Insects, Bigamy, and History

Today I will entertain you with some random facts about a favorite (and very infamous!) entomological figure: Harrison G. Dyar (1866-1929).

Dyar is one of the truly bizarre figures in Entomology. First a Smithsonian scientist– then dismissed over charges of bigamy— he ended his career as an editor of a Bahai religious journal.

Like many gentlemen scientists of the era, Dyar worked without pay, supporting himself with investments and his inheritance at the beginning of his career.  At the National Museum, he began to develop a name for himself working on mosquitoes.

While becoming a recognized expert, and eventually earning a salary from the museum, Dyar was also known for his (frequently public and published) arguments with other scientists.* One of his papers was titled “New Facts That Are Not New”; a scathing criticism of amateur entomologists and their observations.  That should pretty much give you a sense of his temperament.  (And that was one of his nicer papers!)

He developed what is now known as “Dyar’s Law”, which is still in use today.  He described the way in which larval head capsules grow geometrically with each instar (moult).

So, a recognized, if ill-tempered, expert in his field. And then…things went horribly wrong.

“Midway through his career, Dyar encountered problems in his personal life that had serious effects on his professional life. His marriage to Zella Peabody ended in 1915 amid charges of bigamy, and he was dismissed from the USDA for conduct unbecoming a government employee. It became known that in 1906 Dyar, using the alias Wilfred Allen, had married Wellesca Pollock, an educator and ardent disciple of the Bahá’í faith. They had three sons, whom Dyar legally adopted after he and Allen married legally in 1921.

A truck fell into a labyrinth of tunnels near Dyar’s old home in 1924… Eventually Dyar accepted responsibility for the tunnels and similar works behind his new home, saying he found relaxation in digging underground. The brick-walled tunnels extended for hundreds of feet and measured six by six feet.”

Dyar named a moth species wellesca after the woman he married in 1906.   You’ll note this is 10 years before he got around to divorcing his first wife, Zella, whose name he later gave to another insect species in 1927.  I doubt she was appeased.

Most of what is said about Dyar is not actually true:

  • Although most stories suggest he was commuting between his two unsuspecting families underground, there is no evidence the tunnels connected his two homes, even though they were just blocks apart.  He really did just like to dig holes.
  • Dyar was, so the story goes, busted by his two sons comparing notes at school when they found they shared the same last name. “How odd! Your Papa’s an entomologist at the Smithsonian too!”  That also seems to be apocryphal–it’s apparently from the movie “The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker” (a different bigamist).  It just makes such a nice story that it’s still making the rounds.
  • It’s said that Dyar disliked lepidopterist John Smith, a large man…and named a species corpulentis after him.  This does not appear to be true.
  • This so so angered (so the story goes) Smith he named a genus after Dyar–Dyaria, pronounced diarrhea.  This story is also, alas, not true. You can find it showing up in print pretty regularly, though, whenever the press covers funny species names.  It seems a different person intended to honor Dyar, but didn’t notice the double meaning.
  • Dyar is sometimes confused with another H.G. Dyar, who developed the first US telegraph. That was the Entomologist Dyar’s father.

So there’s your (in)famous entomologist. You can learn more about Dyar in the excellent paper (alas, not available online):

M. E. Epstein & P. M. Henson. 1992. Digging for Dyar: the man behind the myth.  American Entomologist 38(3): 148-169.

*Despite the fact that I am also known for cranky, ill-tempered rants about others, that’s not why I’m fond of Dyar. Really!

3 thoughts on “Insects, Bigamy, and History

  1. Thanks for the history less on on Dyar. It sounds like he was so into his work, he too became sort of an insect, digging underground tunnels and such.

  2. I finally got over here to read this post. Dyar is a perfect subject for Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, especially with the several false stories that keep circulating.

    Got any more entomologists like him?

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