Dyar, Harrison Gray, Jr.
- Pamela M. Henson
Dyar, Harrison Gray, Jr. (14 February 1866–21 January 1929), entomologist, was born in New York City, the son of Harrison Gray Dyar and Eleonora Rosella Hannum. His father was a chemist and inventor who disputed Samuel F. B. Morse’s priority in developing the telegraph and earned a small fortune from proceeds of patents for dyes. He died when his son was nine. The young Dyar attended the Roxbury Latin School and received a B.S. in chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1889. Shortly after graduation, he married Zella Peabody of Los Angeles, a music teacher; they had two children. In the same year Dyar published his first scientific paper, a description of the life history of the limacodid moth. (He had begun to study insects as a boy, starting his “blue books” of observations when he was sixteen.) He pursued graduate studies in biology at Columbia, receiving the A.M. in 1894 for his thesis on the classification of Lepidoptera and the Ph.D. in 1895 for a study of airborne bacteria.
Dyar began his career as assistant bacteriologist at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, from 1895 to 1897. In 1897 he moved to Washington, D.C., to take up his life’s work, the study of entomology at the United States National Museum. Appointed Honorary Custodian of Lepidoptera, he worked without salary. He held real state and other investments, including an upperclass apartment complex. The Dyar family summered at Stony Man Camp near Luray, Virginia. Dyar helped finance this park during its early years of development by George Freeman Pollock; it eventually became Shenandoah National Park.
At the National Museum, Dyar devoted his energies to increasing, consolidating, and systematically arranging the Lepidoptera collection. He first became noted, however, as an expert on mosquitoes. While the Panama Canal was under construction in the early 1900s, mosquitoes were of great interest because of their recently discovered role as a disease vector. With Leland Ossian Howard and Frederic Knab, Dyar coauthored the landmark four-volume Mosquitoes of North and Central America and the West Indies (1912–1917). He published 207 papers on mosquitoes, including his classic revision of mosquito classification, Mosquitoes of the Americas (1928). In 1924 he was named a captain in the Sanitary Department, Officers Reserve Corps, based on his mosquito work.
Dyar also continued research on the evolutionary classification of North American Limacodidae. He was noted for studies of larval stages of macro- and microlepidoptera, especially slug caterpillars, and for his innovative comparisons of adult and larval characters. Dyar’s law of geometric growth, based on studies of the geometric progression in head capsule widths, became a standard tool for studying immature insects. He described hundreds of species and genera, revised several families of Lepidoptera, and brought new, more precise standards to larval descriptions, higher classification, and life histories.
From 1904 to 1907 Dyar was editor of the Journal of the New York Entomological Society, and from 1909 to 1912 he edited The Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington. From 1913 to 1926 he published Insecutor Inscitiae Menstruus. Noted for his strong opinions in taxonomic matters, he engaged in legendary debates with John B. Smith and Henry Skinner, among others. Because of Dyar’s contributions to the national collection of Lepidoptera, Leland Ossian Howard, chief of the Bureau of Entomology, U.S. Department of Agriculture, appointed him a salaried “expert” around 1910.
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 Baha’i faith. They had three sons, whom Dyar legally adopted after he and Allen married legally in 1921. He became active in the Baha’i faith, a movement that accepts the divine inspiration of all religions and seeks to reconcile science with religion. Dyar edited Reality, an independent Baha’i journal, from 1922 until his death, but his unorthodox opinions, voiced in the magazine, were rejected by mainstream Baha’is. In Reality Dyar published a fascinating series of short stories replaying central themes in his life—including bigamy.
During the 1920s Dyar’s most peculiar hobby came to light. When a truck fell into a labyrinth of tunnels near Dyar’s old home in 1924, newspaper speculation attributed these to World War I spy nests, Civil War trysts, and mad scientists. 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 continued to work at the National Museum as an honorary curator after his dismissal from the USDA. He was not a successful businessman and spent much of his inheritance on legal cases and on his interests in entomology and the Baha’i faith; thus by the end of his life he found himself in straitened financial circumstances. In 1928 he appealed to the USDA for reinstatement and was awaiting his appointment when he suffered a stroke at his desk. He died two days later at Garfield Hospital in Washington, D.C.
One of the most colorful figures in turn-of-the-century entomology, Dyar was notorious for his lively debates with colleagues and his acerbic personal style, as well as for his Baha’i faith, two marriages, and tunnel-digging. He was equally known, however, for his contributions to the evolutionary classifications of insects and for his warm friendships with colleagues such as Leland Ossian Howard, Frederic Knab, and Andrew Caudell.
The Harrison Gray Dyar Papers are located in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, along with the Records of the Division of Insects of the United States National Museum and the papers of many of Dyar’s colleagues. The Bureau of Entomology Records at the National Archives and Records Administration contain rich correspondence between Dyar and his colleagues, especially his supervisor, Leland Ossian Howard. Marc E. Epstein and Pamela M. Henson, “Digging for Dyar: The Man behind the Myth,” American Entomologist 38 (Fall 1992): 148–69, is an overview of his life and career. Arnold Mallis, American Entomologists (1971), includes a profile of Dyar. Leland Ossian Howard’s Fighting the Insects: The Story of an Entomologist (1933) captures the environment at the Bureau of Entomology during Dyar’s tenure. For information on the Dyar family, see Harrison Gray Dyar, Jr., A Preliminary Genealogy of the Dyar Family (1903). Dyar’s mosquito research is summarized in K. L. Knight and R. B. Pugh, “A Bibliography of the Mosquito Writings of H. G. Dyar and Frederic Knab,” Mosquito Systematics 6 (1974): 1–26. Obituaries are in the Washington Post, 23 Jan. 1929; the New York Times, 22 Jan. 1929; Leland Ossian Howard, “Harrison Gray Dyar,” Science 69 (8 Feb. 1929): 151; W. T. M. Forbes and John M. Aldrich, Entomological News 40 (1929): 165–68; and L. Robinson, “Our Editor,” Reality 17 (Feb. 1929): 4–5.