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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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History of the USNM Diptera Collection

The study of North American Diptera is generally considered to have started with the arrival in 1865 of Carl Robert Osten Sacken, a Russian diplomat. The Smithsonian Institution played a prominent part in this early development by publishing the first 4 parts of a monograph of the North American Diptera (the only one published) as well as the first 3 catalogs of the fauna. When Osten Sacken returned to Europe, he gave his superb Diptera collection to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Cambridge, Massachusetts. His departure left a void that was not filled until years later when personnel of the Division of Entomology, USDA, began their investigations of Diptera.

C. R. Osten Sacken
C. R. Osten Sacken
(1828-1906)


S. W. Williston
S. W. Williston
(1852-1918)


The USDA provided the nucleus of the USNM fly collections; in 1885 it purchased the initial Diptera collection, the Burgess Collection, and in 1886 employed the first dipterist, Samuel Wendell Williston, to study these collections. When Williston later left his collection of Syrphidae to the USNM, the first Diptera type specimens came into the collection.

As USDA programs expanded, D. W. Coquillett (1856-1911) took charge of the Diptera investigations and was made a Smithsonian Honorary Custodian. Since Coquillett (who donated his valuable collection of western Diptera through the USDA in 1894), there has been a continuous succession of USDA dipterists who have brought not only their expertise to the USNM but also their libraries and collections: C. H. T. Townsend, (1911-19), R. C. Shannon (1912-16), J. R. Malloch (1912-13), C. T. Greene (1919-49), D. G. Hall (1935-45), A. Stone (1931-71) and W. W. Wirth who is especially notable for collecting and donating some 150,000 specimens.


The first and only dipterist employed by the Smithsonian Institution was John Merton Aldrich, who had been previously employed by the USDA. When Aldrich was appointed by the Smithsonian in 1919, he was truly the master of the North American Diptera fauna, having written a catalog of it (1905). As such, his eminence made the USNM the center for studies on New World Diptera. In 1923 Aldrich turned over his insect collection and card catalog file to the museum; his great library and author cards did not join his other collections until 1953 when they came with the Melander library and collection. J. R. Malloch, another prominent dipterist, was associated with the USNM mainly through his employment with the Biological Survey of the USDA (1921-38). The Smithsonian purchased his personal collection. His library later came as part of the Melander collection.

J. M. Aldrich
J. M. Aldrich (1866-1934)


Raymond Corbett Shannon
(1894-1945) was associated with the USDA Bureau of Entomology at the start of his career, but spent most of his life with the Rockefeller Foundation in many parts of the world. However, he never forgot his earlier ties with the Museum and left most of his library and collection to the Smithsonian. Shannon's collection is particularly noteworthy, being especially rich in Neotropical and Chilean material. Shannon and F. W. Edwards of the British Museum (Natural History) made a joint expedition to Patagonia and southern Chile in 1926, which resulted in a monograph of the flies of that region.

The most important general Diptera collections in the USNM are those turned over by the USDA and its scientists: those by J. M. Aldrich and R. C. Shannon, and those purchased from John R. Malloch (1875-1963) and Axel L. Melander. With the exception of Melander, all these dipterists were associated with the USNM as noted above.

Axel Leonard Melander (1878-1962) was a general dipterist and a specialist on Empididae. His collection and library were acquired for the USNM jointly by the Smithsonian, USDA, and the National Institutes of Health. The collection contained numerous types and about a quarter of a million specimens; and the Melander Diptera library, which incorporated that of Aldrich, was one of the finest in existence.

Among the nematocerous Diptera, 4 groups are particularly well represented at the USNM; the crane flies, mosquitoes, biting midges, and gall midges. The crane fly collection is unsurpassed by any in the world, as the Smithsonian acquired the Charles P. Alexander Collection: probably the greatest private collection of flies ever made. More than 11,000 of the 14,000 known species of crane flies are represented by types (including some 8,000+ holotypes). Since 1965 the gall midge (Cecidomyiidae) collection has been significantly improved with the addition of new material from all parts of the world, including examples of plant damage.

The Ephraim Porter Felt Collection, containing types of about 1,000 species, is on indefinite loan to the Systematic Entomology Laboratory from the New York State Museum in Albany.

Ephraim Porter Felt (1868-1943)

Willis W. Wirth (1916-1994) built the Ceratopogonidae collection from an insignificant one to the largest in the world, now containing more than a quarter of a million slides. There is also much reared associated material. The ceratopogonid collection's coverage is world-wide, with strong representation for the New World and the Oriental and Australian regions.

E. P. Felt (1868-1943)
Charles P. Alexander
Charles P. Alexander (1889-1981)

 

The mosquitoes (Culcidae) have received considerable interest from the early 1900's when Leland O. Howard (1857-1950) served as Honorary Curator. Pioneering work done on the collection by Howard, Harrison G. Dyar (1866-1929), and Frederick Knab (1865-1918) (all USDA employees), culminated in the publication of "The Mosquitoes of North and Central America and the West Indies," 4 volumes (1912-17). However, it was not until 1931 that a USDA dipterist, Alan Stone (1904-1999), was able to devote a significant portion of his time to this family. Largely through his efforts, the USNM became known as a center for mosquito studies throughout the world.

Aside from the early Dyar and C. S. Ludlow collections which were present when Stone arrived, significant collections were received from R. C. Shannon, W. V. King, H. Hoogstraal, K. L. Knight, J. L. Laffoon, L. E. Rozeboom, and D. C. and E. B. Thurman during the 40 years that Stone curated the Culicidae collection.

Leland O. Howard (1857-1950)
Leland O. Howard

In 1964, under the auspices of a Smithsonian contract with the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, a definitive study was begun on the mosquitoes of Southeast Asia. This was continued until 1974 when a new contract was initiated for the Medical Entomology Project. From 1964 to date, these 2 projects have accessioned more than 250,000 specimens and have described 100 new species of mosquitoes. When this material is formally accessioned by the USNM, the combined holdings will total more than 300,000 specimens with 1,200 primary types.

The brachycerous Diptera are best represented by 3 families: The Bombyliidae, Asilidae, and Empididae. The USDA purchased the Reginald H. Painter Collection of Bombyliidae and placed it in the USNM. Painter (1901-1968) was a specialist on these flies and amassed an excellent collection of Nearctic bee flies which is particularly rich in material from the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

The USDA also purchased the Stanley W. Bromley (1899-1954) Collection of robber flies for the USNM. This collection along with that of Arthur E. Pritchard (1915-1965) makes the USNM holdings of these predaceous flies outstanding.

Of the cyclorrhaphous Diptera, the acalyptrate families are all well represented. Much significant acalyptrate material was acquired with the collections of A. H. Sturtevant, G. C. Steyskal, and A. L. Melander.

The strong and continuing interest of the USDA in fruit flies (Tephritidae), as represented by the work of A. Stone, R. H. Foote, G. C. Steyskal and Allen Norrbom, has made the USNM holding of these flies one of the finest.

The Sciomyzidae, snail-killing flies, are likewise well represented. USDA work on the biology and taxonomy of Sciomyzidae and their application to biological control, has greatly expanded the collection's representation. The Ephydridae of shore flies, also deserve particular note for the strong cosmopolitan collection built by W. W. Wirth and expanded by Wayne N. Mathis.

Holdings of Tachinidae, Sarcophagidae, and Calliphoridae stand out among the calyptrate flies, although most of the families of this group are well represented. Most of the leading New World specialists on tachinid flies have worked with and left their collections to the USNM. This series of specialists began with D. W. Coquillett, who first monographed the Nearctic tachinids in 1897, and continued with C. H. T. Townsend, J. M. Aldrich, C. W. Sabrosky and now with N. E. Woodley. Many other tachinid workers have augmented the collection by adding their types to it. The USDA purchase of the N. Baranov Collection in 1960 added much tachinid and sarcophagid material from the Old World. Thus the USNM collection of Tachinidae is unusually valuable. The collections of Sarcophagidae and Calliphoridae are also exemplary due to the contributions of such specialists as J. M. Aldrich, D. G. Hall, H. W. Allen, and H. de Souza Lopes.

As the number of scientific positions associated with the Diptera Collection has been reduced, from a high of 14 scientists in the 1970's to the current 5, the dipterists have sought new and different ways of maintaining the National Diptera Collection. Portions of the collection have been loaned in total to specialists on a long-term basis. The Bombyliidae now reside at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, under the care of Neal Evenhuis and the Phoridae at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, under the care of Brian Brown.

The dipterists at Washington are dedicated to insuring the best care for their collections as well as access to them so that our knowledge of may increase and be of use to all. A small endowment fund, the S. W. Williston Diptera Research Fund, has been established to provide additional resources for these goals. Proposals are considered annually in January, so please submit them before the 1st of January. Donations as well as inquiries about support are always welcome.

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Content by F. Christian Thompson
Please send questions and comments to Chris Thompson

Last updated January 2009 by K.Darrow

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