Dean of Alaskan explorations and one of the last of the disappearing class of "systematic naturalists," which included Agassiz, Baird, and Audubon, William H. Dall (1845-1927) was born in Boston to Charles Henry Appleton Dall, a Unitarian minister, and Caroline Wells (Healey), a feminist and publicist. Educated in the public school system, Dall did not go on to attend Harvard after graduating from the Boston Latin School. Instead, he pursued his interests in zoology and medicine by studying under the guidance of Agassiz, Augustus A. Gould, and Jeffries Wyman. Dall's special interest in mollusca came about quite accidentally as a result of his reading Gould's Report on the Invertebrata of Massachusetts. Dall soon left for Chicago to earn his livelihood, and there he met Robert Kennicott and William Stimpson, both members of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, where Dall attended evenings to continue his scientific studies.
When Kennicott was given command of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition to Alaska in 1865, whose mission was to find a means of establishing a communications system with Europe by way of Alaska, the Bering Straits, and Asia, Dall, aged twenty, was invited along as a member of the group's scientific party. Upon Kennicott's death in 1866, Dall was placed in charge of the Scientific Corps. When the expedition was abruptly terminated by the successful laying of the Atlantic cable, Dall volunteered to stay on an extra year in order to complete the scientific project. In 1871, Dall was appointed to the United States Coast Survey (USCS), under whose auspices he continued his studies on Alaska and the northern Pacific Coast. Dall left the USCS in 1884 to accept the rank of paleontologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a position which he held until 1925.
Having forwarded fossil specimens he had collected as a youth to the Smithsonian Institution, and with the collections of the Alaskan expedition being sent there also, Dall, upon his arrival in Washington, D.C., in 1868, voluntarily began to assemble and describe the collections of mollusca and other organisms stored by the United States National Museum (USNM) while working on his publication regarding Alaska. In 1880, Dall was officially appointed honorary curator at the USNM, Division of Mollusks, a position he held until his death and without remuneration, as he could not be paid for both his work with the USGS and the USNM.
Dall was a prolific writer. Between his earliest writings on the Alaskan expedition in 1865 as a correspondent for the Alta California until his death in 1927, Dall published more than five-hundred scientific short papers. Among his larger works, Dall's Contributions to the Tertiary Fauna of Florida, 6 volumes (1890-1903), is still considered the most important American publication on cenozoic molluscan paleontology. Dall's other writings include Alaska and its Resources (1870) and his biography, Spencer Fullerton Baird (1915). Among his honorary degrees and awards, Dall was awarded the Gold Medal by the Wagner Free Institute of Science, Philadelphia (1899), for his work on paleontology; the Honorary Doctor of Science degree, University of Pennsylvania (1904); and the Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, George Washington University (1915).