I’ve gone and written another one of my madcap historical essays over on Wonders & Marvels, this time ostensibly on the early American natural scientist Thomas Say and his trip down the Ohio River on the famous “Boatload of Knowledge” to found a utopian settlement with the best scientists of his generation.
Apparently, Say is most well-remembered these days for having a particularly handsome portrait in the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
And while I’m certainly the last person to dispute anyone’s right to come at history with an eye toward its more aesthetically pleasing representatives, I’d actually suggest that Thomas Say’s story has a fair bit more to recommend it than just a fine pair of eyes.
While Thomas Say’s latter-day designation as a 19th century hottie may be what catches the eye, the man’s actual career is fascinating enough in its own right. Already a successful and highly respected natural scientist by the age of 25, Say was a founding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He formed lasting friendships with many of the most respected and prolific scientists of the day, each of whom it seems can lay claim to being the “Father of American” this or that. Auspicious company, indeed.
And it was in some of this auspicious company that Say travelled to Indiana in 1826 on the delightfully named “Boatload of Knowledge,” a gang of top scientists headed for the utopian community of New Harmony that was then in its heyday of attracting the best minds of the young republic.
The heyday didn’t last long, as is so often the way with utopian societies. But Thomas met his future wife, Lucy Sistare, on the Boatload of Knowledge. Lucy was herself a gifted illustrator of the natural sciences, and would in fact go on to be the first woman elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences. Her own thoughts on her husband’s relative attractiveness have not been recorded, though perhaps they can be reliably inferred.
The Boatload of Knowledge was actually a fascinating episode in history. I think it has all of the makings of a swashbuckling tale of adventure and romance. These wayfaring scientists were trapped in ice, threatened by attack, locked in endless nights of heated debate, and, in at least one instance, scared out of their daylights by the violence of a midwestern thunderstorm. In between adventures, they played whist.
Also, I’ve included a picture of Paul Tillich, jumping. Trust me, there’s a connection.
Read A Boatload of Knowledge on Wonders & Marvels.