ABOVE: Two of Hugh Porter’s publications: Seashells Common to North Carolina and Seashells of North Carolina. Photo by Trish Murphey.
There are few people in North Carolina who know seashells as well as Hugh Porter. Born in Ohio, he came to North Carolina in the mid 1950s and quickly earned the nickname “Mr. Seashell” for his extensive knowledge and passion for mollusks.
This summer, North Carolina Sea Grant and the University of North Carolina Press are honoring Porter’s contributions to the state and celebrating the 20th year of his book, Seashells of North Carolina.
In 1950, Porter graduated from Millersville State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. After briefly attending Pennsylvania State University, he joined the United States Army and saw action in the Korean War. He earned a master’s degree in marine sciences from University of Delaware in 1956. Shortly after, Porter made his professional home at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, where he stayed for nearly 55 years.
Porter first started at IMS as a research assistant, and then moved up the ranks to become an instructor in 1957 and an assistant professor in 1963.
In his time with IMS, he published over 40 scholarly articles and two marine atlases, and co-authored two books.
Trish Murphey, southern district manager of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries in Morehead City, fondly remembers Porter from her time as a shellfish biologist. “I believe I met Hugh at least 15 or more years ago. I used to bring him shells for identification. He would take the time to show me shells from his collection at UNC-IMS. He was a very sweet man and you could tell he loved what he did,” Murphey recalls.
Although he officially retired from IMS in 1996, Porter returned almost daily to his office through 2010.
Close to his official retirement, Porter finished Seashells of North Carolina, one of his most popular publications. Co-authored by Lynn Houser with photography by Scott Taylor, the 132-page book identifies over 250 coastal and marine organisms.
Published in 1997 by North Carolina Sea Grant, the book expands upon the previous success of Seashells Common to North Carolina that Porter co-authored with Jim Tyler. The original 32-page pamphlet was published in 1971. Additions made included new photographs, additional species and updated common and scientific names of species.
“Seashells of North Carolina has been a valuable resource to the North Carolina environmental education community for the past 20 years, and we know it will continue to be a treasured guide for environmental educators,” shares Lisa Tolley, environmental education program manager at the N.C. Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs.
“The beauty and diversity of seashells found in North Carolina provide many “teachable moments” for both children and adults. Seashells provides educators with the information needed to extend those moments of fascination into in-depth science inquiry,” she continues.
Porter’s mollusk collection at IMS was a significant source of information for the expanded book. The collection, which he initiated in 1956, is now housed at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. It had to be moved in two stages due to its large size — over 233,000 specimens.
The museum is grateful to have Porter’s shells. “The collection is primarily used for education and research. I have been at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences for over 13 years and there hasn’t been a year go by that the collection was not used in some way,” notes Jamie Smith, collections manager of mollusks. The shells have been used to make new identification guides, to conduct research on salt and freshwater mollusks, and to educate the public.
Most shells are in storage, but some can be accessed virtually on the museum’s database. Due to the collection’s large size, not all shells have been added yet. The shells that are available online can be found at http://collections.naturalsciences.org/searchMollusks.aspx. You can also stop by the museum to talk to the curatorial staff or to see current exhibits.
Porter’s passion for mollusks also crossed into his personal life. He and his wife, Dorothy, were founding members of the North Carolina Shell Club, and attended the charter meeting on March 9, 1957. He remained an active member until 2010 and held many positions including president and later, historian.
In his time with the club, Porter helped earn support for legislation to name the scotch bonnet the state seashell. North Carolina was the only state to have an official state shell at the time of its recognition in 1965. In 1966, he also helped bring the largest gathering of mollusk collectors to N.C. for the annual conference.
“Hugh’s book is still very popular among members of the N.C. Shell Club and among the visitors to the club’s annual shell show, held at the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington each year in September,” adds Douglas Wolfe, past club president and life member.
For his work with the club, then-Gov. Dan Moore honored Porter with membership to the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 1966. The prestigious award is presented to individuals who have a record of great service or special achievement in the state of North Carolina.
Porter passed away Dec. 11, 2014, age 86, not far from Morehead City. That city not only is home to IMS, but also is where Porter raised his family and became an integral part of the community.
To honor his contributions to the state, and to celebrate the 20th year of Seashells of North Carolina, this summer Sea Grant and UNC Press are joining efforts. Every Sunday through Labor Day, we are posting about beachcombing, shells and the book itself on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Look for the hashtag #NCSeashells from @seagrantNC and @UNCPressblog.
Buy Seashells of North Carolina at ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/bookstore. Also, check bookstores and gift shops where UNC Press publications are sold.
To hear Hugh Porter’s story as told by Wolfe, visit http://www.ncshellclub.com/PorterArticle.htm.