WILLIS, JOHN ROBERT, naturalist, teacher, and first Nova Scotian conchologist; b. 14 Feb. 1825 in Philadelphia, Pa., son of John Willis; m. in 1847 to Mary Ann Artz by whom he had six children, and in 1865 to Eliza Jane Mosely by whom he had four children; d. 31 March 1876 in Halifax, N.S.
John Robert Willis came to Halifax as a child; he was educated at the national school where he later became a successful teacher and principal. He was appointed superintendent of the new industrial school in Halifax in 1864, and a year later became secretary to the new board of school commissioners for the city. He retired from the latter post only in 1875.
Willis is remembered primarily, however, as a naturalist. A painstaking and discriminating collector and classifier, mainly of shells but also of insects and birds, he first won acclaim in 1854 when he exhibited his shells at the Nova Scotia Industrial Exhibition and won first prize. Later he sent exhibits of mollusca and pearls to an international exhibition, and to the Dublin Exhibition in 1864. His work brought him into correspondence with distinguished British, American, and Canadian scientists, among whom Sir John William Dawson* became a particular friend. With their assistance, he identified and publicized the existence of many species of shells, including European and southern types hitherto not recognized as existing as far north as Nova Scotia. He gave shell collections to local colleges, the British Museum, the Boston Society of Natural History, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Smithsonian Institution.
In recognition of his work he was elected corresponding member of the Liverpool Natural History and Microscopical Society in 1862, of the Boston Society of Natural History in 1863, and of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in about 1866. He was one of the founders of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science in 1862, and worked for the establishment of a provincial museum.
His shell catalogues showing localities, range, and relative importance helped American naturalists to wider, more accurate generalizations and are of historical interest since the distribution of shell forms changes with time.
[John Robert Willis’ own publications include the first known list of Nova Scotia shells, published in 1857 in a periodical which has not survived; a list of birds of Nova Scotia in the Annual report of the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution . . . for . . . 1858; a catalogue of marine shells of Nova Scotia in the Boston Society of Natural History, Proceedings, VIII (1862); a catalogue of edible mollusca, from a paper read before the Nova Scotia Literary and Scientific Society, published in Colonial Review (Halifax), 29 Nov. 1862; and a privately printed extensive list of 193 Nova Scotia shells (November 1863). p.c.]
Dominion Illustrated Weekly, a Canadian pictoral weekly (Montreal, Toronto), 11 Oct. 1890, 247. Unionist and Halifax Journal, 27 Dec. 1865. “John Robert Willis, the first Nova Scotian conchologist, a memorial; his life, his list of shells of Nova Scotia, and his other published works,” ed. W. F. Ganong, Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science, Proceedings and transactions (Halifax), VII (1886–90), pt. iv, 404–28. Harry Piers, “A brief historical account of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science . . . with biographical sketches of its deceased presidents and other prominent members,” Nova Scotian Institute of Science, Proceedings and transactions, XIII (1910–14), xciii-xciv.