Nature, Science, and Society in the Life of an American Naturalist

Clark A. Elliot

Thaddeus William Harris first made his living as a physician and for many years thereafter as Harvard librarian. For six years, he also taught natural history in Harvard College―Henry David Thoreau was one of his students―but his desire for a full-time professorship was never realized. He is chiefly remembered as a naturalist and is generally considered the "founder of applied entomology" in the United States. His historical reputation is linked to his Treatise on Some of the Insects Injurious to Vegetation, first issued in 1841 as a report of the Massachusetts biological survey. Harris was concerned with agricultural pests (and most of his papers were published in agricultural and horticultural journals).


Going beyond the Treatise and its historic significance, and examining Harris's life through his correspondence, reveals a picture that is more complex than his traditional reputation would suggest. In particular, Harris's developing interest in taxonomic studies (especially the previously neglected Lepidoptera), offers an opportunity to examine the relations between applied and pure science in the antebellum era. This biography of Harris considers all aspects of his life but relates especially to his work in science.


The book's approach to Harris's life is broadly thematic. In addition to a review of his familial and scientific origins, the author explores how Harris tried (with limited success) to build a scientific career, and looks at his work as an academic librarian. His research and writing per se is examined. While his work on insects as agricultural pests is well-known, in the 1830s Harris prepared the earliest systematic listing and classification of American insects. Most importantly, in his more specialized studies, he became interested in nocturnal Lepidoptera (moths), a group not much studied in America at the time, Here, Harris brought to bear his great knowledge of life histories of insects that was so germane to his agricultural effort, as well as some innovative uses of wing vein patterns, as aids to taxonomy. Completion of this work was blocked by his increasing library duties in later life. The book discusses his publishing strategies for scientific and popular work and his relations to individuals and organizations in the scientific community. Harris's well-informed views on correct personal and communal conduct in natural history presents the context of a consideration of scientific practice in his era. The study also delves into his political and religious beliefs and his attitudes to the natural world and how these related to his scientific program. The book concludes with a consideration of his scientific reputation and asks how it related to his vision of his life and work.


The study argues, by example, that the lives of less well-known figures can reveal much about the struggle to establish a viable scientific community. Harris's extensive correspondence provides a solid base for documenting the effort.

9781611460445 (R&L)
9780934223911 (AUP)
Lehigh University Press - Thaddeus William Harris