History of conchology

Ever since the days of Aristotle there have been people interested in natural history. Up until the mid 19th Century the interest was primarily confined to either professionals (fishermen, farmers etc) or considered as a branch of Christian Philosophy rather than a pursuit in its own right. The publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 fundamentally altered this and led to a rapid rise in Amateurs in all branches of natural history. These individuals, with increasing leisure and prosperity, beginning to form societies and clubs to cater for their interests. The Conchological Society itself was formed in 1876.

Historical studies continue to play an important part in natural history. International rules mean that the earliest scientific name given to a species must be used, however, it is often debatable which is the earliest name or exactly what species an author was referring to when describing  the animal. A situation complicated further by poor description or lack of illustrations in early writings. To resolve this, scientists have both to compare old publications and examine old collections - particularly those 'type' specimens  from which species were described. The publications themselves may be rare and often in different languages, while over time collections become lost, sold or split up making this study problematical.

Regardless of the nomenclatural importance historical studies are useful in other ways. Distribution records drawn  from old publications and old collections help provide a baseline against which current distributions can be compared. 'Historic' specimens may be  compared with recent specimens, for example, to show whether pollution is affecting a species. In extreme cases where extinction has occurred historical collections may provide the only physical records of a species.

  • Eminent conchologists - Following the increased popularisation of Conchology there have been a number of figures who have really stood out as making a significant difference to the science. Biographical accounts of many of these inidividuals are available through this section.
  • East African collectors - This section provides biographical details of significant mollusc collectors in East Africa, lists of species described from material collected by them, a bibliography of their papers where possible, and references to relevant papers.

References and further reading:

Coan E.V., A.R. Kabat and R.E. Petit (2021). 2400 Years of Malacology. The American Malacogical Society.
Crowley, T. 1975. A History of the Society. Journal of Conchology 28 265 – 293
Dance, S.P. 1986. A History of Shell Collecting. E.J. Brill.