Robert Tucker Abbott 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 science fiction.
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 and advice.
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 and trained.
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 the cause?"
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 7, 1995