Harrison Gray Dyar: The gentleman naturalist

John Kelly
Columnist October 28, 2012

If Harrison Gray Dyar — the mysterious tunnel digger of Washington — ever felt bitter that the world did not recognize his father as one of history’s great inventors, he did not show it. “Morse Code should really be called Dyar Code,” family members would sometimes say, but in a wistfully humorous vein, not an angry one.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The patriarch — also named Harrison Gray Dyar — had invented the telegraph, they said, but, according to one account, he “did not complete the work because of public misunderstandings.”

Public misunderstandings were something his son would eventually understand all too well.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Any resentment over being outfoxed when it came to the telegraph was more than assuaged by the success the elder Dyar achieved in the area of chemical dyes. (The family name was a variation of “dyer.” Fittingly, a distant ancestor back in England had been a cloth worker.)


Portrait photograph of Harrison Gray Dyar (1866-1929), entomologist at the United States National Museum at the Smithsonian from 1897 until his death in 1929. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

By the time Harrison Sr. died in 1875, he had accrued a set of patents that made his heirs rich. These heirs included Harrison Jr., a mere 9 years old, his younger sister Perle, and their mother, Eleanora. They lived a comfortable life in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and it was there that young Harrison first marveled at the creatures that crawled upon the earth and flitted through the air. He was bitten by the insect bug.

It was not enough for Harrison to simply observe insects. He was a born cataloguer, with an intensely organized mind that was able to spot similarities and differences in even the tiniest creatures. As he hiked in the woods along the Hudson River, Harrison Dyar Jr. jotted discoveries in his notebooks. Later, he would flesh out his findings, adding watercolor illustrations of the bugs he had seen and collected: the intricacies of a thorax, the subtle veins in a powdery wing.

His favorite creatures were the Limacodidae, a family of small, hairy moths that often perch with their abdomens extended at a 90-degree angle from their wings, a stance that looks almost priapic. While the moths are mostly unremarkable, the larvae are stunning. Some can be brightly colored, their green or orange skin covered in stripes, dots and spiky protuberances that contain an irritating poison. They are known as slug caterpillars.

Perhaps Dyar was fascinated by the signature achievement of the moth and the butterfly: how it starts as a wriggling caterpillar, disappears into the comforting darkness of a cocoon, then emerges clothed in new garments and equipped with new abilities. It is the same individual, yet miraculously transformed.

Dyar earned a degree in chemistry at MIT. From there he went to Columbia, where he completed a master’s in biology and a doctorate in bacteriology — the first such degree Columbia granted. Dyar’s doctoral thesis was entitled “On Certain Bacteria From the Air of New York City.” He had grown bacteria from cultures gathered in college hallways and apartment buildings and on street corners.

Dyar joined the staff at Columbia’s medical school as an assistant bacteriologist. But his heart was not in these microscopic organisms. Again and again he returned to moths and butterflies, writing or co-writing about 20 papers on slug caterpillars. Perhaps in his more frustrated moments he exclaimed, “I’m an entomologist, not a bacteriologist!” When an acquaintance at the U.S. National Museum in Washington dangled the possibility of overseeing the Smithsonian’s Lepidoptera collection — moths and butterflies — Dyar jumped at the chance.

There was a catch: The position was unpaid.

That didn’t matter to Dyar. He was a wealthy man, enriched by his father’s bequest and by his own savvy real estate investments. He could afford to be a gentleman naturalist. In 1897 he moved to Washington. Accompanying him were his wife, Zella, and their daughter, Dorothy. A son, Otis, was born three years later.

Zella was the former Zella Peabody, a pianist and music teacher Dyar had wed in Los Angeles. Harrison loved the piano, loved to play it, loved to hear it played. Imagine his sadness, then, when Zella learned that she was going deaf. Not only was she losing her hearing, but she had decided the danger of passing her defect on to future generations was so great, she would have no more children, something Harrison desperately wanted.

And so it must have been a tense family that settled into the house at 1512 21st St. NW, near Dupont Circle. Zella was going deaf. She was denying her husband more children and, quite possibly, the procreative act itself. Something had to give.

Tomorrow: A chance meeting in the woods.

Twitter: @johnkelly

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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