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Michael Wall, Ph.D.
Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

Tarantula, photo by J. McCullough
Charles F. Harbison, "Harbie", with Museum visitors
Charles F. Harbison, "Harbie", with Museum visitors

Arachnophobes  not  allowed!   
A History of the Entomology Department

By Margi Dykens, Director, Research Library

The earliest beginnings of the San Diego Natural History Museum reveal a close connection with insects. The story, as reported in a San Diego Union newspaper article in 1934, discusses a conversation between two early San Diego residents. Oliver Sanford, a surveyor living in San Diego in the 1800s, collected beetles as well as plants. His friend, Daniel Cleveland, a lawyer, was also an amateur botanist. One day in 1874, Sanford said to Cleveland, “You know, Dan? There are some darned interesting beetles in this town. Come to the house and look over my collection; I’ll show you.”

“You realize, son, that I am a botanist,” said Cleveland. “I just sent my collection to Harvard University. But all phases of biology are of interest to the naturalist. May I call on you tomorrow night?” This conversation was reportedly the beginning of the San Diego Society of Natural History. Whether or not the conversation actually took place, the fact is that in 1874 the two men formed their own society devoted to local natural history at Cleveland’s law office during an informal meeting. Indeed, some of Sanford’s beetles collected in the 1850s remain in the collection today.

One of the early staff members of the Entomology Department was William S. Wright, a self-taught specialist in Lepidoptera. He donated over 30,000 specimens to the collection during his tenure at the Museum, beginning in 1910. A skilled carpenter, Wright not only supervised the entomology collections, but also constructed “nature cabinets,” wooden cases with different drawers for specimens of insects, birds, shells, minerals, and mammals which were delivered to outlying San Diego County schools for the children to study. This emphasis on public outreach is still an important component of the Museum today.

During the 1920s and beyond, researchers from the Entomology Department made many collecting trips throughout San Diego County and into Baja California. These field trips were very productive and resulted in many new type specimens being deposited in the collection.

Lee Passmore photographing trap-door spiders
Lee Passmore photographing trap-door spiders

The 1930s were notable for the appearance of Charles F. Harbison in the Entomology Department. “Harbie” first started at the Museum in 1934 and for the next 39 years, played an essential role not only in the department itself, but in many other functions at the Museum. Much of Harbie’s time was generously donated to the Museum on a volunteer basis. Much loved by staff and visitors alike, Harbie was a mentor in the Junior Naturalist program, which had a positive influence on many school children who became fascinated with local “critters” and natural history under his tutelage.

Also during the 1930s Lee Passmore, a naturalist photographer and friend of SDNHM Director Clinton Abbott, published his amazing photos of trap-door spiders in the National Geographic. Passmore later donated his collection of insect photographs to the department.

During the 40s and 50s Harbie and others made many collecting trips to Baja California and areas of the southwestern U.S., and the collections in the department increased to 300,000 by 1950. In 1969 Harbie officially retired, but continued to volunteer. From 1969–73, Harbie was the only active member of the department.

Fred Thorne was hired part-time in 1973 to organize the entomology collections. Largely due to his efforts, the Lepidoptera collection is one of the finest in California; he donated over 8500 of the mounted specimens collected primarily in San Diego County. In 1975 David Faulkner was hired and worked in the department until 2000. Faulkner wrote The Butterflies of Baja California: Faunal Survey, Natural History, Conservation Biology along with two co-authors in 1992. With a special interest is forensic entomology, Faulkner presented many outreach programs on the topic and curated the popular exhibition Insects: Face to Face, which featured fleas, lice and cockroaches as well as giant robotic insects.

Dr. Paisley Cato, Curator of Collections, assumed responsibility for the entomology collection in 2001. With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Museum’s Capital Campaign, the collection was entirely rehoused into steel cabinetry in the new wing of the Museum, and departmental space expanded from 700 to 1300 sq. ft. With many donations of specimens over the years by such people as John Comstock, William McGuire and Norris Bloomfield, the total today numbers close to 980,000 specimens.

In January 2006, an important new milestone in the history of the Entomology Department was reached, with Dr. Michael Wall assuming the role of Curator of Entomology. Arriving with his family from Australia where he has been employed as a Postdoctoral Fellow from the American Museum of Natural History and a Fulbright Scholar, Michael is enthusiastic about his upcoming responsibilities and opportunities at the Museum. Michael’s special area of research is the ecology and systematics of certain families of true bugs, or Hemipterans, and he has a strong interest in the conservation biology of insects, as well as public outreach. Michael follows in the footsteps of many enthusiastic “bug-lovers” who came before; who knows what additional understanding of some new and “darned interesting” insects may be yet to come under Dr. Wall’s curatorship?