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Florida man with largest private shell collection now ready to give it away

Harry Lee has spent seven decades traveling the world collecting shells — and even found one unknown to science in his own back yard

JACKSONVILLE — Harry Lee has a basement full of shells. He has several glass-topped tables around his riverfront home that also display shells. His bookshelves are packed with books about shells, and one wall holds blue ribbons from winning first place at shell collector shows. He often wears a shirt that’s covered with pictures of shells.

He has searched for shells at beaches around the globe, as well as in mountains and beneath the ocean. He even goes out into his backyard to search for shells. Once he found one in his backyard that was previously unknown to science. It’s one of the 36 species of shells Lee has officially named. There are 18 species that scientists have named after him — “Nassarius harryleei,” for instance.

Lee, 79, has spent more than seven decades collecting shells — more time than he spent in his day job as a doctor, which was only 32 years. At one time, he was credited with having the largest private collection of shells in the world, worth about $1 million.

But now he’s giving it all away, a little at a time.

Harry Lee's shell collection, on display in his home, includes Iconic rarities from around the world such as Glory of the Seas, Festive Volute from Somalia and Yellow Clam from 1,000 feet deep. [Dede Smith for the Times]

It started nine years ago. About once every couple of months, Lee loads a bunch of his shells into the trunk of his two-door Chevy and drives 90 minutes south to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. The museum staff unloads the shells to add to their own growing collection, now the third-largest in the nation.

“I’m in a distributive mood, rather than an acquisitive mood,” said Lee, the author of a book called The Marine Shells of Northeast Florida. By taking his shells to the museum, he explained, “I hope it’s good enough to be of use to future generations.” After all, he said, “you don’t live forever.”

Florida is full of obsessive collectors and their artifacts. There’s the man with the most vintage Walt Disney memorabilia, and the one with the largest collection of fossilized poop, and the guy who has the world’s largest collection of hamburger-related merchandise.

Lee’s collection means more than just a successful acquisition of unusual items, according to John Slapcinsky of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“It shows that a lot of science can be done by amateurs,” Slapcinsky said. “People think they can’t contribute if they aren’t professional scientists, but they can.”

* * *

Lee began collecting shells when he was 6, but not the way most kids do. He didn’t go to the beach and bring home a pocket full of whelks, cockles and cat’s paws.

He lived in New Jersey, far from any beach. At that age, he didn’t get along well with his siblings, so his parents would often bundle him off to his grandmother’s house for a day or so to separate the combatants.

One day his grandmother, a widow, took him across the street to meet her neighbor, Max Hammerschlag, a retired scissors-maker and a longtime fishing buddy of Lee’s late grandfather. He welcomed the boy into his home and proudly showed off his collection of shells.

When the show ended, “I think I immediately demanded a curtain call,” Lee said. “They looked so orderly and beautiful.”

Before the boy left, Hammerschlag gave him a shell to take with him. Lee thinks it might have been a shell from a Cuban land snail, which he called “implausibly colorful — like they were hand-painted.”

He was hooked, seeing in the shells not only beauty, but a key to the natural order.

He returned often to Hammerschlag’s home, learning not only the names of the shells but also the proper way to describe them and fill out scientific tags showing where they had originated. Shells became his great passion, even as medicine became his career.

He and Kitty met as students at Cornell — he studying to be a doctor, she to be a nurse. As they talked in a New York bar where Cornell students hung out, she recalled, he brought up shells.

Still, she said, “I guess I didn’t realize how serious he was about them.”

Before long they were married, with two toddlers and living in Ethiopia. Lee was studying snails and the parasites that they pass along to humans — and in the process collecting snail shells. Then, in 1973, he was offered a job at a Florida medical practice. All he could think about were all the shells he could find.

He persuaded his wife to move to Jacksonville, via the Pacific Ocean. They made more than a dozen stops along the way in such shell-rich locales as Australia, Fiji, Tahiti and Hawaii. They carried one suitcase for the kids’ diapers, he said, and two dedicated to shells.

“It was," says Mrs. Lee, "a little unbalanced.”

* * *

Over the years, Lee built up his collection partly through trades and purchases, and partly through going out himself and picking up what he saw.

“He’ll get down in the mud and dig for them,” said Slapcinsky, who has gone on several shell-hunting trips with Lee.

Harry Lee had what was considered the largest personal shell collection in the world, including quite a few shells that were unknown to science before he discovered them. One of them he discovered in his Jacksonville backyard. [Dede Smith for the Times]

The rarest shell in his collection is known as a “sacred chank.” Unlike most shells, which coil to the right, his sacred chank’s coils go to the left. Collectors call that a “reverse.” According to Hindu scripture, Vishnu hid a sacred text in one of those one-in-600,000 shells with reverse coils. The one in his collection, he said, came from a sketchy fellow who claimed to be a descendant of Lord Calvert, founder of the Maryland colony.

Lee’s waterfront home has provided him with lovely views for years. But its proximity to a tributary turned into a liability in 2012, when floodwaters rose high enough to pour into the basement. Half of Lee’s collection stayed above the water line. The other half suffered damage to the tags and displays, which required five volunteers working with Lee for six months to set things right again.

“That which was inundated had to be rehabilitated,” Lee said.

Lee has a website featuring photos of mollusks that biologists all over the state use as a guide. He’s not done with his research yet, either. Often when he brings shells to the museum, Lee wanders over to another part of the campus where he can borrow an electron microscope to continue assisting a scientist with examining tiny fossil shells. He peers through the eyepiece at specimens that were dug up from a sand mine in Sarasota County. Many are from species now extinct, he said, but he can see the similarities to their modern-day descendants.

Although Lee’s collection delights other shell fans, his own family has not quite embraced his obsession. None of this three children collect shells. One is an attorney, another is a biologist in a different field and the third shares his wife’s passion, horses. They run an equestrian center called HaddenLoch and according to Lee, his wife is happy to be doing anything related to horses, even shoveling manure.

"It’s difficult for me to understand her passion,” he said, looking perplexed. Then he smiled and added, “Of course, the feeling is mutual.”

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.