The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
William H. Dall: He had Malacology Down to an Art
William Healey Dall had a very impressive resume: he worked in many scientific fields, including topography, ethnology, geology, paleontology, malacology (the study of mollusks), and biology; he published more than five hundred scientific papers and books; he described nearly four thousand previously uncategorized species and subspecies of mollusks and brachiopods, some of which bear his name; and he collected and/or cataloged hundreds of specimens for the Smithsonian Institution, which are held by the National Musuem of Natural History to this day.
But, in addition to his scientific work, Dall also had an artistic talent. Not only did he discover, name, and describe many mollusks, but he also created beautiful and detailed color scientific illustrations of some of them. Dall also drew maps of the Alaskan territory and sketches of native Alaskan peoples and dwellings in his field notebooks and on scraps of paper. Some of his artwork is held in the Dall Papers here at the Archives, and was recently digitized.
He made the illustrations featured in this post during the 1866 Western Union Telegraph Expedition to Russian America, the purpose of which was to determine whether a communition system with Europe could be established through what is now Alaska. Dall’s scientific career began when he joined the expedition in 1865 as a member of its scientific corps, which was organized by the Smithsonian Institution to collect natural history speciemens. When the expedition’s Chief of the Scientific Corps, Robert Kenicott, suddenly and mysteriously died in 1866, Dall was appointed to the leadership position at only 21 years of age!
Having collected many specimens for the Smithsonian during the expedition, Dall was made Honorary Curator of Mollusks in 1868, a post that he held until his death in 1927. In 1871, he secured the position of Acting Assistant for the US Coast Survey, and commanded four more expeditions along the Alaskan coast from 1871 to 1880. In 1884, he was hired as a Paleontologist for the US Geological Survey, and for the remainder of his career, his office was located in the US National Museum (now the National Musuem of Natural History).
Dall’s contribution to science is immense, and his illustrations aided his study of malcology, ethnology, and topography. But the mollusk diagrams can also be appreciated as colorful works of art.
- Record Unit 7073 - William H. Dall Papers, circa 1839-1858, 1862-1927, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7072 - Robert Kennicott Papers, 1863-1865, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7213 - Western Union Telegraph Expedition Collection, 1865-1867, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Art in Old Science, Field Book Project Blog