September 28, 1919 - November 3, 1995
by Lynn Scheu
Tucker Abbott passed away November 3,
victim of the pulmonary illness that had been sapping his life
and his strength for several years. He was laid to rest beside
his first wife, Mary Abbott, in Arlington National Cemetery.
The shell world is immeasurably poorer for his passing. We let
him go from this earth with great difficulty, and we all count
ourselves among the bereaved. No other has done more for malacology
or for conchology than he. Perhaps no other has done as much.
As Senior Advisor, Founding Director,
and finally Museum Director of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
on Sanibel Island, Dr. R. Tucker Abbott spent his last years
much the way he spent the rest of his life, bringing shells
to people. He took his own dream with him to Sanibel, a dream
of a monument to shells-for-people, not just a museum full of
shells, but a great educational institution focused entirely
on mollusks. His knowledge and creativity and vision gave it
form, his energy and charisma gave life and momentum to the
dream. But more valuable than any other contribution Tucker
brought was the force and attraction of his personality, and
his influence with the astonishing number of friends he had.
With that, the contributions flowed and the walls went up and
the exhibits grew. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum formally
opened its doors November 18, only two weeks after his death.
Somehow, we're sure he was there.
Tucker Abbott was a man who lived his
dream, who made it happen. The dream began when he was a boy
in Watertown, Massachusetts. He picked up his first seashells
on a Cape Cod beach and, when he visited his mother's family
on Bermuda, collected specimens for the Harvard and Yale biologists
he met there. He knew then that was what he wanted to be. Later,
when his family moved to Montreal, he and a friend started a
natural history museum in the Abbott basement. Young Tucker
was curator of conchology, mineralogy and entomology. The two
boys biked 2,000 miles one summer to collect specimens for their
museum! Patterns for the future. Tucker Abbott would travel
the world collecting specimens for four major U.S. museums.
A star student of the legendary Bill Clench
of Harvard, Tucker bridged the gap between the old generation
of malacologists and the new. Together Bill and Tucker started
publication of a journal devoted to western Atlantic mollusks,
Johnsonia, rather amazingly while Tucker was still an undergraduate
in 1941. Back then, finding new mollusks, describing, and naming
them was the major thrust of the science. Anatomical studies
were discussed under "color of soft parts," protoconchs
were rarely mentioned, scanning electron microscopes hadn't
been invented, and computers and cladistics were the stuff of
For most people of his generation, the
War Years represented a break in their careers, a time-out from
life. For Tucker Abbott it was time-in, a chance to do some
malacological research and make a difference in the war effort.
After a two-year stint as a Navy dive bomber pilot, he was attached
to a Medical Research Unit. The first medical malacologist in
history, he was set the task of conquering schistosomiasis,
a fatal blood fluke disease that would threaten our troops in
the Pacific. His studies took him to Baltimore and Bethesda,
to Guam and the Marianas, and finally to the rice fields of
China's Yangtze Valley in a makeshift lab in an ambulance strapped
to a railroad flatcar, where he discovered the life cycle of
the schistosome in an 8mm-long brown freshwater snail called
Oncomelania. Here was the cause for schistosomiasis. His discovery
saved countless lives.
Return to civilian life brought a stint
at the Smithsonian (1944-1954) as Assistant Curator and Associate
Curator of the Department of Mollusks, while he completed his
master's degree and Ph.D. at George Washington University. During
these years he wrote the first edition of American Seashells.
Then, on to Philadelphia and the prestigious Pilsbry Chair of
Malacology at the Academy of Natural Sciences. As Chairman of
the Department of Mollusks (1954-1969), with his characteristic
energy and enthusiasm, he established the curatorial system
still in use there at the Academy. He initiated a series of
shelling expeditions to the Indo-Pacific region, building one
of the world's best collections for the Academy along the way,
and introducing the American collector to the world.
At Philadelphia he launched his own journal,
Indo-Pacific Mollusca, became an editor of The Nautilus, and
remained on the editorial staff of Johnsonia, beginning in earnest
a second phase of his career, that of writer, editor and publisher.
In quick succession, he produced Introducing Seashells, (1955),
"The Family Vasidae in the Indo-Pacific" for Indo-Pacific
Mollusca (1959), How To Know the American Marine Shells (1961),
and Van Nostrand's Standard Catalog of Shells (1964). Also in
this period he was an officer for the American Malacological
Union, serving as Councilor (1952-1955), Vice-President (1958),
and President (1959).
Everything Tucker did was just a step
along the way. When he finished Compendium of Seashells, he
was already talking about the next edition. His "Helmet
Shells of the World" for Indo-Pacific Mollusca was only
Part I; Part II never followed. The Standard Catalog is still
a work in progress. Russ Jensen once asked him what his favorite
shell was. He quipped, "Whichever one I'm working on at
the moment." And that was true of everything he did. He
always meant to get back to those projects. Even in the last
days of his life, with the Museum opening imminent, he was hard
at work on the 3rd edition of American Seashells with Dr. Jerry
Harasewych of the Smithsonian.
In the 1960's a new book was a major event
and everyone rushed to own it. Today there are so many that
few of us even recognize all the titles. Between that time and
this stands Tucker Abbott. Every shell author writing today
owes some of his success to Tucker. He created the market and
the tradition. And he rang the challenge to other professionals
and to amateurs. Better books than Tucker's have been written,
but none that carried more impact or blazed fresher trails.
No one wrote with more versatility, more creative spark, more
vision. He even made a financial success of the most esoteric
of collecting interests with Compendium of Landshells, and produced
and sold recordings of shell post cards, diaries, and the correct
pronunciation of Latin names of shells. His books have been
translated into more languages than other shell writers have
books to their credit. And he was godfather to an amazing number
of other works, either through his publishing company, American
Malacologists, founded in 1973, or through his generous encouragement
In 1969, at the pinnacle of his career,
Tucker moved on to the Delaware Museum and the duPont Chair
of Malacology, again heading the Department of Mollusks, and
here, Assistant Director. He continued editing Indo-Pacific
Mollusca, became editor-in-chief of The Nautilus (1971), and
in one unbelievable short two-year period, he completely revised
and rewrote American Seashells to become the hefty, familiar
aqua volume that has become a collector's item. He produced
scientific papers for a host of professional publications. But
he was then and always a man who loved people. He loved to meet
them, listen to them, talk shells with them, infect them with
his own excitement. And though he loved the science of his profession,
he loved the people more. Always gifted with a flair for captivating
audiences, he expanded his public contacts, speaking before
collectors and clubs all over the country, often in the company
of his old mentor, Dr. Bill Clench. And he produced books: his
beautifully conceived and cross-cultural Kingdom of the Seashell
in 1972; American Malacologists in 1973 and its 1975 Supplement;
The Best of the Nautilus in 1976.
But a rift formed between Tucker and his
employer, John duPont, in part over his devotion to his writing.
In 1976 he left the Delaware Museum in the careful hands of
his old friend, Russ Jensen, an amateur to whom he'd imparted
his passion for shells, and whom he'd introduced to the museum
Tucker "retired" to Melbourne,
Florida. Here, with his wife Cecelia, he was going to relax,
he was going to write and publish books and have time for research.
He joined the Astronaut Trail Shell Club as an active member
and produced educational programs for their meetings. He traveled.
But men like Tucker Abbott do not retire. He had so much to
give, so much still to do, and such an affection for the shell
collecting fraternity that he couldn't really kick back and
relax. Russ Jensen said, "Although he truly loved the science,
he loved bringing it to the people more." It was during
this time that he really earned the nickname, "Mr. Seashell,"
Guru of the Shell World. He became intimately involved with
the Conchologists of America, and he took on the building of
the Sanibel Museum.
He continued editing The Nautilus. And
he managed to make a living producing shell books. . . the new
Standard Catalog in 1978. . ., Register of American Malacologists
in 1986 and its World Size Records updates, and the two Compendia
in 1982 and 1989. And he began publishing the works of other
shell writers, including Twila Bratcher and Walter O. Cernohorsky's
Terebridae of the World, and Kay C. Vaught's A Classification
of the Living Mollusca. Indo-Pacific Mollusca became Monographs
of Marine Mollusca, published by American Malacologists.
Getting shells to people was his passion,
through his books, his personality, his presentation. Tucker
Abbott's lectures, programs and spontaneous talks were a joy
to hear. He never spoke over the heads of beginners and non-shellers.
But he could pitch his message so the most experienced of us
always learned something too. And his presentations were full
of fascinating facts and examples, a blend of the expert teacher,
the informal conversationalist, and the confiding pal. . . you
felt he was speaking to you alone. The end result was captivating
and infectious. You wanted to be what Tucker was, do what he
did and know all he knew. Though no politician, he was a genius
at public relations.
The legendary friendliness of the shell
collecting fraternity owes much to Tucker, too. He loved every
shell and sheller as he met them. An intensely friendly man,
he could put a stranger at his ease in a few words, make a shy
collector blossom. He poured forth ideas and recommendations,
suggestions and inspiration, until the object of his attentions
was transported out of himself and into the romance of shells.
And he listened to the humblest among us with great attention
and seriousness. He said there were no stupid questions, only
stupid answers. He welcomed everyone with equality and warmth,
He related to the amateur, made him feel valued. Tucker Abbott
was quotable, almost Churchillian in his turn of phrase. At
a COA board meeting, when conservation legislation was under
discussion, Tucker, who believed fervently in the collector's
right to collect, said, "If we allow just one generation
of children to grow up believing that it is a sin to kill a
shell for science, then we are lost." He was ever a historian
and biographer, always conscious of the effects of the past
on the present, the present on the future.
To the COA, which he actively joined in
1977, his stamp of approval meant much. Fittingly, he was many
times the banquet speaker, and his convention talks and presence
at nearly every convention were a perennial draw for new collectors.
He gave generously to auctions and participated in the Bourse.
He showed no interest in leading COA, but did the work he knew
best within the organization. Besides frequent speaker, he was
Awards Chairman for a number of years, an appropriate choice
for someone who so encouraged good exhibits and so often judged
shell shows. He served as Publications Chairman from 1985 to
1990, overseeing the production of the COA Bulletin (American
Conchologist was Tucker's suggestion for its new title) and
other publications for COA. He became Grants Chairman in 1988,
a position he filled with dedication and wisdom until ill health
forced his resignation in spring of 1995. Under his guidance
and urging, COA gave almost $37,000 in grants in malacology.
He was the moving force behind the Walter Sage Fund for Education,
even as he himself was dying. Further, his presence and approval
and participation did much to make COA respected in the eyes
of the shelling community, both amateur and professional.
The position Tucker took up between the
two worlds of amateur conchology and the science of malacology
has made a tremendous difference. No other scientific discipline
has so close a cooperation with amateurs; in many sciences,
mutual suspicion, even hostility, is the rule. But Tucker forged
a very special relationship, a partnership of resources that
has enriched both groups and advanced the knowledge of malacology.
And our shell clubs are so indebted to
him! They were the ideal forum for Tucker Abbott. . . where
else could he find such eager audiences, such minds hungry for
his product. Member of most of the U.S. clubs, honorary or life
member of many, he even founded a few. He was always willing
to give a program or judge a show. He encouraged amateurs to
become more scientific, to buy books (usually his), to build
collections with good data. And to show their shells at well-run,
expertly judged shell shows. Often with Cecelia beside him to
judge the artistic entries, Tucker was senior shell show judge
for every Florida shell show, and for many outside the state.
Tucker believed with all his heart that
the shell collector was a friend to mollusks, a key to their
conservation. A large part of his mission was to keep shell
collecting respectable, keep it from falling under the label
of anti-environmentalism. Right up until last summer he was
appearing on national television and in such esteemed publications
as the Wall Street Journal and Smithsonian Magazine, outspoken
in his attack on the Sanibel shell ban; in all the furor surrounding
its passage, he was a bastion of sanity. He knew mollusks and
their requirements. He knew shell collectors and their needs
and motives. And he knew the two could and would co-exist in
their interdependence, so he remained the fearless spokesman
for the collector. As an admirer said in his tribute to Tucker,*
"R. Tucker Abbott was our Tucker Abbott. Who now will champion
Robert Tucker Abbott was a man who stood
as a bridge between his various worlds: he was a malacologist,
an ambassador, a pioneer, an author, an editor, a research scientist,
a salesman, a museum curator and director, a speaker, a leader,
a judge, a showman, a visionary and a friend. He brought all
those vocations together in praise of shells. There'll never
be another Tucker Abbott. He stands unique, because he answered
the needs, built the traditions, showed the way, and the world
is much richer for his passing through it.
The author wishes to express
appreciation to Russ Jensen (Delaware Museum of Natural History,
retired) for details of Tucker Abbott's career, and to Dr. Gary
Rosenberg (Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia) for all
his help, both with information and with expert editing. Thanks
for assistance of several kinds also go to G. Thomas Waters,
Richard Goldberg, Lucille Green, Edie Chippeaux, Betty Jean
Piece, and Bobbie Houchin.
*Art Weil on the Internet, Tuesday, November