So Samuel Parker decided he had discovered a new species of snail and wrote up a scientific description of it. However, he had not reviewed the other species to see if there already was one like it. The crowd snickered at Professor Agassiz’s put-down of Mr. Parker.
Is that what happened? On face value, yes. But let’s fill in some details and consider another possibility.
We know Helen Eliza Fitch (who became Helen Eliza Fitch Parker) collected land snails. She would have been 22 in August of 1850. She married Henry W. Parker on April 20, 1852. Since she was marrying into the family she would have known Samuel Parker by that time.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science admitted its first female member in 1850, but it was largely a male dominated organization.
I have seen no references that show any publications about snails or any other invertebrates from Samuel Parker. However, we know that Helen published two books about mollusks, semi-anonymously (the author was listed as “H.W.P.”) later in life. Rambles after Land Shells shows an in-depth understanding of terrestrial snail biology, even though it was written for the purpose of religious instruction. Helen was also known to have extensively collected mollusk shells for her husband’s Natural History Museum at Iowa College. She also published a book about aquatic natural history in Arthur’s Aquarium shortly before her death.
Suppose Helen, during the course of her snail collecting, came across a snail that she identified as an undescribed species. She would, of course, be able to compare it to other snails she had collected, pictures in books, and museum specimens. So she would be fairly confident that it was a new species.
As a female, she may not have felt that she would have had a fair shot at getting a description published. So she gave the task to Samuel Parker. (As an incredibly beautiful woman of 22 she may not have had too difficult of a time getting him to go along). Unfortunately, Samuel fell flat when asked how he knew this snail was different from the others. Louis Agassiz may have seen through the ruse as well, and made a special point of ridiculing Samuel Parker.
Is that what happened? I don’t know—I have no smoking gun. But I think it could have happened that way…
And I wonder if she did the same trick later with the Poweshiek skipper.