Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Website Search Box
WLB Library WLB Memorial WLB Obituary 1 Acknowledgements

Photograph of Bill Brown, Myrmecologist


Bill Brown, Myrmecologist, 1922-1997

Stories must be told, even small stories, for stories illuminate our lives. Indeed, the montage of small stories that each of us can tell is like a portrait, not brushed in oily hues across stretched canvas, but instead, shaped and shaded by words. And so, I'd like to share a small story with you. It's about my former mentor, Bill Brown.

Bill and I had hitched a ride on a battered flat-bed truck, a ghost from the 1940s, on an odyssey from Gomez Farias to Julilo, a lumber camp, in Mexico's Sierra Madre Orientale.

The three-hour ride, through a light drizzle and over treacherous switchbacks where too frequently the truck slid backwards on slippery, smooth rocks, and precipitously close to the road's edge, carried us ever so slowly forward and upward. Bill and I and the driver's companion, each clutching the backboard behind the cab, stood on the truck's bed of aging boards that we shared with drums of fuel and cases of soft drinks. Indeed, Bill and I had an uncomplicated but much discussed plan should the truck inch too closely to the vertical drop that defined the road's outer boundary. We'd jump!The driver nursed his rusting Detroit relic up the road, performing small miracles seldom seen outside exotic road rallies. Steam periodically belched from the truck's decrepit radiator, a minor Vesuvius in the making. This eruption always signaled a stop, whereupon the driver's companion would run off into the bush, gallon can in hand. He'd invariably return quickly with cool, mountain water to soothe the ailing radiator.

We climbed through moist subtropical forest and thickets of bamboo to arrive in Julilo in complete darkness, safe but disoriented. Our destination, EI Rancho Ciela, was five miles beyond Julilo, and Bill and I would have to do the distance on foot. The ranch, a collection of ramshackle buildings was owned by Frank Harris, an expatriate Canadian, who grew flowers for a meager living. Frank, called "Pancho" by the locals, was well known to biologists who wished to explore the mossy cloud forest that swallowed his little ranch every day in the early morning mist. His visitors log was replete with the signatures of ecologists of some celebrity.

Bill and I elected to continue on in the dark employing a kind of hiker's Braille to find our way. Using our flashlights sparingly, we followed the tire tracks of an old U.S. Army truck that had gone up the road earlier in the evening. And that was fine, until the drizzle turned into a torrential rain. We slogged on, occasionally having to backtrack after choosing a wrong turn. Suddenly, behind me, I heard a splattering thud, a guttural groan, and a mighty rip. There lay the great man, in the driving rain, the crotch of his pants torn from stem to stern! Bill had sprained his ankle, but the tear in his trousers constituted the larger crisis. I remember his humanity in that instant and still smile. We did find Frank's place that night and managed to collect ants for a couple of days, before hiking the eight miles back down to Gomez Farias. No doubt our small adventure in that summer of 1965 was added to the many field stories, small and large, that Bill liked to tell.

The stories are silenced now. William L. Brown, Jr., myrmecologist and Emeritus Professor of Entomology at Cornell University, died on March 30th 1997, of complications brought on by pneumonia and diabetes. Bill occupies a special place in the history ofant systematics. He was a bridge from the likes of William Morton Wheeler, a taxonomist of the old school, to the "modern evolutionary synthesis." His accomplishments are, perhaps, apparent. His publications were legion, and his impact on ant taxonomy can only be described as remarkable. But he was also an evolutionist who explored the nexus between taxonomy and Darwinism. His assault on the subspecies concept (with E. O. Wilson), numerical taxonomy, and most recently, punctuated equilibria, made him the thorn in many important sides. His creative juices effervesced in his papers on centrifugal speciation, general adaptation, and character displacement (this paper also with E. O. Wilson).

Bill Brown was born in Philadelphia on June 1st, 1922. His undergraduate
experience at Penn State was interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Army Air Force from 1943 to 1946. As a part of a malaria survey unit and an air-ground rescue team, he found himself in China. There the war could not deter him from pursuing his already well-established interest in ants. In fact, his second publication appeared in the Journal of the West China Border Research Society in 1945. Much earlier he had been in regular correspondence with William Steel Creighton, heir to W. M. Wheeler's dominant position in ant taxonomy, and published his first paper, describing a new species of Monomonum from New Jersey's pine barrens, in 1943. After the war, Bill returned to Penn State to earn his Bachelors degree in 1947 and went on to Harvard where he received his Ph.D. in 1950. In that same year, he traveled to Australia for a two year visit, first as a Parker Traveling Fellow of Harvard University, and then as a Fulbright Research Scholar. It was in Australia that Bill met his wife Doris. But reciting Bill's achievements tells little of the man, and after all, Bill had his stories to tell.

Bill was a traveler in the tradition of von Humboldt, Darwin, Bates, and Belt. Like they, he was drawn to the tropics, and certainly, it would be easier to list the countries that Bill had not visited than those he had. He did have his close calls, but his pursuit of ants was relentless. Most typically, he would sit facing a log of the right consistency (one of the first things he taught me was to grade logs for their myrmecological potential) and patiently pick apart the soft wood in search of cryptic colonies. What Bill could do to a rotting log would be the envy of the most rapacious of termites. Lest you think he was narrow in focus, let me reassure you that Bill was an ardent natural historian, a field biologist of the first order, who understood the nterdependency of Earth's organisms. He was, as well, a committed conservationist.

It is true that Bill could be gruff, sometimes a cynic, other times a curmudgeon. He did not suffer fools gladly, and those of us who have been the targets of his barbs knew the pain he could inflict. But if you knew Bill well enough, you saw that he was a kind, decent, generous man beneath the thorny veneer. A small story illustrates this well. When I arrived at his office in September of 1965, following our expedition to Mexico, he asked if I needed any money. Yes, I replied, a hundred dollars would help. He immediately wrote me a personal check for the amount. "Pay me back when you can," he said.

Bill's life was not without its tragedies. He and Doris lost their two daughters to premature death. The loss weighed heavily on them and their son Creighton. But Bill continued on, laboring at his taxonomic revisions, the very soul of his life's work, and caring for his collection of orchids. On Saturday, May 17, a memorial service for Bill was held at Cornell's Anabel Taylor Chapel. Testimonials delivered by his son, E. O. Wilson, Tom Eisner, and Ted Schultz (Bill's final grad student), among others, were woven among recordings of old jazz artists from Bill's collection. The musical finale was a Louie Armstrong rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In." Bill Brown, myrmecologist extraordinaire, was not a candidate for sainthood, but he does occupy a special place in the life stories of many of us. As is fitting for stories, they should be told.


- William H. Gotwald, Jr.
Department of Biology
Utica College of Syracuse University
Utica, NY 13502-4892

Sociobiology Vol. 31, No.1, 1998
Reprinted with permission from the NAS/IUSSI Newsletter, Spring/Summer, 1997.

Note: In honor of Bill's research in the tropics and his interest in training Latin American students in tropical ecology, an endowed graduate research fellowship has been established with the Organization for Tropical Studies. Those wishing to contribute to the endowment may send their tax deductible gifts to:

G.T.S. William L. Brown Fellowship
Box 90630
Durham, NC 27708-0630

[ TOP ]