out very early in the morning, at an exceptionally low tide, and dug up several new species of marine invertebrates which Agassiz immediately claimed for his own, but did not succeed in obtaining. The aftermath appears in the laconic phrase in Stimpson's journal: "May-June, 1852.
Hard times with Agassiz."
This difference, however, was soon patched up, but a more serious breach of relations came in i860, when Stimpson gave an excellent description of Lingula pyramidata from Beaufort, North Carolina, having obtained large numbers of this archaic brachiopod in the mud-flats of this region. Agassiz, it seems, had previously obtained a single specimen, which he had treasured for years, permitting no one to describe it and neglecting so to do himself; and that this upstart of twenty-eight should have forestalled him was too much for the patience of the aged master, and even the diplomacy of Stimpson was unequal to the task of restoring their old relations until after the disaster of the Chicago fire.
That Stimpson was, indeed, quite a diplomat we have evidence in that, although a Northern sympathizer, he courted
WILLIAM STIMPSON—MAYERand became engaged to Miss Annie Gordon, of "Font Hill."
near Ilchester, Maryland, daughter of a prominent Secessionist family of that State.
Indeed, whenever a Southern victory occurred, Stimpson's prospective father-in-law came himself to announce the fact, while he invariably sent his negro valet to announce "Yankee" successes. This difference in viewpoint, however, did not prevent the marriage of Stimpson to "Miss Annie" on July 28, 1864.
In July, 1852, Stimpson made his second visit to Eastport and Grand Manan, returning in October to Agassiz's laboratory in Cambridge. Then, on November 23, 1852, there came the most significant event in his scientific career, for he was appointed naturalist upon the projected United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition under Commodore Ringgold, later commanded by Captain John Rodgers.
In December, 1852, Stimpson went to Washington to prepare for the duties of his new position, and on March 21, 1853, he joined the U. S. S. Vincennes in New York, sailing from Norfolk, Virginia, in May.
Stimpson remained four years with this expedition, visiting Japan, Bering Strait, and many other regions of the North Pacific. During this time he collected 5,300 specimens, 1,970 being testaceous mollusks; and he himself made special notes and drawings on over 3,000 specimens. Most of his drawings were colored, and related to various groups, including Ascidians, Planarians, Nemertians, Annelids, Actinians, Alcyonaria, Crustacea, living mollusks, etc. He realized that a special study of invertebrates, and of the smaller and less conspicuous animals, would yield results of the greatest value, and it is pathetic to think that just as this greatest single labor of his life was all but ready for publication the Chicago fire destroyed not only these drawings and manuscripts, but also the specimens themselves.
Wherever Stimpson went stories arose respecting his ready recourse, his energy, decision of character, and kindly wit. It is said that when in the Solomon Islands he wandered dangerously far along the shore, savages suddenly attacked him with spears, and finally knocked him down. Realizing that they
NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOL. VIIIcared more for his tobacco pouch than for his life, he threw it full twenty feet away, and while his tormentors rushed for the prize he made his quick exit toward the ship. Another story is told in the biography of Professor Shaler, so charmingly written and compiled by Mrs. Shaler, to the effect that Stimpson used to crush intermediate forms under his foot, cursing them as he did so. This is, however, a lapse of memory on Shaler's part; for, according to Dr. Faxon, the story was always told in Agassiz's laboratory with John G. Anthony as its hero. In fact, Stimpson, although an Episcopalian, readily accepted Darwin's views, and was far too deep a student of nature not to realize the partial inadequacy of the Linnsean system.
After returning from the North Pacific exploration in 1856, he studied at the Smithsonian in Washington, devoting his energies to the arranging and description of his collections;
and he also visited England, where he dredged along the coast.
Here, as elsewhere, he made hosts of friends; and, indeed, his influence upon the social side of the scientific life of Washington itself was profound, for he was the founder of two scientific associations. The more social was the "Megatherium Club," Stimpson, Cope, Verrill, Dukman, Ordway, Meek, Hayden, Gill, Wood, Horn, Gabb, and others being among the members. He also instituted other more or less temporary "organizations," among them the "Polymythian Society of Monosyllabies," who contributed 9 per cent of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1861, and to whom Stimpson "dedicated" the following doggerel verses,
which seem to fall down badly at the end:
"Into the well of learning clip With spoon of Wood and Horn;
For students Meek and lowly Silver spoons should treat with scorn.
Though Gabb should have the gifts of Gill, As Gill has the gift of Gabb, T'would show a want of judgment still To try to Cope with Meek."
But a more serious organization was the "Potomac-side Naturalists' Club," the first biological society in Washington and the forerunner of the Washington Academy of Sciences
WILLIAM STIMPSON MAYIjRDuring these years he was dredging along the coast nearly every summer from Canada to Florida—Verrill, Morse, Hyatt, Shaler, Packard, and others being his companions.
In 1868, at the early age of 36, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, having already become a corresponding member of the California Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the New York Lyceum of Natural History, and other associations we have already mentioned. In i860 the Columbian University expressed its appreciation of his services to science by conferring upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine, this being the only collegiate degree he ever received.