S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Sowerby, George Brettingham (conchology)

Born: 1843, England.
Died: 1921, England.

George Brettingham Sowerby the third, an English conchologist residing in London, belonged to the fourth generation of conchologists in the Sowerby family. His great-grandfather, James Sowerby (1757-1822) applied his artistic skills to the illustration of botanical and conchological works and among others illustrated some Cape plants in Sir James E. Smith's Icones pictae plantarum rariorum... (1790-1793; his grandfather, George Brettingham Sowerby the first (1788-1854), was a conchologist and natural history dealer who published on geology and shells, including a monumental work on conchology; while his father, George Brettingham Sowerby the second (1812-1884), was a conchologist and artist.

George B. Sowerby the third, Fellow of the Linnean Society and of the Zoological Society of London, published his first scientific paper in 1873, describing three new species of land shells from Madagascar. By 1900 he had published some 45 papers, almost all of them describing new species of shells from various parts of the world. Several of his papers dealt with shells from South Africa. For example, "Marine shells of South Africa, collected at Port Elizabeth, with descriptions of some new species" in the Journal of Conchology (1886-1888). Most of these shells had been collected by members of the Eastern Province Naturalists' Society, who were particularly active in this branch of natural history. His main work on South African conchology was Marine shells of South Africa: A catalogue of all the known species... (London, 1892, 89p). This book included some 720 species, some of which were described for the first time. Unfortunately "the excessive number of misidentifications and mislocalised records (about 140 of the total) which it contained were not only to confuse future biogeographers, but also to mask the existence of a high proportion of local endemics" (Kilburn, 1999, p. 35). Five years later Sowerby compiled an Appendix to marine shells of South Africa (London, 1897, 42p) in which a further 300 or so species were listed. Another paper by him, "On some marine shells from Pondoland and the Kowie, with descriptions of seventeen new species", was published in the Proceedings of the Malacological Society in 1901. During 1899 he identified all the additions to the mollusc collection of the Albany Museum, whose director, S. Schonland*, referred to him in his annual report for that year as "the greatest authority on South African shells" (p.4).

From 1898 the Government Biologist of the Cape Colony, J.D.F. Gilchrist*, sent Sowerby both shells and live molluscs for identification. These specimens were described in several papers that were later published in Marine investigations in South Africa (Cape Town, 5 vols, 1902-1908). In "Description of a new South African marine gasteropod" (Vol. 1, 1902, pp. 5-7) he named Neptuneopsis gilchristy, a magnificent deep water gasteropod of the family Volutidae, after the collector. More important were several papers with the title "Mollusca of South Africa" (Vol. 2, 1904, pp. 93-100 and 213-232; Vol. 4, 1908, pp. 1-19). The first of these, including descriptions of six new species, was also published (without plates) in the Report of the Government Biologist for 1901. The third dealt with the Pelecypoda (bivalves).

Sowerby's other publications included List of the shells of Lake Tanganyika (1890) and A catalogue of the marine, land, and fresh-water shells preserved in the Museum at Chester (1902). The three generations of George B. Sowerby were commemorated in the names of the southern African mollusc species Volva sowerbyana, Drillia sowerbyi and Grassatella sowerbyi.

List of sources:
Barnard, K.H. Personal names in South African conchology. Cape Town: Conchological Society of Southern Africa, 1965.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the committee of the Albany Museum, 1899.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the Government Biologist, 1901.

Cape of Good Hope, Department of Agriculture. Marine investigations in South Africa (5 vols). Cape Town: 1902-1908.

Eastern Province Naturalists' Society. Minute book [No. 2], 1885-1892, meetings of 14 January 1887 and 5 February 1887. (Port Elizabeth Public Library).

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th and 10th ed., 1875-1902 (Vol. 22, p. 291c, on James Sowerby).

Kilburn, R.N. A brief history of marine malacology in South Africa. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1999, Vol. 54(1), pp. 31-41.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography (on G.B. Sowerby the first). Oxford University Press, 2004.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

Compiled by: C. Plug