By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
More field books continue to be made available on Smithsonian’s Transcription Center. The Field Book Project has been working to provide additional background for some of these field book creators. Along the way we keep finding intriguing details about Smithsonian collectors.
I was recently looking for additional biographical information on nineteenth century entomologist Benjamin Dann Walsh, when I found the following quote in an article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society from 1929:
Mr. [E. H.] Guyer says: “his daily activities in collecting insects and butterflies, of which he made a vast and famous collection, made him known to all the then inhabitants of the city. Every boy, as I then was, delighted in assisting him. In such pursuit he was run over by a locomotive on our levee” November 12, 1869 – “and died November 18, 1869 age sixty-one (61) years.”
If you have read Benjamin Dann Walsh’s biographical descriptions, they detail a short but impressive list of accomplishments. He was the first state entomologist of Illinois and founded the American Entomologist with Charles Valentine Riley. His biographical description in the Field Book Registry is what initially excited my interest: he prepared for the Church, but instead became a writer, lumber dealer, farmer, and entomologist. What I eventually found was a fascinating life: a man who changed countries, embraced new scientific theories, and in the end chose not a comfortable lifestyle but instead a fulfilling one.
It seems Walsh was a man of strong principles and opinions. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge University, earning a B.A. and M.A., subsequently becoming a Fellow for 12 years. He had intended on entering the Church, but began to feel strongly against University and Church policies, that he addressed in an 1837 treatise against University practices. At the age of 30, he and his wife Rebecca Finn immigrated to the United States, initially settling in Cambridge, Illinois, where he took up farming. Farming proved an inopportune career choice, and Walsh sold his farm and moved to Rock Island in 1851 where he established a lumber business that prospered and enabled him to build several rental properties. He had an interest in local politics, becoming a city alderman, investigating corruption, which resulted in threats to his life. A quote from Mrs. Edna Armstrong Tucker in the Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1920 stated:
Having cause to suspect that the council was mulcting the city, he ran for alderman for the express purpose of getting at the facts and publishing them. After exposing the fraud, he resigned satisfied with having performed a duty and proven that he knew dangerous human bugs and knew where to stick the pin.
Walsh retired from the lumber business 1858 and began to pursue study of entomology. He became an early proponent of the theory of evolution, and began corresponding with Darwin.
It seems he lived life pursuing his interest and beliefs instead of pursuing one of ease. In a letter he wrote to the entomologist Philip Uhler, he stated:
Times are too hard for me to pay a cabinet-maker, so I handle the plane and the saw myself. [Thomas] Say lived on a dime a day, for the sake of devoting his time to Entomology. I am not quite so badly off as that, but I am forced to do one of two things—either go into business again or dress meanly, and I prefer the latter alternative.
Sheppard, Carol A. (2004). “Benjamin Dann Walsh.” Annual Review of Entomology. 2004 (49) 1–25. doi: 10.1146/annurev.ento.49.061802.123145
Pammel, L. H. (1929). “Benjamin Dann Walsh.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984). 21 (4) 556-568. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40187588