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Florida physician who traveled the globe seeking shells is donating them to UF museum

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Harry Lee is giving away $1 million — in shells, that is.

These aren’t your usual run of the ocean shells.

Some are new species he discovered. Some are named for him. Some are very rare.

Lee is renowned for his collection, which is arguably the largest private group of shells in the world.

The retired Jacksonville physician found about 30 percent of the shells himself. He purchased another third and got the rest via trade.

Since 2010, Lee and museum staff have been annually transporting the shells in increments to the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. The museum has the third-largest collection in the nation.

Curating Lee’s collection, which represents 12,000 species amounting to almost a million shells, is a time-consuming and costly process. A recent Florida National Science Foundation grant for almost half a million dollars will allow staff to catch up with the backlog of Lee’s shells awaiting curation and a few other collections recently acquired.

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Lee is regarded as one of the world’s top amateur experts in the study of mollusks — invertebrate creatures without a backbone that usually house themselves in shells.

He’s also the author of a book called “Marine Shells of Northeast Florida,” has published dozens of articles, received numerous awards and has been active in the Jacksonville Shell Club for about 45 years.

He’s been just about everywhere looking for his beloved shells. But he said it’s time to preserve them in an orderly way for future generations.

“You can’t take it with you,” he said.

Lee, who wears a shirt covered with shell pictures for shell-related events, was 6 when he discovered his affinity for the ocean’s bounty.

He is the oldest of four children and said he frequently sparred with his siblings. They lived in New Jersey, and his parents often sent him to stay with his widowed grandmother on weekends to separate the scrapping youngsters.

One day his grandmother took him to meet her neighbor, a wealthy immigrant scissors maker. He had an impressive shell collection on the three floors of his home that entranced the young Lee. Every time Lee visited, he gave him a shell.

“That made me want to go all the more,” he said.

As the neighbor’s eyesight was failing, Lee was given the task of examining and labeling the shells.

This went on for five or six years until the neighbor died. But Lee’s passion had been ignited.

It was further fueled when he was 15 and scuba diving became popular. Around the same time, a trip to Bermuda was an eye-opener.

“It was tropical, and the shells more numerous and beautiful,” he said.

While at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., he even wrote his honors thesis on land and fresh-water mollusks of Western Massachusetts.

Several years after graduating from medical college at New York’s Cornell University, he was in Ethiopia studying snails and the parasites they pass on to humans.

He also was collecting shells in other African countries.

When invited to join a Jacksonville internal medicine/cardiology practice, Lee snapped up the offer, thinking of the shells he would find.

He and wife Kitty and their two toddlers (a third child was born later) took the long way to Jacksonville. They made a dozen stops along the route so he could search for shells. They arrived in 1974.

He appreciates their beauty, variety, the thrill of finding new species, the relations among the animals that make the shells and classifying them in order. His obsession also has taken him to such exotic locales as Madagascar, Mauritius, Borneo, Bali, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, Fiji, Tahiti, New Caledonia and Australia, as well as the West Indies, the Caribbean, the Bahamas and most of the United States.

Count his waterfront backyard as well. In 1980 he found a new snail species dubbed the “carrot glass.”

Studying shells is "an avenue to understanding the natural order of things," he said.

That natural order got upended in 2012 when floodwaters inundated his Ortega Forest home’s basement, where he kept most of his shells.

The displays and tags on half of his collection were damaged. But professional museum workers and fellow collectors volunteered hundreds of hours over eight weeks to help him restore the shells to a presentable condition.

While he had a fair amount on display, 95 percent were organized in drawers for research.

The 79-year-old has named 36 species of shells while scientists have named 19 species after him.

The shells that Lee holds dearest are his unparalleled collection of 173 left-handed or reverse coiled snail species. Typical shells coil to the right.

They will be the last ones to go to Gainesville, Lee said, adding that he may want to display them at shell shows.

Lee, who retired from medicine in 2006, travels to Gainesville on Wednesdays to volunteer in the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology. During the last six years, he’s made about 80 trips on Mondays to the Department of Geology. On those occasions, he uses its scanning electronic microscope to make images of the tiny fossil mollusks he and department members have collected from Sarasota County.

“It’s a pleasure to work among dedicated and gifted scientists,” said Lee, who was named the museum’s Volunteer of the Year in 2017. “It’s been a very sustaining hobby, and I can’t imagine such a happy life without it.”

People like Lee who really know their mollusks often can spot species that are new or hard to identify, said John Slapcinsky, collection manager of invertebrates at the museum. By going to a lot of exotic locales, he’s also aided researchers by providing another set of eyes and ears to look for new species.

“Harry’s a really giving person in that regard,” Slapcinsky said. “There’s a lot out there that we still don’t know, especially little things or things from remote places.”

The wide variety of his collection means that he’s donating some new and rare shells that the museum doesn’t already have, he said.

While Lee has dramatically scaled down his shell seeking, it’s still hard not to do a little collecting. His most recent trip was to Cedar Key in May.

Family members, however, won’t be carrying on his legacy. One son is a wildlife biologist and another an attorney. His wife is a life-long equestrian who assists their daughter, a world-class rider, at her horse farm.

For more information about shells, the Jacksonville Shell Club and photos of mollusks, go to jaxshells.org. Lee is scientific adviser to the website, created and maintained by Bill Frank.

Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128

This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.