The Wesley Newcomb collection

Wesley Newcomb (1808-1892) was a physician, social activist, and conchologist. Born in New York, he moved from Albany to California in 1849, then to Hawaii in 1850 due, in part, to his wife's ill health. There he practiced medicine, served on the Board of Health, became active in the Hawaiian Temperance Movement, and collected a lot of shells. In 1855 he returned to Albany. His collection was purchased by Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University, for $15,000, and it resides there still. An avid shell collector, Newcomb traveled to Europe, the West Indies, and Central and South America. He described over 100 species, including many Hawaiian Achatinellidae and Amastridae.

The Division of Molluscs has a modest collection of Hawaiian Achatinellidae and Amastridae originating from Newcomb. The collection was either purchased by or traded with Henry Moores in the mid-1800's. (Henry Moores,1812-1896, assembled one of the most diverse shell collections of his time.  The Ohio State University purchased this collection, 3500 specimens for $1,750, about 1890). Card stock used for labels cut from postcards date from the 1850's. The collection has an accompanying list of specimens, some notes, and a short letter to Moores. The curious, printed handwriting matches that of Newcomb's labels now at the Paleontological Research Institute at Ithaca, New York, and there is no doubt that they are Newcomb's specimens. Specimens have as many as six labels, with different numbers, in the same vials. However, according to Newcomb's accompanying list, he inserted "card" labels with a number that matched the number on the list. These card labels, often small squares, have numbers written by Newcomb's hand and can easily be discerned from the later labels added to the specimens. Some specimens are numbered in ink or pencil, but these numbers were added by Moores. The specimens were apparently sent to Moores after Newcomb's return to the mainland.

Some aspects of the collection are interesting from a personal view of Newcomb. Many of the specimens are dirty and bear on the small card labels the advice "wash them" (we have carefully done so in a sonic cleaner). The list arrived before the shells as Newcomb tells Lewis to "Wait for the Waggon! (Express)" And one label bears the opinionated observation: "'guernea' W.H.P. [crossed out, then added:] A. perversa? Swains. 'guernea' of some fool." Newcomb's "fool" was apparently contemporary fellow Hawaiian conchologist, William Harper Pease.

The obvious question is - Are the specimens types? At the very least they are cotypes. Bearing in mind that the ICZN did not exist in the 1850's, and many of our type concepts had not yet crystallized, it could be argued that the specimens were part of Newcomb's original series and therefore are syntypes, or paratypes or paralectotypes if types have been chosen elsewhere. Several accompanying card labels bear the inscription "type," but on one label is the inscription "type form," suggesting that "type" may have been used in the sense of a "typical" specimen. Specimens of A. producta Reeve, 1850, also are marked "type." Newcomb's list states "I have given you the second pick out of a collection of 5000 specimens having reserved a suit of every species for myself" indicating that they are part of his original (and at that time only) series. William Clench commented on the specimens: "They are either syntypes, cotypes, or paratypes."

Thanks to Dr. Robin Seeley and Dr. Warren Allmon of the Paleontological Research Institute for samples of Newcomb's handwriting.


Click here to see the specimens

Click here to see Newcomb's list to Moores (circa 1850-1860)

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