The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
More than two dozen field diaries handwritten by Arthur Wilson Stelfox (1883-1972), an Irish naturalist, are housed in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Among them is a diary with an intriguing note attached to the inside of the front cover. It reads:
“All scribblings by M.P. Kerney in these 3 vols. of Stelfox’s journal have been removed today 10/2/1975. N.F. McMillan”
In different handwriting on the same slip of paper is written the following:
“Vols. 1, 2 and 3 of Stelfox’s Journal were lent to M.P. Kerney (Imperial College, London) and were returned heavily annotated—naturally without my permission or knowledge. Nora F. McMillan”
This small slip of paper offers several clues into Stelfox’s network of fellow naturalists. Both notes are signed by Nora Fisher McMillan, a fellow naturalist who spent her career working primarily in Liverpool, England. Born in Belfast as Eleanor Fisher, she made her mark as a self-taught naturalist and published her first paper in 1926, at the age of 18. Through the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club she met Stelfox whom she described as a major influence. Second, we have the mention of M.P. Kerney, a geologist. From McMillan’s note, we learn that he is from Imperial College London, although there is no information about when or why he borrowed the journals.
Interestingly, the note is written in two distinctive hands. There are other differences as well. The first is much less formal, using the term ‘scribblings’ rather than ‘annotations’ and it gives a date of 10/2/1975 for removing the unwanted writings. The second is more specific about Kerney, noting his university affiliation, and specifying that his annotations were done without McMillan’s “permission or knowledge”. Of the two, the second seems more likely to have been written by McMillan.
While we cannot know how Stelfox himself might have felt about the annotations, McMillan’s distaste for the practice was quite clear.
McMillan trusted Kerney with the journals. It is unlikely that Kerney meant any harm by his scribblings, but it is a good friend indeed who defends against unwanted annotations.
- Record Unit 7379, Arthur Wilson Stelfox Papers, 1904-1967, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Found in a Field Book, Field Book Project Blog
Recently, I had a conversation with Dr. Jorge Santiago-Blay, an entomologist whose research includes fossilized insects. A Resident Research Associate in the Department of Paleobiology with the National Museum of Natural History, and faculty member at both the University of Maryland University College and Penn State University York, Dr. Santiago-Blay’s keen interest in insects is contagious.
In his recent investigations, a small, fossilized head in amber was proving difficult to identify. “I was working with students on this old (approximately 100 million years old) fossil, but its identity kept eluding us. What was it? We always seemed to be asking,” Dr. Santiago-Blay said. “Eventually, it became apparent that the fossil specimen was the head of a larva. Sadly, the rest of the body was not available in the fossil. The team began to wonder how large the fossilized larva was. Because, as far as we know, there is only one such fossilized larva available, we decided to measure modern look alikes of the fossilized larva to try to guess the size of the fossilized specimen.” As Dr. Santiago-Blay’s team began garnering and analyzing data, new questions appeared. “As I dug further into the data, the available photos, and so on … I noticed a pattern that reminded me of Dyar’s Rule, but it was different because we were measuring the dimension of a softer body part, the abdomen.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, entomologist Harrison Gray Dyar, Jr. (1886 - 1929) and others researched growth patterns of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Diptera (flies, such as mosquitoes), and other arthropods. Dyar identified a geometric pattern of increase in the exoskeleton length and width relationships over progressive molting events—indicating that this progression could be measured so consistently that one could reliably predict the size at which the next molting events would occur. We see the first mention of a “Dyar’s Law” in the scientific literature, referring to this progression, as early as the 1920s.
No data set is perfect; there is always extraneous data. When a scientific standard like Dyar’s Law is developed, the analyses used to arrive at the standard include filtering out the “noise” in the data. Dr. Santiago-Blay’s team is taking a fresh look at Dyar’s original, unfiltered observations for clues that might explain how Dyar reached his conclusions.
Santiago-Blay and his team hope to find some answers in Dyar’s original field observations and his personal papers located at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. That will require transcribing a number of Dyar’s field books cover to cover to make as thorough an examination as possible. Last spring, the Smithsonian Transcription Center held a #DigIntoDyar campaign to tackle a number of Dyar’s sawfly field books from the Archives collections.
“I think the Transcription Center and its volunteers are wonderful. The work they do is extremely important. Hopefully, their help transcribing Dyar’s materials will make it possible to discover more answers and better understand Dyar’s Law,” Santiago-Blay said. More of Dyar’s field books are available now for transcription at the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
- Record Unit 7101. Harrison Gray Dyar Papers, 1882-1927, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Harrison G. Dyar Notebooks, Department of Entomology, 1882 - 1925, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Impossible Case of Harrison G. Dyar, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Bizarre Tale of the Tunnels, Trysts and Taxa of a Smithsonian Entomologist, Smithsonian Magazine
- 1 of 319
- next ›