David Rockefeller Sr., center, inspects the beetle collection of Great Smoky Mountains National Park with park naturalists. He collected in that area as a young man. PHOTO COURTESY OF NPS

Meet the beetles: A collector’s lifelong passion



David Rockefeller Sr. might be best known as a philanthropist, but few know that as an amateur entomologist, he has amassed a large and important collection of beetles, which someday will become part of the collection at his alma mater, Harvard University.

Brian Farrell, a professor of organistic and environmental biology at Harvard, said he met Rockefeller’s daughter Eileen in 1980. During that encounter, Eileen told Farrell about her father’s interest in beetles and suggested that the two meet. That led to a 1998 visit by Rockefeller to the collection at Harvard.

“I was amazed at his knowledge of coleoptera,” Farrell recalled. “This guy is a serious scholar, like an art collector would be.”

Coleoptera, the classification for beetles, is the largest group in the animal kingdom. There are more than 350,000 species, and specimens dating back 300 million years have been collected.

While conducting the tour, Farrell learned Rockefeller was a collector himself. Later, he was invited to see the beetle collection Rockefeller has at his home in Tarrytown, N.Y.

tiger beetleFarrell said the Rockefeller collection, which at the time contained about 75,000 specimens, was meticulously maintained, stored in custom-built cabinets and properly labeled.

“They are beautifully prepared and beautifully mounted,” Farrell added.

However, it had been some time since the collection was updated. Rockefeller had employed a curator, but that person passed away, Farrell said. The collection had gone untouched for years. Farrell proposed that one of his students, Geoff Morse, take over the job. Rockefeller agreed, a decision that rekindled his interest in his hobby, Farrell said.

Since then, the collection has doubled in size. Morse continues to work as its curator.

Rockefeller’s fascination with beetles most likely stems from learning about their diversity and the ways they have adapted to different environments. Beetles have greater range of color, shape and size than any other animal group. This variety must also appeal to Rockefeller’s sense of aesthetics, Farrell noted.

Rockefeller collected his first beetle as a 7-year-old.

“David was an avid naturalist from an early age,” Farrell said.

The young boy’s interest was furthered by an important mentor. Frank Lutz, who was chairman of the entomology department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, took Rockefeller under his wing, Farrell said.

The Rockefeller collection, at some point, is to go to Harvard. The additional species will not only add to the university’s already impressive collection, it will fill in geographical gaps, Farrell said. In particular, Rockefeller’s collection of South American beetles will bolster that of Harvard, which Farrell said has a strong concentration of beetles from North America and parts of Asia.

Mark Good

Mark Good

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Mark Good

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