History of the Rutgers Univeristy Entomological Museum

A History of the Insect Collections at Rutgers - condensed from an essay and reminiscence by the late Prof. John B. Schmitt

In 1879 a 34-year-old minister, the Rev. Dr. George D. Hulst, began giving lectures on Entomology at Rutgers College. He had graduated from Rutgers in 1866 and from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in 1869. Although a practicing pastor in Brooklyn, he maintained a keen interest in living things. Moths were his special interest, particularly the geometrids and pyralids, and he became a widely-recognized authority on these perplexing groups. To Rutgers, he brought much of his personal collection, soon to include many types of the hundreds of new geometrid moths that he named, as well as several thousand additional specimens.

In 1889, Dr. Hulst was instrumental in persuading his friend and fellow member of the Brooklyn Entomological Society, Dr. J. B. Smith, to accept the position of Professor of Entomology at Rutgers and Entomologist at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Dr. Smith was not only a lepidopterist but also a keen student of insects of all orders. The Hulst Collection was given to Rutgers and to Dr. Smith's care. To these moths, Smith added his own collection, especially rich in the Noctuidae, and containing most of the types of the more than nine hundred new species that Dr. Smith described.

As State Entomologist and Experiment Station Entomologist, Smith also began to assemble a broad general collection of all orders. The Smith and Hulst collections were stored in a fire-proof room in the basement of Voorhees Library (now the Zimmerli Art Museum), but the remainder of the collection shared an office in New Jersey Hall with Dr. Smith. In 1903, fire broke out in New Jersey Hall. Dr. Smith quickly assembled all the college students he could to form a human chain to pass the boxes, hand-to-hand, out of the burning building to safe haven in the Library. Some boxes were scorched, but still in use in the Museum as late as 1963!

After Dr. Smith's death in 1912, Dr. Thomas J. Headlee became Professor of Entomology at Rutgers and Entomologist at the Experiment Station. Dr. Headlee was primarily an economic entomologist, especially concerned with the control of mosquitoes and orchard insects. The Experiment Station collection increased slowly during Headlee's tenure. It was especially through the knowledge and concern of Carl Ilg, Dr. Headlee's assistant of later years, that the collections were expertly cared for and protected. Mr. Ilg, like his predecessors Dr. Hulst and Dr. Smith, entered Entomology as an enthusiastic amateur. He had been a silversmith in his native Germany, but found no market for his skill in America and thus became an entomological technician with Dr. Headlee. It was in large part because of his skillful and conscientious devotion that the collections were well maintained and even expanded during those years.

Mr. Ilg retired in 1936. Dr. Headlee saw an opportunity to upgrade the position to an Assistant Entomologist in the Agricultural Experiment Station, and hired Dr. John B Schmitt as curator of the collections and as service taxonomist for the department. The Rutgers' collections at that time consisted of:

  1. A general collection known as the "State Experiment Station Collection" which had been begun by Smith.
  2. The Hulst collection of Lepidoptera.
  3. The Smith collection of Lepidoptera. Together the Hulst and Smith collections contained over 32,000 specimens, representing almost 6,000 species. The most important feature was the presence of over 2,200 type specimens, largely those of Smith and Hulst.
  4. The Boerner Collection of Coleoptera, purchased sometime prior to 1936 from the estate of an amateur in Philadelphia.

In 1937, the Department of Entomology moved to its present location on Georges Road, former headquarters of "Reckitt's Blue", a supplier of laundry bluing. The building, now known as John B Smith Hall, was remodeled by the Works Progress Administration and included a large room to be used exclusively as the Insect Museum. For the first time in their history, the Rutgers collections were to be housed together in the security of a separate room.

In 1943, Dr. Bailey B. Pepper became Department Chairman. Dr. Pepper was very appreciative of the importance of the collections, and tried to provide better security. Nonetheless, Dr. Schmitt was seriously concerned for the safety of the many type specimens and also realized that the aging specimens were deteriorating and becoming less useful for routine comparisons. Eventually, in 1953, the Smith and Hulst collections were transferred to the American Museum of Natural History in exchange for a synoptic collection of fresh specimens of North American Lepidoptera with current taxonomic designations. A catalog of the Smith and Hulst type material was later published by AMNH (Rindge, F. H. 1955. The type material in the Smith and Hulst collections of Lepidoptera in the American Museum of Natural History, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 106(2), 91-112).

At about the same time, the Department was offered an extensive collection of New Jersey butterflies that had been made by William Comstock, with the stipulation that it be maintained as a separate entity and be known as the "William Comstock Collection of New Jersey Butterflies". This stipulation was accepted and the collection brought to the museum.

Soon after this, the collections were moved to Room 209, on the second floor of John B. Smith Hall. This entailed a reduction of floor space that led to the decision to purchase large, new steel specimen cabinets, as tall as could be obtained. The first lot of these arrived in the summer of 1958. To the dismay of Drs. Pepper and Schmitt, the new cabinets could not be carried up either stairway of the building. It was necessary to employ a crane operator to have them lifted through the second floor window.

The transfer of the specimens to the new facilities was a major undertaking and also the occasion for consolidation and rearrangement of the collections in (then) modern taxonomic sequence. Much of this was done by Dr. Donald R. Whitehead, at the time an undergraduate student at Rutgers, later an entomologist at the U.S. National Museum. Coleoptera were his specialty, but he also had a thorough knowledge of other orders. By the end of 1964, Dr. Whitehead had reorganized the Coleoptera and transferred all the other orders except the Hymenoptera. The latter were curated by Dr. Charles Porter, then a graduate student at Harvard and later on the faculty at Fordham.

In about 1970, the late Dr. John P. Reed began to provide large numbers of moths. His specimens were meticulously spread and prepared and added to the collection many species new to the New Jersey list. With these and other ongoing additions, the need for additional space became desperate. Eventually the museum was expanded into the adjacent Room 206 and took on the configuration it has today. The Department moved into Blake Hall in 1999. The museum is currently located in McLean Laboratories and is available for viewing by appointment.

Dr. Schmitt retired in the early 1970's and was succeeded in turn by Drs. R. F. Denno, R. B. Roberts (who added his very extensive collections of Nearctic and Neotropical Apoidea to the Museum), G. W. Wolfe and K. Kjer. The current curator is Dr. Frank Carle.

The Museum Today

The museum is, in essence, a laboratory that exists primarily to foster taxonomic research and serve as a repository for the raw materials of this research. It does not, at present, have any public displays, although the public, as well as professional specialists, are welcome to visit its facilities by appointment. Its aim is to serve both the international community of taxonomists and the local community of biologists, as well as the teaching, research and extension functions of the Department. Specifically, the museum provides: 1) named insects as standards for additional identifications; 2) data on distribution, geographic variation and fauna uniqueness of selected regions (e.g., New Jersey Pinelands); 3) collections of insects from New Jersey and adjacent areas; 4) a repository for the voucher specimens of research biologists; and, 5) assistance with special collections and facilities for educational purposes.

General Collection. There are about 200,000 insects in the general collection of pinned insects. Extensive, but not fully inventoried, holdings of material in alcohol and on slides also are available. As might be expected, the fauna of New Jersey and the northeastern United States is especially well- represented, but the collections encompass the remainder of North America and most of the world's major faunal regions. The most active focus of research at present is on the Odonata.

Special Collections. The most important are the New Jersey collection of vertebrates, economic insect collection, Pinelands aquatic insect collection, and teaching collections.

Equipment. Microscopes, work space, and some collecting equipment and are available. Arrangements for highly quality microscopy and photomicroscopy and use of SEM facilities can be made.