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Photo of Dr. William J. Clench


October 24, 1897 - February 22, 1984

Dr. William J. Clench was a born communicator, naturalist/collector, systematist/curator, and zoogeographer. Had he written his autobiography, he would no doubt have recounted stories of vacations at Round Top Farm, Cairo, New York, where, during his early childhood, he gathered everything that moved including insects and snails and amused the guests with his finds. He continued in this vein all his life. Those who knew him well remember him as a great story teller, one who thoroughly enjoyed his own jokes, who was a prolific letter writer and to whom the arrival of the morning mail was always an event.

Bill was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1897 but his family moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1906. During his early years in the Dochester public schools, he was an all-around naturalist, and, according to his father, knew the names of the local trees and common insects. In 1913, he entered the Huntington School in Boston. It was here he met Kendall Foster and the two became fast friends for, as noted in the school yearbook, they “would rather discuss bugs than eat.” During this period the “triumvirate” (Clench, Foster, and Sheldon Remington, a Dorchester neighbor and lifelong friend) roamed the Fenway, the Blue Hills and the local beaches collecting bugs and shells. After a good trip, they headed for the Boston Society of Natural History (BSNH) to see Charles W. Johnson, the curator of insects and mollusks. Johnson enthused over their collections, helped them with their identifications, introduced them to the literature and, according to Bill, made them feel as though their visit was the most important thing that happened that day. Johnson also introduced the boys to the Boston Entomological and Boston Malacological Clubs, to Nathan Banks in the Entomology Department and to William F. Clapp in the Mollusk Department at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). Bill idolized and emulated C.W. Johnson and later, as curator of Mollusks at the MCZ, his interest in and encouragement of young malacologists, whether student, professional or amateur, stemmed from his experience at the BSNH. After Johnson’s death in 1932, Bill checked his unpublished manuscript “List of Marine Mollusca of the Atlantic Coast from Labrador to Texas”, which was published in 1934. In 1941, Bill named Johnsonia, Monographs of Western Atlantic Marine Mollusks, in Johnson’s honor.

Michigan State College, East Lansing, Michigan, was Bill’s beloved undergraduate school. Here he majored in entomology, but also found time to be treasurer of his class and otherwise active in student affairs as well as playing saxophone in a student dance orchestra. At the same time, he continued his interest in mollusks and often went down to Ann Arbor to see Calvin Goodrich and Bryant Walker at the Museum of Zoology. In the summer of 1921, as a graduation present from his father and at the suggestion of William Clapp, Bill went on a collecting trip to Sanibel Island, at that time a little-known island off the west coast of Florida. This was his introduction to the “tropics” and it made a lasting impression. In the fall he returned to Dorchester and Cambridge to study entomology under William Morton Wheeler at Harvard University, receiving his MS in February 1923.

Following this, he changed directions, returned to Michigan, and entered the University of Michigan Graduate School to study mollusks under Goodrich and Walker, though he never lost his interest in entomology. Contributing factors to this change were, no doubt, his trip to Sanibel Island, renewed association with Johnson and Clapp while at Harvard, the offer of a Hinsdale Fellowship from The University of Michigan, plus the fact that Julia Helmich (whom he married in 1924) lived in East Lansing Michigan.

As a graduate student in the Museum of Zoology , Bill went on his first real expedition to collect freshwater mollusks in 1923. A second trip in 1924 with Sheldon Remington set the pattern for his lifelong interest in land and freshwater mollusks.

In 1925, his Ph.D. degree unfinished, Bill left Ann Arbor to accept the position of custodian of collections at the Kent Scientific Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a year later assumed the curatorship of mollusks at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, a position he retained until his retirement in 1966.

Bill was a natural curator and, particularly during his early years, put a great deal of time and effort into enlarging the collection and strengthening its scientific value. His curatorial procedures gave the collection the reputation among malacologists of being the easiest one to use and the department a rather special place to work.

When he arrived at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1926, the mollusk collection was housed in one room on the fifth floor. It contained 45,260 catalogued lots and about 35,000 lots of unworked material. There was no departmental library. The following year, Dr. Barbour, the Director, floored over the exhibit galleries on the fourth floor of the east wing of the museum and in 1928 the Mollusk Department moved into new quarters. A flood of material immediately started pouring into the department as a result of Bill’s field work (he made over 40 trips and 2,000 stations and every student had the opportunity of working with him in the field), his encouragement of amateurs who then contributed material to the collection, his active exchange program and his ability to seek and obtain for the MCZ important old collections that were no longer appreciated in their parent institutions. During his tenure as curator, Bill increased the size and scientific value of the collection more than ten-fold, placing it among the four most important malacological research collections in the world. At the time of his retirement, the department occupied five large and two small rooms and was “bursting at the seams”. Over 260,000 lots had been catalogued and over 12,000 species added to the collection. But, with all this, so much had come in that there was still an equivalent amount of unworked material.

Photo of Dr. William J. Clench with Graduate Students
William J. Clench with students in Washington D.C. (AMU Meeting 1963 at the National Museum of Natural History)
Bottom row (left to right): Herb Athaern, Sam Fuller, Elsa Fitzgerald, William J. Clench, Ruth D. Turner, Henry Russell, Tucker Abbott
Top row : Arthur Merrill, J. Lockwood Chamberlin, Thomas Pulley, Robert Robertson, Arthur Clarke, Joseph Rosewater, Richard W. Foster

In addition, the department, which had been totally inactive from 1922 to 1926, became an outstanding center for training in malacology. Included among Dr. Clench’s graduate students were: Harold Rehder, Henry Russell, Tucker Abbott, Isabel Perez Farante, Thomas Pulley, Ruth Turner, Yoshio Kondo, Edward Michelson, Donald McMichael, Arthur Merill, J. Lockwood Chamberlain, Robert Robertson, Joseph Rosewater, Arthur Clarke, Joseph Vagvolgyi, Kenneth Boss, Vida Kenk and Jose Stuardo. In addition to these formal students were a host of others, Harvard undergraduates and malacologists from other institutions, who came to work with him, under his guidance or simply to use the collections. As a result of his enthusiasm for mollusks, his interest in people, and his ability to communicate at all levels (verbally or by letter), he was the idol of amateurs everywhere.

Dr. Clench published at least 420 scientific papers; was the founder and editor of Johnsonia, Monographs of Western Atlantic Marine Mollusks, and Occasional Papers on Mollusks, published by the department. He was a special editor for Webster’s New International Dictionary, Encyclopedia Americana, World Book, McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, as well as being associate editor on the boards of numerous molluscan journals. He belatedly received his Ph.D. from The University of Michigan in 1953, the same year he received an honorary D.Sc. from his alma mater, Michigan State University. After his retirement, he was appointed Adjunct Professor of Zoology at Ohio State University, Columbus, and continued field work in freshwater mollusks with Dr. David H. Stansbery and his students.

Mollusks and the MCZ were Bill’s life - he was one of the founders and third president of the American Malacological Union, and he was the president of the Boston Malacological Club several times, seeming always to hold some office, and seldom missed a meeting. He gave freely of his time and talents to novices and specialists alike, and always made visitors to the department welcome. He was an honorary member of several scientific institutions and numerous shell clubs, and he was honored during the U.S. Bicentennial Celebrations as one of Boston’s 200 Distinguished Citizens, a tribute to his scientific achievements, interest in people, and ability to communicate.

--- Ruth Dixon Turner, Ph.D.

Reprinted from: Malacological Review, 1985 18: 123-124, P.O. Box 637, Niwot, Colorado 80544, U.S.A.
This document was prepared for publication on the World Wide Web by Science Network (Boston).

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