14 March 2010

Wesley Newcomb (1808-1892)

B.M. Newcomb wrote:

Mr. Newcomb received an academic education at White Plains Academy, Westchester County, from John A. Gillett, his private tutor in mathematics, and Prof. Amos Eaton in science. He graduated in medicine from Vermont Medical Academy at Castleton, being one of three valedictorians. During his term of three years' study he took courses of lectures in New York and Philadelphia, and spend some time in France. He then became house surgeon of the hospital department of the Albany almshouse, where he remained one year. He opened an office in the city of Albany, and became connected in practice with Dr. Henry Van Antwerp. Subsequently, he formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, Thomas W. Newcomb, in the wholesale drug business at Troy.

Dr. Newcomb was always a close student, with a penchant for scientific research. Believing that to understand geology in the later formations required a knowledge of the fossil contents of the rocks, he early directed his attention to the study of conchology as the alphabet of palaeontology, a branch of science which has changed the whole character of geology and reduce it to a more perfect science. He was at the time the most distinguished conchologist in America. Upon his second visit to Europe he was cordially received, and even feted, by some of the most celebrated savants of London and Paris.

During a residence of five years in Honolulu he enjoyed facilities for collecting the land shells of the entire group. As one result of these labors may be mentioned his description of over one hundred new species of the genus Achatinella, the larger part published in the Zoological Lyceum of Natural History of New York, Tyron's Conchological Journal, and in Proceedings of California Academy of Natural Sciences. In his various explorations in Europe, the West Indies, South America, Central America and Mexico, he has added much to knowledge in many departments of Natural History. His vast acquisitions obtained by dredging, employing divers, and by personal search on the shores of different countries were placed in the museum of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

For four years Dr. Newcomb was connected with Cornell, where he filled more than 20,000 tablets with the shells of molluscous animals carefully named and classified. He also added many thousand specimens from the radiata, articulata and vertebrata. The collection occupied over 2,000 square feet of surface and was purchased for about $20,000. The mineral and geological collection was also greatly enriched by additions from South America and especially from the state of Nevada.

In 1857 Dr. Newcomb established himself in the practice of his profession at Oakland, California. During the twelve years he spent there he described many of the helices of California, also fresh water and marine species, and delivered a course of lectures on natural history in what was at that time called California College (later the University of California).

In 1870 he accompanied the Santo Domingo commissioners as sanitary expert. During the expedition he discovered the previously unknown locality of La Marck's helicina viridis, and his collection of new species were described in the Journal de Conchologie, Paris.

In 1871 Dr. Newcomb was appointed by the President of the United States as one of three commissioners to investigate the Sutro Tunnel, a mining project of great important, leading from Carson Valley to Virginia City; their report met with the approval of the government.

He passed the winter of 1872-73 in south Florida, making explorations and adding to his collection in zoology and botany, now to be seen in many collections, both public and private, in Europe and America.

In his numerous expeditions he was accompanied, except in two or three instances, by his wife, whose skill in delineating delicate and perishable specimens with her pencil was of great service, as well as her aid in preserving specimens.

From Biographies of Notable Americans:

NEWCOMB, Wesley, conchologist, was born in Pittstown, Rensselaer county, N.Y., Oct. 20, 1808; son of Dr. Simon and Sarah (Follett) Newcomb; grandson of Simon and Sarah (Mead) Newcomb, and of William and Lois (Burnham) Follett, and a descendant of Capt. Andrew Newcomb, an English mariner who settled in Boston, Mass., probably before 1663. He was a student at White Plains academy and at the Vermont Medical school at Castleton; attended medical lectures in New York and Philadelphia, and visited hospitals in France. He practiced medicine in Albany, N.Y., with Dr. Henry Van Antwerp. He was married, Feb. 20, 1838, to Mrs. Helen H. Post, daughter of Eliphalet and Hannah (Swift) Wells of Manchester, Vt. He became one of the most distinguished conchologists in America, residing at Honolulu five years, where he collected the land shells of the entire group and described over 100 new species of the genus "achatinella," published in scientific magazines and in the proceedings of various scientific societies of America and Europe. He made explorations in Europe, the West Indies, South America, Central America and Europe; practiced medicine in Oakland, Cal., 1857-69, where he described many of the helices of that state, also fresh water and marine species, and delivered courses of lectures on natural history at Mills college, Oakland. He accompanied the Santo Domingo commissioners as a sanitary expert in 1870, and discovered the locality of La Marcke helicina viridis; was appointed in 1871 one of the three commissioners to investigate the Sutro Tunnel, and spent the winter of 1872-73 in Florida. His famous collection of shells was purchased by Ezra Cornell for Cornell university in 1869, and occupied the top floor of the university museum in the McGraw building. He served as curator of the collection, 1869-92, and as instructor in conchology, 1886-88. He died in Ithaca, N.Y., Jan. 27, 1892.

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