Dr. John Clarkson Jay (1808-1891) was a pioneer in the science and study of mollusk shells, commonly referred to as conchology. Born September 11, 1808, he was the eldest of Peter Augustus Jay and Mary Rutherford Clarkson’s eight children. John Clarkson received the prestigious elementary education that was customary for upper class families like the Jays, and like his grandfather, John Jay, attended Columbia College. He received his undergraduate degree in 1827, and his medical degree in 1831.
On November 8, 1831 John Clarkson Jay married Laura Prime (1812-1888), who came from a wealthy New York banking family. The couple had eleven children, five of whom died lived to adulthood. Laura was coincidentally the aunt of conchologist Temple Prime, who was greatly influenced by John Clarkson’s work in the field, and cited John’s work often in his own publications. After getting married, Laura’s father purchased the newlyweds a sizeable mansion at 22 Bond Street in Manhattan, just north of Houston Street, where they lived until retiring to Rye in 1843. It was during this time that John Clarkson became involved with one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in America at the time, the New York Lyceum of Natural History.
The organization was founded by physician Samuel L. Mitchill in 1817, when he convened the organization’s first meeting at the College of Physicians & Surgeons located on Barclay Street in Manhattan. John Clarkson Jay joined the organization in 1832 shortly after graduating with his medical degree. He became the Lyceum’s librarian in 1833 at age 25 and went on to be its treasurer from 1836 to 1843. The organization changed its name shortly after the founding to The New York Academy of Sciences, and its journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences was published for over half a century until 1877. John Clarkson only wrote one paper for the journal, which was a description of two new species of gastropods published in 1846, but was otherwise very active in both the development, and the science of the Lyceum. As Treasurer, John Clarkson helped finance a new building for the Lyceum at 561 Broadway. Jay loaned the organization $10,000, and the new building opened in 1836. This loan was somewhat controversial among the Lyceum’s members, as almost half of the organization had voted against incurring the debt necessary to build and complete the new building. Despite the objections, having its own building greatly enhanced both the profile and reputation of the Lyceum nationwide. John Clarkson was a mentor to many aspiring scientists with an interest in conchology. Scientist John Redfield credited much of his initial interest in conchology to “the aid of Dr. Jay’s personal instruction, his extensive conchological library, and his then unrivalled collection.” An economic crisis in late 1837 eventually caused the Lyceum to have to sell their building in 1843, but the organization carried on as the New York Academy of Sciences which would eventually give way to the creation of the American Museum of Natural History.
During his lifetime, he amassed what was then the largest collection of mollusk shells in the entire world and made groundbreaking contributions to the science of conchology. At its largest, his collection contained over 14,000 different species of mollusk from all over the world, with over 50,000 individual specimens. It is important to note that this collection grew significantly over the years through purchase and exchange, and not actual collecting shells himself. His Catalogue of the shells, arranged according to the Lamarckian system; together with descriptions of new or rare species, contained in the collection of John C. Jay was the most complete, and informative catalogue of its kind, and allowed researching conchologists in the field to have a better understanding of the distinct differences between species of mollusk they were working with. This worked both ways, as Jay corresponded and collaborated with scientists in America and Europe regarding their studies and discoveries, which aided in expanding the Catalogue into the most complete encyclopedia of Mollusk species in the world. One of the most significant contributions to Jay’s Catalogue came from scientist Thomas Nuttall, who made significant discoveries of new mollusk species in the Oregon territory, California, and the Kingdom of Hawaii. Instead of publishing these discoveries himself, Nuttall gave all the info on these discoveries to Jay, and a couple of other collectors for publication.
The 50-page first edition of the Catalogue was published in 1835, consisting of the genera and species of mollusks from around the world, with locations of their origin listed as well. A second edition was published a year later in 1836, with a preface from John Clarkson stating he had “added the authorities for the names of the species, and in a few instances their synonyms.” The main difference between this edition and the first was that it contained entries for ten new species from Thomas Nuttall’s collection, all of which were gastropods (the general scientific name for snails and slugs). It also had an added appendix with 150 additional species that John Clarkson had acquired since the first edition was published. The adding of that many species to an extra appendix after the initial publication indicates furious pace at which John Clarkson was adding to his collection. That, coupled with his unmatched ability to identify new or unexamined specimens, led to the publication of a third edition in 1839. The third edition was twice as long as the first with 100 total pages of catalog entries.
John Clarkson published two more shorter pieces on newly discovered gastropods species for scientific journals in the 1840s, including one for the journal the Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History, before publishing the penultimate edition of the Catalogue in 1850. This work dwarfed all previous editions, as it rounded out at a whopping 460 pages. 413 pages of the species catalogue, 16 of bibliography, and 30 pages of index. It expanded on the knowledge of the previous editions and received rave reviews from the scientific community. Fellow Lyceum member and scientist John H. Redfield said of the final edition “…must possess interest to every student of natural history. The new and enlarged edition before us, is the largest printed Catalogue of recent shells ever published, enumerating about eleven-thousand well marked varieties, and comprehending at least seven-thousand well established species.” This final edition was the definitive catalog for the science of conchology for decades. Scientist G.W. Tyron stated that Jay was successful in building this catalog because of “years of preparatory study, and a familiar knowledge of all existing authorities on the subject, combined with his magnificent collection of authentic specimens, embracing in many cases numerous varieties, and possessing, besides, a very complete library of works on Conchology, so his deliberate conclusions certainly should have great weight among naturalists.”
The fourth edition was to be the last of John Clarkson’s Catalogue. He published one more work on conchology, which was a description of mollusks collected by U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry during his 1852-1854 expedition to Japan. Perry likely chose John Clarkson to do the descriptions because Perry was also an active member of the New York Lyceum while serving as Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
John Clarkson Jay’s collection of mollusk specimen, and library of conchological publications was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in 1874, after a bit of back and forth with the museum’s board of trustees. Initially, the board declined to purchase the collection from Jay at the price of $10,000; however, Catharine L. Wolfe, daughter of the museum’s first president, John David Wolfe, purchased the collection from John Clarkson Jay, and gave it to the museum as a donation. In her donation letter, Ms. Wolfe stated her “desire, if I might, to contribute in some way to [the museum’s] enlargement and improvement. An opportunity to do this has presented itself in connection with the collection of works on Conchology and specimens illustrating those works, amounting in all to some fifty-thousand in number, collected by Dr. John C. Jay, and worthy, in the opinion of those most competent to judge, of a place among the other objects of interest in Natural History, already assembled within the walls of this museum.” After an extensive period of renovations to the American Museum of Natural History’s building, there was a grand re-opening of the shell exhibits. John Clarkson Jay’s collection was the nucleus of these exhibits, that one newspaper said, “exceeded in importance any public or private collection at the time.”
John Clarkson Jay was done publishing on the science of Conchology by the mid-1850s, deciding at that point of fully embrace retirement at his family’s estate in Rye, New York along the Long Island sound. He had moved there in 1843, following the death of his father Peter Augustus Jay. As the eldest son of the family, he inherited the estate and felt it would only be proper for him to look after it as a resident. He died in 1891, outliving his wife Laura Prime, who died in 1888. Their children eventually sold the Rye estate, which passed through a series of owners before becoming a historic house museum.
Dr. John Clarkson Jay was a brilliant scientist and collector, whose work will always be regarded as a major contribution to the field of conchology, and to natural science altogether.