|Johnson and associates. "Old conchologists don't retire," he says. "They just keep moving shells from one box to another--trying to study evolution." Photograph by Stu Rosner|
You will find me by the tail of the sperm whale," said Richard I. Johnson '51, associate in malacology at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. In the deepest reaches of the Victorian brick pile on Oxford Street that houses the museum, a two-story gallery bursts with former life. From its ceiling hang the skeletons of three whales. Gathered beneath the immense length of Physeter catodon, the sperm whale, is a herd of giraffe, okapi, guanaco, one- and two-humped camel, vicuña, impala, alpaca, klipspringer, dikdik, moose, and the lesser mouse-deer. Stairs lead to the balcony, which surrounds the central space and the four-legged menagerie below, and to a red door marked "Mollusk Department. R. Johnson." An ostrich and a greater rhea flank the door, which bears a notice advising:
If Johnson respondeth not, perhaps he is on a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, or is in the other part of the Department.
But Johnson respondeth. He is tall, fit- looking, hearty, and far friendlier than the situation requires. Through the door, Johnson's part of the department is a range of work spaces along an interior wall of capacious closets containing shallow drawers full of freshwater mollusks (the phylum Mollusca includes snails, bivalves, chitons, octopuses, and squids). "'Malacology,'" says Johnson, "used to mean the study of entire mollusks, conchology being the study of their shells. Now the terms are used interchangeably, although 'malacology' is the snobbier word."
Johnson's domain is quiet and otherwise unpeopled. He leads his visitor around one end of the wall of closets to his desk. Above the visitor's chair hangs a reproduction of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. Johnson has cut out the face of the ravishing lady on the half shell and replaced it with a photograph of the face of his second, and current, wife.
|Natural historian Georg Eberhard Rumpf (Rumphius) (1627-1702), with shells and other specimens, from a copy of his Thesaurus Imaginum Piscium Testaceorum (1711) in Johnson's collection. A German, Rumpf was sent by the Dutch East India Company in 1653 to Ambon and subsequently wrote an extensive study of its flora. "He was such a good employee," says Johnson, "that the Dutch kept him on even after he went blind," as he is depicted here.|
"Our museum is probably the greatest natural history museum connected to a university," Johnson says, "but its exhibits are almost parodies of nineteenth-century exhibits, unfortunately." His own, conchological confines lack technological modernity and spiffy décor. In one work space, a plywood table is covered with small strips of paper bearing the names of mollusks and where someone found them. Johnson's current project involves pushing the papers around the table top, arranging them in meaningful geographical order according to river systems from Nova Scotia to Maryland. A puff of wind would devastate his efforts. "I suppose that someone else could do this on a computer," he says.
Johnson's very presence in the building speaks of arrangements once not uncommon at Harvard, but now nearly extinct. "I am the last of the rentiers at the museum," he says. "When I first came here, as a boy, I saw the difference between the director, Thomas Barbour, and other rentiers in positions of authority, and the curator of mollusks, who had to support his family on $2,500 a year. I saw that to make a financial success was important, despite Robert Louis Stevenson's remark that 'It is perhaps a more fortunate destiny to have a taste for collecting shells than to be born a millionaire.'"
Johnson is a gentleman scholar, an amateur with a worldwide scholarly reputation who has produced more than 50 papers about malacology purely for the pleasure of it--articles with such titles as "A New Mussel, Potamilis metnecktayi (Bivalvia: Unionidae) from the Rio Grande System, Mexico and Texas, with Notes on Mexican Disconaias"--articles that as "achievements," he notes with a twinkle, are "seldom acknowledged by the general public." He aims to write, he says, "succinctly but without amphibology."
His purpose is to see that mollusks are accurately described and named. "For years after Crick and Watson, museums like ours were considered the lowest of the low and unimportant," says Johnson, outraged. "Recently, as those other kinds of biologists gradually realized they didn't know what animals they were working with, there's been a renaissance of interest in people who work with whole animals and know what the species are."
Harvard professors are uniformly inspirators of the young; with perhaps a single moment of their favoring attention, they can shape a youngster's life--and so it was with Johnson. In 1939, when Johnson was 14, his science teacher, Mr. Clish, took him to meet Mr. Clench, curator of mollusks at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. William James Clench, S.M. '23, was a man of infectious enthusiasm. He assured his old schoolmate Albert Clish, Ed '42, and Johnson, who had shown some interest in biology, that Johnson was especially interested in mollusks, in freshwater mussels in particular, and might do well to come to the museum as a volunteer worker. (Extensive collections of mussels were incoming at that time. Presently, Johnson was set to work unpacking them.)
Two years later, he published his first paper on malacology--at least his twenty-fifth reunion class report says he did. "I can't argue with what I wrote in my report," says Johnson. "That was in my prelapsable period, and I made sure everything was accurate, but I can't remember each date now. It's true enough. I was a very smart kid. And it was a tiny piece, just that I'd found a snail in Fresh Pond that hadn't been there before."
Johnson was drafted into the army in 1943. He was laboring at that time on a paper reidentifying many type specimens of mollusks described a century earlier by Joseph Pitty Couthouy, and he corrected proofs of the article while on latrine duty at Camp Hood, Texas. Eventually, Johnson was sent to Europe, where he would from time to time sneak into Paris and buy every book he could find on conchology, priced very inexpensively. "Two volumes in the library here now I bought for $6 apiece," he recalls. "Today they sell for several thousand."
Johnson had been accepted at Harvard before the war and now entered it. He rowed on the freshman crew, joined the Hasty Pudding and Spee clubs, and financed summer trips to Europe by buying and selling books. He went on to attend for a year what is now the American Graduate School of International Management, near Phoenix, but when he left, he failed to show up at the National City Bank in New York, which had hired him.
Back in Boston, and still hovering around the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Johnson went into the life insurance business and was the first person in his agency to sell more than $1 million-worth of permanent life insurance in one year. "I had spectacular success until I'd sold insurance to everyone I knew," he says. He also began trading securities--with heartwarming results--and was given an office at White, Weld & Company.
"I was singularly unsuccessful in a number of ventures," he wrote in his class report--"a key-ring and a lobster-aquarium business; some Texas oil wells; a gas-gathering plant in Weld County, Colorado; Walkover Shoes in Venezuela; bowling alleys in New Hampshire; a suburban Boston newspaper; and others which I have happily forgotten." "I learned," he says today, "that the best way to make money is in the market, without people you know involved.
|A snail of fantasy, from a copy of Ulyssis Aldrovandi's De Reliquis Animalibus Exanguibus (1606) in Johnson's library. The mustachioed fellow was drawn when shell collections consisted mostly of empty shells washed up on beaches, and their original inhabitants had to be imagined. It was also a time, says Johnson, when Europeans believed that the mind could deduce the nature of the physical world by logic rather than by observation.|
"I was 40 years old before I realized I'd had enough of investing," says Johnson. "I came here to the museum, built this office, and I've been here ever since--with one eye on mollusks and the other on mammon."
Johnson pushes a button at a corner of his desk--a long slab of gray Formica atop three filing cabinets--and soon a smiling woman appears bearing coffee and cookies on a silver service. "I suppose you think we live like this always," says Johnson. "You're meant to."
Tollhouse in hand, he speaks of his family. "In 1954 I made a hypergamous marriage, which I had learned at Harvard was the thing one should do, to Marjory Weld Austin. We had three children." "The first Mrs. Johnson decided to obtain a divorce during the fall of 1980, so that she might 'find herself,'" he wrote in his thirty-fifth reunion class report. In 1983 he married Marrian Gleason, a political activist (Republican) whom he had met at a reception at the Boston Athenaeum. She was the widow of Edward Hollis Gleason II '50, whom Johnson had known at graduate school. In fact, he had then advised Gleason, who was engaged to the 17-year-old Marrian, that she was too young for him, but 30 years later, she did not seem too young to Johnson. They were married in the First Church (Unitarian) in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and came home from the church on his motorcycle, a Honda 160cc. Soon he named a new species of mussel Margaritifera marrianae.
Johnson wrote in his fortieth report: "I was an early supporter of Governor William Floyd Weld '66 [J.D. '70], who is my late ex-wife's youngest first cousin. With this background, I am waiting, like Henry Adams did, for the big appointment, First Competent Consulting Conchologist of the Commonwealth of Mas-sachusetts, N.P. (not paid)." In his forty-fifth report, still waiting and wiser, he wrote: "I should have been less confident about this since he has never thanked me for the photograph I sent him of his grandfather, Francis Minot Weld '17....I did, however, collaborate with his sister-in-law, Anna C. Roosevelt, on a paper titled 'Eighth Millennium Pottery from a Prehistoric Shell Midden in the Brazilian Amazon.'"
"I drink low-priced beer, smoke high-priced cigars, and run two miles a day," says Johnson, "but these are not five-minute miles. That's the story."
Perhaps the visitor would like to see the other part of the department? Out on the balcony of the great gallery, past cases of birds, is another door, and behind it are Kenneth J. Boss, Ph.D. '63, professor of biology, curator in malacology, the only other conchologist in the department, and secretary Mary Jablekoff, who brought the coffee and the cookies. Boss is a genial, welcoming fellow himself, and invites visitors to sign the department's guest book.
"When Professor Boss is asked, to his irritation, the size of the collection, he says about two million specimens," says Johnson. "The collection compares favorably to other big ones. I don't know how many species we have represented. About 40,000 to 50,000 species of mollusks exist, although the number has been given as much higher. Some people in the field go bonkers at the suggestion that there are only 40,000 species because they feel more important the more species there are."
In this part of the department is its library, and Boss and Johnson joyously take down from the shelves to show the visitor incunabula and eighteenth-century volumes beautifully illustrated with hand-colored steel engravings of shells. In what Johnson calls a "hagiography" that Boss wrote to begin a volume of Occasional Papers on Mollusks published this year by the department and dedicated to Johnson, Boss notes that Johnson "has generously supported the Department and added considerably to its library...all duplicates from his library, which is the most extensive malacological collection in private hands."
Johnson is a member of the Club of Odd Volumes in Boston, and he gave a talk there in 1994 on conchological illustration based entirely on his own library. He began with an excursus on shell collecting and noted that the humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam was a collector. He mentioned that had not Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) cured the leg of Froben, Erasmus's publisher, we might never have heard of Erasmus. "It is often difficult," Johnson notes, "to bring this interesting and important fact into general conversation." Inspection of the club's minutes of the meeting, kept by clerk Richard Marius, former senior lecturer on English at Harvard, reveals that Johnson had greeted the evening "with some trepidation. He had, he said, read all six volumes of the memoirs of Casanova. What he remembered most, he said, was that Casanova had written that in Geneva he met a man who knew the names of a thousand shells. It was, said the great Venetian seducer, the most boring evening he had ever spent."
|A predecessor of Johnson's, a conchologist enthroned in a shell museum, receives assistants bearing new specimens. The plate is from Rumpf's Thesaurus Imaginum Piscium Testaceorum. As collections burgeoned in the eighteenth century, Johnson notes, scientists discovered that nature was more varied and wonderful than abstract logic could conceive.|
Johnson is apt to present his visitors with a specimen of the sort of thing he studies, to be taken away and savored. Perhaps it will have an old, typewritten paper label with it, reading "Lampsilis cariosa Say, Merrimac R., Haverill, Mass. J. Bartlett, leg. 1866." Perhaps it will be wrapped in a still-crisp bit of newspaper, which, upon examination, includes a report on the speechifying of General William Tecumseh Sherman and itself dates from 1866.
"What is it about mollusks that you find so very interesting?" asks the visitor finally.
"I wish you hadn't asked that question," says Johnson with gusto. "A few years ago a woman asked me the same thing: 'Do you really love mollusks?' 'I'd like to say yes,' I said, 'but when you've worked with them as long as I have, you just do it. It isn't a question of whether I like them or not, I don't know what else to do.' I think that's a fair answer."
The visitor is silent for a time, temporarily out of questions on conchology.
"I would not advise young people to go into biology," says Johnson. "Once you say to people at a cocktail party what you do, if you can't change the subject quickly to what they do, or to Japanese ceramics, or to anything else, they just go absolutely dead. You have to have your own--I believe they call it--jockey conversation."
"You know, your jockey doesn't have anything to talk about except horses, so you train him on another topic so that when your horse wins the big race and he has to go to the fancy party, he has something to say."