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A Flame as a Moth: How I began chronicling the life of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr., Part 2

On 27 August we shared the early stages of Marc E. Epstein’s process in documenting the unconventional entomologist, Harrison G. Dyar. Below, Marc continues his story, discussing Dyar’s family tree, and the events that led him to his present research on Dyar.

I joined the staff in the Smithsonian’s Department of Entomology, National Museum of Natural History in 1992, at the time Pam Henson and I published “Digging for Dyar: The Man Behind the Myth”. Having stayed in Washington, DC long enough to complete the article, my job at the Museum would give me roughly a dozen years to accumulate information on Dyar, while performing other duties.

“Digging for Dyar” caused a stir in the entomology community and beyond. This led to several Smithsonian lectures and banquets for scientist groups, including entomological societies. Associated Press interviewed us about Dyar, and they carried a photograph of three youngsters from the Curd family taken when the Dupont Circle tunnel collapsed in the 1950s, years after Dyar’s death. The photo drew the attention of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and it was included on the Weekend Update segment.

Notebooks, oral histories, photographs

Some of Dyar’s field rearing notebooks, including the tiny, original “blue book” and unpublished illustrations showing the variation in a species of button slug caterpillar found on chestnut
Some of Dyar’s field rearing notebooks, including the tiny, original “blue book” and unpublished illustrations showing the variation in a species of button slug caterpillar found on chestnut. Image Credit: Office of the Smithsonian Archives, used with permission.

Soon after I was hired by the museum, Dyar’s 25 caterpillar notebooks found their way into my office, giving me more opportunity to study his beautifully drafted illustrations and paintings of caterpillars, including those showing variable patterns in limacodids, and his detailed descriptions and measurements of their life histories. Names of his sister, aunts, an uncle, and friends, all who helped Dyar collect or find caterpillars adorned the notebooks.

Pam and I conducted oral history interviews with Dyar’s last surviving son Wallace Dyar, who provided us with timeless anecdotes of growing up playing in the tunnels and living across from the National Mall. Among the most humorous was an account of his father getting caught stealing bricks to be used for arched tunnel entrances. It was also Wally that alerted us to a collection of his father’s papers that were being sold by a cousin in a New Market, VA bookstore. They were in demand because they contained letters from George Freeman Pollock, Wellesca’s brother, who was an important part of the early history of Skyland, which became part of Shenandoah National Park in the 1930s. Fortunately, Pam was able to have the Smithsonian Archives purchase nearly all of them. Among the papers were over 100 of Dyar’s mostly unpublished short stories.

Genealogy and building sandcastles by the sea

Dyar building a sandcastle for his son Otis on the eastern seaboard ca. 1902. Image Credit: Photograph by the Handy Family, used with permission. Caterpillar by Marc E. Epstein, used with permission.

I moved to Sacramento, California for a research job for the California Department of Food and Agriculture in 2003. I continued to make discoveries about Dyar on yearly visits to the Smithsonian as a Research Associate. Other important pieces of the Dyar puzzle awaited me in California because the scientist was divorced in Oakland and his son Otis had become a part of a family that kept photographs of Dyar, his wife Zella, and the children. Previously, all I had to show in terms of Zella was a photograph of the moth he named for her. Just when I thought I had found all the evidence to prove how special my moth specialty, Limacodidae, was to Dyar, more awaited. Two photographs of Dyar and his young son Otis taken at a beach in the northeast United States show where Dyar’s mind was: he built a sand castle by the sea that accurately depicts a limacodid caterpillar!

During a visit to DC that included the Library of Congress’s family genealogy section I uncovered letters from many of Dyar’s relatives and a close friend: all previously known to me from Dyar’s notebooks as having helped collect for him in his youth. As I went through Dyar’s meticulous genealogy notes, I saw family trees from the early 1900s done in the same style as those for his New York slug caterpillars a few years earlier. Dyar used similar precision to construct his Dyar Family Tree as that of his Limacodidae family. Not only that, but in 1926 and 1927, he rather cryptically named limacodids for Zella and other important women in his life. By cryptically, I mean that he didn’t say whom they were named for. However, the myriad of clues stitched together about the favored status of limacodid moths leaves little doubt that he named them and a related megalopygid moth for his mother Nora, daughter Dorothy (using her nickname Bertha), aunts Parthenia and Ruth, and cousin Gertrude.

Dyar’s genealogies: New York Slug Caterpillars (left, by the New York Entomological Society and used with permission) and the Dyar family (right, by the Library of Congress and used with permission).
Dyar’s genealogies: New York Slug Caterpillars (left, by the New York Entomological Society and used with permission) and the Dyar family (right, by the Library of Congress and used with permission).

Good timing

Ultimately, the connections between Dyar’s favorite moth family, the Limacodidae, and his own family, including his wives, would not have come to fruition had it not been for a Smithsonian Historian’s willingness to collaborate and nurture my interest in Dyar, our seizing the moment to interview Dyar’s last surviving son and eldest grandchildren (all now deceased), and just plain good timing.

Featured image credit: Depictions of button slug caterpillars from Dyar’s notebooks from the Office of the Smithsonian Archives. Used with permission.

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