Planet Earth

Ten Great Science Museums: Smithsonian

By Edward O WilsonNov 1, 1993 12:00 AM


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I am often asked how I came to be an entomologist, a scientist who specializes in insects. The main part of the answer is simple. Most children have a bug period; I never grew out of mine. But as in the lives of scientists generally, there is more to the story. Every child wants to visit a magic kingdom. Mine was given to me at the age of ten, when my father, a government accountant, moved his little family to Washington, D.C. We took up residence in an apartment on Fairmont Street within walking distance of the National Zoological Park--commonly called the National Zoo- -and a cheap streetcar ride from the National Museum of Natural History. For me the location was an extraordinary stroke of good luck.

Here I was in 1939, a little kid, an only child open to any new experience, with a world-class zoo on one side and a world-class museum on the other, both free of charge and open seven days a week. Unaffected by the drab surroundings of our working-class neighborhood, I entered a fantasy world made weirdly palpable. I spent hours at a time wandering through the halls of the national museum, absorbed by the unending variety of plants and animals on display there, pulling out trays of butterflies and other insects, lost in dreams of distant jungles and savannas. There was romance in human terms. I knew that behind closed doors along the circling balcony, their privacy protected by uniformed guards, labored the curators, shamans of my new world. I never met one of these important personages; perhaps a few passed me unrecognized in the exhibition halls. But just the awareness of their existence--experts of such high order going about the business of the federal government in splendid surroundings-- fixed in me the image of science as a desirable profession. I could not imagine any activity more elevating than to acquire their kind of knowledge, to be stewards of animals and plants and to put the expertise to public service.

The National Zoo, the second focus of my life, was a living museum of equal potency with the National Museum of Natural History. It was and is in fact administered as part of the same organization, the Smithsonian Institution. Here I spent happy days following every trail, exploring every cage and glass-walled enclosure, staring at the charismatic big animals: Siberian tigers, rhinoceroses, cassowaries, king cobras, reticulated pythons, and crocodiles big enough to eat a boy in two bites. There were also smaller animals that eventually became equally fascinating. I developed a liking for lizards, marmosets, parrots, and tree-dwelling Philippine rats.

Close by the zoo was Rock Creek Park, a wooded urban confine within earshot of passing automobiles and the conversations of strollers. I found neither elephant herds to photograph nor tigers to drop-net, but insects were everywhere present in great abundance. So Rock Creek Park became Sumatra writ small. The collection of insects I began to accumulate at home was a simulacrum of the national museum. During excursions with a new best friend, Ellis MacLeod (who was later to become a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois), I acquired a passion for butterflies. Using homemade nets fashioned of broomsticks, coat hangers, and cloth bags, we captured our first Red Admirals and Great Spangled Fritillaries and sought the elusive Mourning Cloak along the shaded trails of Rock Creek. We were inspired by Frank Lutz’s Field Guide to the Insects and W. J. Holland’s Butterfly Book. Poring over R. E. Snodgrass’s Principles of Insect Morphology, which we could barely begin to understand but which we knew was real science, we decided we would devote our lives to entomology.

About that time I also became fascinated with ants. One day as Ellis and I clambered over a steep wooded slope in the park, I pulled away the bark of a rotting tree stump and discovered a seething mass of citronella ants underneath. These insects, members of the genus Acanthomyops, are exclusively subterranean and can only be found by digging in the soil or in fallen pieces of decaying wood. The worker ants I found were short, fat, brilliant yellow in color, and emitted a strong lemony odor. The smell was the chemical citronellal, which 30 years later (in my laboratory at Harvard) I discovered is secreted by glands attached to the mandibles of the ants and is used by them to attack enemies and spread alarm through the colony. That day the little army quickly thinned and vanished into the dark interior of the stump heartwood. But it left a vivid and lasting impression on me. What netherworld had I briefly glimpsed? What strange events were happening deep in the soil?

I devoured an article entitled Stalking Ants, Savage and Civilized, by William M. Mann, in the August 1934 issue of National Geographic. In what was to be one of the more remarkable coincidences of my life, Mann was at that time director of the National Zoo. Like the still anonymous keepers of the museum, he became my hero from afar. To run a great zoo while writing about his adventures around the world with ants-- what a role model! In 1957, when I was a beginning assistant professor at Harvard, Mann gave me his large library on ants (an important source for my later research). He also escorted my wife and me on a special tour of the zoo, a truly fulfilling event. In 1987 I was awarded the silver medal of the National Zoological Park for my work on ants and other animals: now I had come home in a deeply satisfying way.

Completing the circle, I have often returned to the National Museum of Natural History. The dwellers of that Olympus, all a new generation since 1940, have acquired names and faces and become friends and colleagues. The great collections they attend behind the closed doors are familiar ground.

There is today a quickening of purpose, a sense of rising importance and responsibility, at both the institutions that influenced me 50 years ago. Michael Robinson, the current director of the zoo, prefers to speak of his domain as a biopark, where animals will be released from the isolation of cages and placed in natural settings of plants and animals from their place of origin. The public can then view them not as caged curiosities but as parts of ecosystems, on which biological diversity--and the health of the planet--ultimately depend.

A short distance away, on the Mall, the curators of the National Museum of Natural History continue their role in building one of the world’s largest collections of plants and animals. They too must feel the future in their bones. Recent studies indicate that between 10 and 100 million species of plants, animals, and microorganisms exist on Earth, but only about 1.4 million have been studied well enough to have received scientific names. Many of these species are vanishing or being placed in imminent danger of extinction by the reduction of habitat and other human activities. The loss in tropical rain forests, thought to contain a majority of the species on Earth, may exceed half a percent a year.

So there is a lot for those who study the diversity of life to do, as well as a new respectability. But I have a confession to make. The boy who experienced the magic of the zoo and the museum is still strong inside me. I would have followed the same path regardless of what happened in the rest of the world.

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