Last night, Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History, hosted a public conversation with biologist, author, and luminary Edward O. Wilson. At the end of the interview Johnson presented Wilson with a photo of an ant specimen preserved in our entomology collection. The museum’s Curator of Hymenoptera (ants), Ted Schultz, shared these words with us about why he selected this particular ant.
The image is meant to symbolize the beginning of what became an immensely productive and inspiring career. It is also meant to symbolize the early intersection of Edward O. Wilson’s life and the National Museum of Natural History. In fact, early experiences in the museum inspired Wilson to become a biologist.
Wilson collected these ants in Alabama and deposited the holotype—the specimen of record—at the Smithsonian.
In his book Naturalist, Wilson writes about living in Washington, DC, when he was 10 years old. “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. A new vision of scientific professionalism took form. 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 could not imagine any activity more elevating than to acquire their kind of knowledge, to be a steward of animals and plants, and to put the expertise to public service.”
Biologist E.O. Wilson’s first species description, published in 1950. He has gone on to describe some 400 more species.
That was in 1939. Eight years later he collected a new species of Leptothorax (now called Temnothorax) and 11 years later he published the description. It wasn’t his first scientific paper, but it was his first species description. It’s significant that he chose to deposit the holotype here at the Smithsonian, in the U.S. National Collection.
Discovering and describing new species which most of us here in the museum do—is the nuts-and-bolts part of the process of understanding larger patterns of biodiversity and the evolutionary processes that generate that biodiversity. Wilson’s first species description set in motion a lifetime of discoveries that resulted in profound contributions to evolutionary biology, conservation, and philosophy.
Wilson and Johnson spoke before a packed house at the National Museum of Natural History. The talk centered on Wilson’s latest book, “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”
Scientists here at the Smithsonian and elsewhere helped inspire Wilson to become a biologist. He went on to make major contributions to the field and to inspire multiple succeeding generations to become biologists and to make new discoveries. That’s how science progresses and that’s why our collections keep growing.
Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from an email written by Ted Schultz, Curator of Hymenoptera (ants) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
[Banner Image: Edward O. Wilson, Red Hills, Alabama. 2010 by Beth Maynor Young]