Tag Archives: American Entomological Society

Museums in my life – a very selective account!

Roebling Museum

A Facebook friend recently posted a wonderful question! “Did the town you grew up in have a museum?” Thank you, Lynne Calamia! You can’t imagine how many memories this shook loose. Yes, my town had a museum.

What I remember: The Children’s Museum (of Hartford, Connecticut) was located in a big old brick Victorian house just near enough for me and my sister to walk to. Near the front door was a swan, beautifully mounted, in a big glass case. I loved it! So beautiful and so lifelike, with its wings raised. The swan was the symbol of the Museum. I believe it was a trumpeter swan, which has a ten foot wingspan!

I don’t remember much else about the Museum. I think it had dioramas, like most museums at that time. But what did they show? No idea.

By the time I was ten years old, the Children’s Museum had grown and moved, and was closer to me. My mother signed me up for a workshop on growing plants. We mixed our own potting soil. The swan was still on display (I think), but the Museum had a new symbolic animal, a whale. They built a huge model whale outdoors and children could climb in and around it, getting a feel for its enormous size. Fun!

Years passed and I returned to the Museum with my sons. Lots to see. Good family fun, but we lived 200 miles away. Clearest memory: the Museum had a live monkey, which predictably fascinated my two year old son. He and the monkey came face to face through a glass barrier. The monkey made an aggressive grimace! My son, terrified, forgot his ability to walk, dropped to all fours and scuttered away as fast as he could move! I scooped him up for reassurance. It didn’t seem to reduce his interest in animals or museums.

Through their growing up years, I took my sons to various museums. I like SMALL museums. If I go to a huge one, I’m likely to pick one floor or exhibit, rather than walk myself to exhaustion trying to see “everything”. 

My sons and I especially enjoyed house type displays. For example, the Mark Twain House in Hartford was a real hit, with its porch balcony the resembles a Mississippi steam boat. An the famous fire place with twin chimneys on either side of a big window, so residents could watch snow fall into the fire. So was Thoreau’s house at Walden Pond. It isn’t the original house, which was judged too remote for a public exhibit, but an excellent reproduction. Very appealing! My sons wanted to move right in. But very best of all were the 1903 Camp Buildings at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Again, not original structures, but a beautiful, detailed reconstruction. There wasn’t much “civilization” on the island of Kitty Hawk when the Wrights chose it for its open space and steady wind. They brought most of their own supplies and lived simply. Children love the idea of camping out! Roughing it! My sons spent more time studying the Camp Buildings than running along the 852 foot flight line that shows where the Wrights accomplished their amazing feat.

So, if someone asks what museums are for, I say they are for families to share. Now my most frequently visited museum is the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Medium sized, and home to the American Entomological Society and a world class collection of insects. Don’t miss it! Families love it. 

I hope to visit the Roebling Museum in Roebling, New Jersey, soon! The Executive Director is Lynne Calamia, mentioned in my first paragraph above. It’s a museum of history and technology, now closed for Covid but maintaining an active on-line presence. 

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“Centennial of the Introduction of the Japanese beetle into North America near Philadelphia”, a lecture by Ken Frank

Now really, is this a thrilling title? Sounds like a real yawn, right?? Nope! Not when Ken Frank is telling the story. A mash-up of politics, science and human frailty! Lots of drama!

In this case, “near Philadelphia” means Riverton, NJ, on the Delaware River just north of the Tacony Palmyra Bridge. Right in my back yard.

Consider the timing, just before World War I. It was well known that introduced insect pests could wreak havoc on farming and the economy in general, but comprehensive regulatory controls were not in place.

The date of this unfortunate introduction is known with some precision. In 1916, agricultural inspectors found unfamiliar beetles at the Henry Dreer Nursery in Riverton. Perhaps they had wandered up from the American south? Further investigation was postponed.

Within a few years, due to the geometric population growth of the beetles, the situation was out of control. The only, long shot solution was applying a “scorched earth” policy to Dreer’s nursery – excavation, poisoning, fire…

Dreer fought back, accusing supporters of even relatively mild measures like quarantine of TREASON, because of interference with the economies of our World War allies. Dreer was publicly “outed” as the source of the appalling infestation. Ken Black compares Dreer’s response to that of climate deniers. Dreer’s political strength was formidable. When quarantine and embargo were finally imposed, they applied only to CORN. Nurseries were completely exempted from regulation.

The Japanese beetle continued its spread. Today it afflicts about half the continental United States, and the annual cost of control is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. California, not yet afflicted, takes stringent measures against Japanese beetles.

That’s not even half the story! This turned out to be a situation in which the “cure” was worse than the disease. The pesticide of choice used against the Japanese beetle was LEAD ARSENATE, a very slight improvement over the previously popular copper arsenate. The quantities recommended boggle the mind – 1500 pounds per acre.

There were several big intellectual disconnects here.

  • Nobody seemed to ask where the lead arsenate would end up.
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to mammals (including humans).
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to non target insects including potential natural enemies of the Japanese beetle.

Ken Frank took his investigation of this episode to Riverton, where he talked to residents, including a Master Gardener. Three citizens of Riverton came to hear his lecture. They provided insight into the area’s agricultural past, and shared their concern that they may still be living with the consequences of the very heavy application of LEAD ARSENATE in areas now occupied by suburban housing. They believe the incidence of cancer in the Riverton area may be abnormally high. (I know, as a former public health employee, how hard it is to define and evaluate a “cancer cluster”.)

Ken Frank credits the Japanese beetle outbreak and subsequent control efforts with inspiring Rachel Carson to investigate the impact of DDT on the environment. Carson was born in western Pennsylvania in 1907. She is credited with stimulating the American environmental movement which led to passage of major legislation in the early 1970s. Right when I graduated from college and jumped ship, leaving the field of chemistry to become a pollution control specialist!

Ken Frank’s lecture was great and I hope he writes an article soon, so it can be shared. There’s a great deal to be learned from this tale. We are still learning how to manage ourselves and our environment, and the complexities and demands on our scientific judgment continue to increase.

Ken Frank’s lecture took place at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, at a meeting of the American Entomological Society. Science is fun! Check out the Academy or the AES to get in on the action.