shells

Photo by Mandy Henry on Unsplash

Harry Lee is a doctor, grandfather and, until recently, had a shell collection worth $1 million.

Lee recently donated the collection of shells to the Florida Museum of Natural History, making the museum’s collection the third-largest in the country. The museum follows the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., which holds the largest collection of shells, Lee said.

Lee has collected and studied shells throughout his entire life while also working as a physician in Jacksonville for 32 years. Since his retirement, when he’s not with his grandchildren, Lee spends his time studying shells. 

Lee began donating to the museum in 2012 piece by piece. He recently donated the $1 million value in shells because it would be good for students’ future research, he said. It is expensive for a museum to absorb a large collection, he said.

The museum categorizes the shells into “lots,” and a single lot can possibly contain thousands of specimens. Lee is donating a total of 36,000 lots, and 60 percent of his collection has already been relocated to the museum. In 1974, the museum held a total of 37,000 lots of shells, and today there are 544,000 lots and counting, he said.

He said that all shells have scientific value and are evaluated by their quality, size, rarity, colors and history. 

To transport his collection, Lee typically loads the shells in his car and drives it to Gainesville, he said. Other times, the museum helps Lee transport his collection.

Lee’s donation will advance the field of shell studies because there is so much for people to view and research, said Anthony Pivarunas, a visiting assistant professor teaching paleontology at UF. 

Pivarunas said he regularly takes his students out to Haile Quarry, well-established dig sites for fossils throughout Alachua County, to conduct hands-on research. He said Lee’s collection is extraordinary, and he is happy to have these shells in the museum. He said it is important because students who study geology or earth science may use them for research.

“It’s an incredible, incredible thing,” Pivarunas said, “Just the sheer time invested, it represents for [Lee] over the course of his life to put together such a great collection is extraordinary.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Anthony Pivarunas. The Alligator originally reported differently.