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Charles "Harbie" Harbison (1904–1989)

Biography

The San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park was virtually a second home for almost four decades to a man by the name of Charles F. Harbison, though no one ever called him that. "Harbie" was his name to fellow staff members and museum guests alike. Harbie was an avid naturalist, an inexhaustible researcher, and in time he became the Curator of Entomology. Yet Harbie is often remembered in connection with his involvement in the Museum's programming for children. In every role, however, Charles Harbison was a beloved public face for the museum, one who gave much of his own time in an effort to pass on his knowledge and passion for natural history subjects, especially insects.

 Charles Harbison as a young boy with a guinea pig, on one of his family's ranches. Photo loaned by Harbison family, date unknown.
Charles Harbison as a young boy with a guinea pig, on one of his family's ranches. Photo loaned by Harbison family, date unknown.
Born January 12, 1904 in National City, California, Charles Harbison was the son of parents who were self-employed. His father, David Francis Harbison, was a farmer and poultry rancher; he also ran a sightseeing company, which Charles helped out with when they took tourists into Baja. In 1908 the Harbisons moved to Imperial County near Seeley where Charles began some of his first collections of insects. The family returned to San Diego in 1919, and four years later Charles graduated from Sweetwater High School. He followed this with a year of study at San Diego's Normal School after which he took an offer from his aunt to move to Los Angeles. He taught biology and geology in Los Angeles City Schools for five years, while still attending classes at night at the University of California Southern Branch (now UCLA).

In 1931 Charles left Los Angeles to attend the University of California at Berkeley where he began his studies in entomology. While attending Berkeley, Harbison had the chance to take some classes with Professor E. O. Essig. A renowned entomologist, Essig was crucial as a mentor and career guide for Harbison. In 1933 Harbison graduated with a B.S. in entomology. Although he had planned to go directly to graduate school, two important events took place that altered his decision. First, it was at the height of the Depression, and the Federal Government announced it was canceling most student grants for the following year. Secondly, his father died, which meant Charles had to return to San Diego and help support the family. It is said that he actually walked with his belongings from Berkeley to Los Angeles where he then found a ride to San Diego.

Harbison working on his butterfly collection at the museum, February 1937.
Harbison working on his butterfly collection at the museum, February 1937.

Back in San Diego, Harbison was hired under the federal jobs program of the WPA. At the time the San Diego Natural History Museum had been operating without a Curator of Entomology due to budget cuts. In 1934 with the added assistance of WPA funding under Project 597 (Professional Services: Museum Work) and its supervisor Lewis W. Walker, Harbison was hired to manage the Entomology Department of the museum. The subsidized money allowed for the Museum Director, Clinton Abbott, to keep Harbison part-time for a number of years at a salary of $90/week. However, Harbison also took other jobs to supplement his income, such as that of state quarantine inspector in Yermo, California.

Through the 1930s Harbison not only worked in the museum using the collection of 175,000+ insect species specimens, but also participated in many research trips to such destinations as Baja California, central and southwestern Arizona, and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. In 1942 Harbison became the museum's Curator of Entomology. From 1939 to 1949 he was also involved in the City Schools' Nature Study Programs as the director of the Junior Naturalist Program. The program itself began around 1931 when the museum began running summer classes for children, known as the Summer School of Science. At the time Harbison began to run the program, it mainly consisted of an eight week summer session where students would meet at least once a week for "games, quiz contests, motion pictures, demonstrations…" and field trips. However, the enrollment fee for the summer classes also paid for a year's membership into the Junior Naturalists' Club, which met once a month throughout the winter. This proved to be especially challenging during the war years, since in 1943 the United States Navy took over the museum for use as a hospital, but Harbison found a way around this by moving the school programs to the Brooklyn School, at 30th and Ash Streets. There he successfully ran the "Children's Museum" for five years.

Harbison talks to Units I and II at Scoutland Day Camp in Glen Park, June 17, 1948.
Harbison talks to Units I and II at Scoutland Day Camp in Glen Park, June 17, 1948.

The "Children's Museum," which eventually evolved into the museum's Young Naturalist Classes, was the title given to the children's summer science programs and classes held at the Brooklyn Street school during the Museum's closure during WWII. It was considered very special at the time because not only had most of the Museum's regular programs such as the nature walks been put on hold because of the war, but the Museum's displays and materials had been put into storage as well. Therefore, Harbison was really one of the only links the public had to the Natural History Museum during those years. It was also at this time that he began "The Specialist Club" for high school students interested in science. In 1947 Harbison and some of his colleagues began participating once again in research trips that had been discontinued due to the war, and in 1949 the Museum reopened.

Unfortunately, Harbison was having difficulty with the museum's meager salary, and began to look for employment elsewhere. He worked for Solar in San Diego as a steel finisher and in their processing department, and then as a teacher in a school in Jamul. However, in 1952 he was able to return to the museum as a salaried staff member serving three days a week as Curator of Entomology and two days assisting in the library. Harbison participated in 27 extended research trips from 1952 to 1968. He also did further research and published scientific papers on the Megathymidae, from Baja California, in addition to giving both formal and popular lectures on entomology.

In 1969, after approximately 35 years of service to the museum, Charles Harbison decided to retire; however, he continue to volunteer until 1972 maintaining the entomology collections while also continuing research on Megathymidae. On September 5, 1989 Charles F. Harbison passed away in San Diego. In addition to his long history of research and collections for the Entomology Department, Harbie's passion for his work lives on in the many people he inspired. He was an important mentor and teacher to a whole generation of San Diego students and natural history enthusiasts.