Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Conchologist Elizabeth Letson


While reviewing one of Amadeus Grabau publications about New York fossils, it contained a section written by Elizabeth J. Letson. Staying with my 2021 theme of researching 19th century women in science I had to investigate.

Outside of Buffalo, New York it appears this remarkable woman's achievements have slipped past the modern historian's view.

Early Life

Elizabeth Jane Letson was born April 9, 1874 at Griffins Mills, New York (Erie County). The only child of Augustus Franklin Letson (1841-1900) and Nellie Webb Letson (1850-1924). Her mother was a 8th descendant of original settler William Bradford from the Mayflower and was direct descendant of Governor Bradford, first governor of Massachusetts.

She attended schools in Buffalo, New York. At an early age, she became interested in natural history, in particular conchology. After graduating, she continued her education at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP) after receiving the Jessup fellowship. She spent two years working with Henry Augustus Pilsby (1862-1957). When she died at a relatively young age of 44, he wrote her obituary in The Nautilus (journal of malacology).  Later, she studied at the United States National Museum in Washington, D.C.

At the age 18, she started working at the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences in 1892 where she would remain for 17 years. At first she volunteered to clean the museum and arrange the library. She eventually rose to the position on Director of the Buffalo Museum in 1899.

Scientific Work

In 1898, she named Tethys pilsbryi after her mentor Henry Pilsbry at ANSP.

She formed the Conchological Club in 1899. 

In 1901 she published in the New York State Museum bulletin about post-Pliocene fossils found Niagara river gravels and in 1905 a list of mollusca found in New York.

In 1904, she traveled from Veracruz, Mexico to New York October 20-28 via the S.S. Havana.

In 1906, Alfred University conferred upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

She married William Alanson Bryan (1875-1942) on March 16, 1909 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Buffalo, New York. They moved to Hawaii in May 1909 where her husband was a professor at the College of Hawaii. She worked as the librarian at the college. 

Dr. Bryan and Elizabeth took an extended trip in 1917-1918 to the United States. They departed Honolulu July 3, 1917 on the S.S. Wilhelmina which arrived in San Francisco on July 10, 1917. The couple spent several months as the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences researching Hawaiian marine mollusks. They also spent time research Hawaiian shells at the Smithsonian and Harvard museums.

Dr. Letson was a member of the American Anthropological Society, the National Geographic Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Audubon Society of Pennsylvania, the New York State committee for the Women's Out-of-door Art League, the American Civic Association, the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, the Buffalo Society, and the Mayflower Society of New York State.


Elizabeth Letson Bryan died at 11:20 PM, February 28, 1919 in Honolulu, Hawaii of heart disease. She was reported to having been ill for 8 months prior to her death. Her mentor Henry Pilsbry wrote of her "gracious personality and sunny outlook, no less than the genuine love of nature which determined the course of her life, made her many warm friends who mourn her untimely death."



Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia (A.N.S.P.) 1917

"Prof. W. A. and E. L. Bryan. Eight species of shells, Hawaiian Islands"

Species Named by Her

Tethys pilsbryi  (Letson, 1898)

Species Name for Her

Amnicola letsoni (Walker, 1901)

Tellina (Arcopagia) elizabethae (Pilsbry, 1917) type no 80253 at A.N.S.P.

"Its distinctness from that species was brought to my attention by Mrs. Bryan for whom it is named."

Turbonilla (Evaletta) elizabethae (Pilsbry, 1917) type no 117596 at A.N.S.P.

"This pretty, delicately colored shell is named for Mrs. W.A. Bryan."

Species Named for Her Mother

Odostomia letsonae (Pilsby, 1917) type no 117600 at A.N.S.P.

"It was picked from beach debris by Mrs. Letson, whose work on the minutes shells of this locality has brought many interesting species to light."


Dr. Elizabeth Letson Bryan, Former Buffalonian, Noted for Scientific Work, Dies in Hawaii, The Buffalo Evening Times, Saturday, March 22, 1919. page 9. 

Pilsbry, Henry Augustus, Obituary for Elizabeth Letson Byran, Sc. D. The Nautilus, 1919 page 142.

E. J. Letson. “Description of a New Tethys (Aplysia).” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, vol. 50, 1898, pp. 193–193. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4062402. Accessed 30 May 2021.



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