San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[BRCC San Diego Natural History Museum: Entomology Department]
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Timeline of San Diego Natural History Museum's Entomology Department
Daniel Cleveland William S. Wright Charles Harbison (Harbie) Frank Beck John Comstock San Diego Natural History Museum North Entrance

1850s ~ 1910s ~ 1920s ~ 1930s ~ 1940s ~ 1950s ~ 1960s ~ 1970s ~ 1980s ~ 1990s ~ 2000s

The earliest beginnings of the San Diego Society of Natural History, the parent organization for the San Diego Natural History Museum, reveal a close connection with insects. The story, as reported in a San Diego Union newspaper article in 1934, discusses a conversation between two early San Diego residents.Daniel Cleveland Oliver Sanford, a surveyor for the railroad living in San Diego in the 1800s, collected beetles as well as plants. His friend, Daniel Cleveland, a lawyer, was also an amateur naturalist who collected plants. One day in 1874 Sanford said to Cleveland, “You know, Dan? There are some darned interesting beetles in this town. Come to the house and look over my collection; I’ll show you.”

Loading cases“You realize, son, that I am a botanist,” said Cleveland. “I just sent my collection to Harvard University. But all phases of biology are of interest to the naturalist. May I call on you tomorrow night?” This conversation was reportedly the beginning of the San Diego Society of Natural History. Whether or not the conversation actually took place or not, in 1874 the two men did decide to form their own society devoted to local natural history at Cleveland’s law office during an informal meeting.


The Entomology Department has preserved beetles collected by O. N. Sanford from the 1850s.

William S. Wright, (b.1866-1933), began his association with the department.William Wright at worktable

W. S. Wright, an amateur entomologist who supervised Nature Study for the San Diego schools, also worked in the entomology collection at the San Diego Natural History Museum. He was a skilled carpenter who directed the Manual Training program for the San Diego school system. Wright designed and constructed the Museum’s “Nature Study Cabinets,” wooden cabinets with five trays to display insects, birds, mammals, minerals, and shells. These cabinets were delivered to many rural San Diego county schools for the children to enjoy. Wright had a special interest in the Lepidoptera and donated some 30,000 specimens to the Entomology Department.

Paper published on the honey ants of Point Loma, written by Percy Leonard in the Museum’s scientific publication, Transactions of the San Diego Society of Natural History 1:3.

Paper written on Hemiptera by E.P. Van Duzee in Transactions 2:1.

William Wright beside Museum truck1915
Earliest departmental correspondence began in 1915 when William S. Wright, expert on Microlepidoptera, began exchanging letters and queries with E.P. Van Duzee of the California Academy of Sciences.

John A. Comstock collected Quino Checkerspot butterflies locally.

Curator of Insects, W. S. Wright, was first hired by the Museum with a salary of $100 a month. He spent half time as County Supervisor for Nature Study.
William Wright and museum truck

Wright donated his collection of Microlepidoptera with type specimens, mostly from San Diego County.

Many entomological field trips were taken to Baja California and in San Diego County. Donations to the department made by Kate Stephens and G. H. Fields.

John A. Comstock ( b. 1883 – d. 1970) published his book on California butterflies, The Butterflies of California, a classic treatise on California butterflies and skippers, which has John A. Comstockrecently been republished.

Early on Comstock was interested in design and illustration. He did furniture design, bookbinding and illustrations, metal work, and jewelry design at the Roycroft Shop in New York.

He then moved to Santa Rosa, CA in 1906, attending medical school in LA, and later worked at the LA County General Hospital. He became assistant director of the Southwest Museum in 1919, was president of the Southern California Academy of Sciences in 1927, and in 1928 he was appointed Director of the LA County Museum, where he worked until 1948, when he retired to Del Mar. Along with Guy Fleming, he worked to preserve the Torrey Pines habitat. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the San Diego Society of Natural History from 1957 to 1970.

Our Research Museum library bookplate designed by John ComstockComstock traveled to make entomological collections in Guatemala, Mexico, and Samoa, and produced over 230 scientific papers, many of which contained his own illustrations. He also designed our own Research Museum library bookplate.

W. S. Wright published the Annotated List of Butterflies of San Diego County in Transactions 6:1. For additional information see our Publications.

W. S. Wright died.

After Wright’s death, Ian Moore, a high school student assisting Wright since 1931, who later went on to become an entomologist at UC-Riverside, maintained the department and donated his Coleoptera specimens.
Frank Beck

Donation of 30,000 specimens from W. S. Wright’s personal collection.Trapdoor Shoot

Article published on trapdoor spiders in 1933 National Geographic magazine by Lee Passmore. Passmore was a naturalist photographer and friend of Clinton Abbott. He and Frank Beck studied and photographed trapdoor spiders for many years.

Charles F. Harbison “Harbie” (b.1904 – d.1989) first started working in the department. He had earned his BS degree at Berkeley in biology. Harbie worked for the next 39 years in the department, many of them as an unpaid volunteer. Harbie took odd jobs on the side to support himself. He became the Director of the Junior Naturalist program at SDNHM. Harbie in Baja

Harbie and others went on collecting trips to most states of the southwestern U.S. and to Baja California. Ian Moore published Coleoptera of San Diego County in Occasional Papers: No. 2 Lee Passmore photographing trapdoor spiders

Lee Passmore donated his collection of photos, including glass plate negatives, to the department.

The main use of the Entomology Department during the war years was as a teaching aid with local schools. By 1950 the collection had 300,000 classified insects.
Harbie with Butterflies

Harbie became Curator of Entomology.

ca. 1950s
Harbie visited Isla Guadalupe several times and made collections.

1953 Francis X. Williams was hired part-time to work on Hymenoptera. He became Associate Curator of Entomology. Harbie was still the curator, but also worked in many other departments of the Museum.

John A. Comstock donated his extensive butterfly collection from southern California.

Harbie went on collecting expeditions to Clipperton Island and Barro Colorado, coming back with 6000 new specimens. In 1959 the Entomology Department received the Lee Passmore collection of spider and wasp slides.Harbie with students

By this time, the Entomology Department had 373,000 specimens.

F.X. Williams died in 1968 and donated his scientific reprints and library.

Harbie officially retired. From 1969-73, Harbie was the only active member of the department.

Fred Thorne was hired part-time to organize the collections. Due to his efforts, the Lepidoptera collection is one of the finest in California; he donated over 8500 of the mounted specimens collected primarily in San Diego County. William Hedges donated over 2600 Lepidoptera from Southern California and Arizona in addition to more than 4,000 specimens from other regions.

David Faulkner

David Faulkner was hired and worked in the department until 1993.

Donations of Lepidoptera specimens by Richard A. Mackie and Frank A. Forbes added 2200 and 2710 samples respectively, augmenting the representation of specimens from Baja California and southwestern U.S.

The Entomology collection grew by the more than 13,600 specimens donated by William McGuire.

A bronze, 5-foot rhinoceros beetle model cast by Ann Paul Barca from Encinitas was given to the Museum.

More than 1,000 specimens, mostly Diptera, were donated by Robert Parks.

Norris Bloomfield donated over 25,000 pinned insects, collected primarily in southwestern United States and Mexico.

Ron McPeak’s collecting efforts have provided series of valuable beetle specimens, especially in the scarab family.

Harbie died at age 85. He had arranged to donate his body to UCSD for research.

Richard W. Breedlove’s bequest of his specimens was added to the collection.

Arthur A. Lee’s collection of more than 3,200 specimens and reprints were donated to the Museum.

The exhibit “Insects: Face to Face,” curated by David Faulkner, was very successful. It featured beautiful butterflies and moths as well as displays devoted to fleas, lice and cockroaches. Giant robotic insects including a praying mantis and locust were also shown.

The Entomology Department now had 850,000 specimens.

David Faulkner became Collections Manager and remained at the Museum through 2000.

The multi-disciplinary Binational Expedition to El Vizcaino Reserve in Baja California brought an additional 3000 insect specimens to the department.

The William A. Hammer Collection of Lepidoptera, with more than 19,000 specimens, was transferred to SDNHM from the California Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Paisley S. Cato assumed responsibility for the Entomology Collection. With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Museum’s Capital Campaign, the collection was entirely rehoused into steel cabinetry in the new wing of the museum. Departmental space expanded from 700 to 1300 sq.ft.

Tomas Mustelin donated more than 1500 pinned and identified specimens of Noctuidae and Geometridae, the basis for his recent publications including, Owlet Moths (Family Noctuidae) of Southern California (published by Wedge Entomological Society) and Two New Genera and Thirteen New Species of Owlet Moths (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), mainly from Southern California. Proc. San Diego Natural History, 36:1-18. 2005.

Dr. Michael Wall became Curator of Entomology. Dr. Wall's research interests include the taxonomy and systematics of the Heteroptera as well as insect-plant interactions.

Collections assistant with butterfly collectionsTODAY the Entomology Department currently holds about 980,000 specimens, with especially strong representation from the southwestern U.S., Baja California, and San Diego County. The collection is the only one of its kind in the county, and is important for use in environmental surveys and land use planning, since it houses examples of rare and endangered local species. It is supported in part through a 1974 bequest made in memory of Dr. John Adams Comstock, and periodic donations from The Sahan Daywi Foundation.

1850s ~ 1910s ~ 1920s ~ 1930s ~ 1940s ~ 1950s ~ 1960s ~ 1970s ~ 1980s ~ 1990s ~ 2000s