In science, we tend to make much ado about “Firsts”. In mid-January 2013 Dr. Floyd Shockley of the NMNH Entomology Collection Management Unit approached me with an interesting task that he wanted me to attempt—to try to find the very first insect specimen formally accessioned into the NMNH insect collection, which according to department records was a giant water bug, Belastoma americana (=Lethocerus americanus (Leidy), 1847) (Hemiptera: Belastomatidae). Floyd indicated that original accession logbooks list the donor of the specimen as Mr. William Hine from Elmore, OH, who donated the specimen on May 18, 1883 (Fig. 1). Floyd asked if I might be able to find this particular specimen in our Belostomatidae collection, since the very first insect formally accessioned into the NMNH insect collection would be a historically important and interesting artifact if it could be located.
Figure 1. Original composite scan of first pages of the earliest accession logbook housed in the Archives of the Department of Entomology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.
As a volunteer at the NMNH and someone with more than a passing interest in Hemiptera, I was very excited at the opportunity to be part of trying to relocate this neat piece of the history of the NMNH insect collection. In fact, I began my search that very afternoon in the L. americanus collection. I was looking for a specimen or specimens with label information relating to Ohio, Elmore, dated in the 1880’s, or bearing a collector name of Hine, Hein, Hines, Heines, Heinz, or Heintz (or any other possible variations of the spelling). Unfortunately, despite a careful search of the Belostomatidae collection over a day and a half, I was unable to locate even a single specimen of L. americanus from Ohio. There were several L. americanus collected prior to the turn of the 20th century, but all were from other states or territories.
One evening while searching the web, I found the website of the Harris-Elmore Public Library at 328 Toledo St. in Elmore, OH. Ms. Amy Laity was listed as the Director. I e-mailed her that evening, explaining what I was doing and asked if a research librarian there could find any records regarding a naturalist or entomologist by the name of William Heines (spelling questionable) from Elmore, OH. I related that we believed he lived in or near Elmore during the 1880's with the idea that if he was a naturalist in Northwest Ohio there may be library records of his activities or interests. I received a response the next day from Ms. Laity indicating that she had turned my inquiry over to their history librarian. I made a similar inquiry to Dr. Norman Johnson, curator of the C.A. Triplehorn Insect Collection at The Ohio State University, asking if he was familiar with a collector of that era from Elmore. Two days later, Dr. Johnson responded, indicating that he was unaware of any collector or naturalist from Ohio, fitting the time-frame, location or with a last name of Hein (or any derivation thereof). Later that week, I reported to Floyd that I had not been able to find the Elmore, OH specimen in the collection, but that I was still waiting for the possibility of obtaining more information on the collector from the Elmore Library.
On January 22, 2013, I received an e-mail response from Ms. Jennifer Fording, MA, MLIS, the local history librarian at Harris-Elmore Public Library. The closest name she could find living in Elmore, Ohio or even in Ottawa County was a farmer named William Hein. According to genealogical and census records, William’s father was Ernst Louis Hein, born in Jakobshagen, Germany on April, 20, 1826, died September 5, 1876, in Elliston, OH, and his mother was Louisa Manse/Maun Hein, born October 10, 1826, in Germany and died March 2, 1894, in Elliston, OH. William himself was born on October 5, 1860 in Prussia, Germany and immigrated to the U.S. in 1870. William lived in Benton Township near Elliston, OH in Ottawa County about 5 miles from Elmore from 1880 until 1920 when he moved into Elmore. He was first married in Elliston to a Maria Vollmer in 1888 and had 4 children. His wife Maria died as a complication of childbirth, and he remarried Augusta Monk in 1900. William and Augusta had 2 more children. Based on Ms. Fording’s findings, there is no evidence or record of William demonstrating any specific interest in natural history or any mention of him being a naturalist other than his status as a farmer. William died in Elmore on April 15, 1936 and is buried in Elliston Cemetery. Because of the outstanding detective work of Ms. Jennifer Fording, I am convinced that the "William Hein" of Ottawa County and later Elmore, OH, was the collector and the person that donated the first insect specimen accessioned into the NMNH Insect Collection in 1883.
I must admit that the idea that William Hein may have been a naturalist or someone interested in natural history was a deduction that I made and not related to any records associated with the accession. Quite often in the 1800's physicians and people of wealth had sufficient leisure time to be able to take up a hobby such as collecting insects or natural curiosities. Many of these early natural history collections have come into the possession of the Smithsonian over time. In fact, donation of many private insect collections is the source of a large portion of the oldest material in the NMNH collection. So, while my assumption was reasonable that William Hein may have been a collector or naturalist, he apparently was not. As a subsistence farmer, William Hein likely had a basic knowledge and appreciation of the diversity of life as one might witness working his farm. Yet, even for an Ohio farmer in the 1880’s, a giant water bug would be and still is a very novel creature to encounter and would be seldom if ever seen in everyday farm work. Lethocerus americanus, is a formidable insect (Fig. 2), commonly reaching lengths of 2–2.5 inches in length, definitely qualifying as a biological curiosity on first encounter. It is easy to picture what this first encounter may have been like. Imagine a warm summer night in 1883 with William sitting next to a window with his reading lamp reading, paging through his copy of the Prairie Farmer magazine. A giant water bug, attracted to the light of his reading lamp bangs against the glass pane of the window through which the lamp light is escaping. Curious, he would likely have gone outside to investigate, and the remarkable size and threatening appearance of this strange looking creature may have been enough to cause a curious Ohio farmer to capture it in a jar and send it off to the Smithsonian as a natural curiosity from northwest Ohio, for their natural history collection. This scenario, although unconfirmed, seems especially plausible since the species had only been described 35 years prior to the collection of this specimen so it would certainly have been unknown to a 23-year old immigrant farmer.
Figure 2. Lethocerus americanus (Leidy), 1847 adult.
Just consider, the very first insect formally accessioned into this world-renowned insect collection was likely provided by an Ohio family farmer. Of course, the beauty of this interesting story of our first accession is that it stands as a record demonstrating just how much the Smithsonian insect collection has always been and will always be a collection of, by, and for the people of the United States. As far as my search for this first insect acquisition to the Smithsonian's insect collection, I regret to report that I was not able to find this particular specimen in our Belostomatidae collection. We know that this specimen was part of the collection in 1883 based on its accession record, but it appears to have been lost sometime during the intervening 130 years. However, Ms. Fording’s contribution to the Smithsonian information base has not been made in vain. Even if the original specimen is never found, Dr. David Furth, the Collections Manager for Entomology, has already deposited a copy of the information that Ms. Fording uncovered regarding William Hein into an Archive folder relating to the first insect accession into the NMNH Insect Collection.
Acknowledgements. I wish to thank Ms. Amy Laity and Ms. Jennifer Fording, both of the Harris-Elmore Public Library for assisting me in searching for and discovering this interesting historical background information about William Hein of Elmore, Ottawa County, OH. I would like to thank Dr. Norm Johnson of The Ohio State University for his assistance with my research. Finally, I’d like to thank Ms. Deborah Feher, Entomology Registration Systems Coordinator, for providing access to the original accession logbook, and Dr. Floyd Shockley for scanning and merging the first two pages of the logbook.
Dennis D. Kopp, Hemiptera Collection, Department of Entomology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA. E-mail: KoppDD@si.edu