Harrison G. Dyar, Jr. (with mustache) with the entomology staff of the Division of Insects, 1905 (Smithsonian Archives)
Harrison G. Dyar, Jr. (1866–1929) was one of the more colorful characters in Smithsonian history. An influential biologist of the late 19th and early 20th century, Dyar focused his entomological career on building natural classifications of various groups of insects.
His revolutionary approach to taxonomy, which examined both larval and adult stages of insects, brought about major changes in the scientific community's understanding of natural relationships and insect systematics. He was a master entomologist, describing about 3,000 new species of butterflies and moths and 600 of mosquitoes, either by himself or with collaborators. His name lives on in nearly 70 insect species, from the mosquito Dixa dyari to the moth Euleucophaeus dyari.
But Dyar might be better known as a bigamist with an eccentric habit of digging elaborate systems of tunnels for no apparent reason—though many have thought it was to move from one family to another. The first was a long maze behind his house in Dupont Circle, which he began digging to plant a bed of hollyhocks for his wife.
The second, a three-level set, was below a house on Independence Avenue (then B Street), across from the area on the National Mall now occupied by the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn. The house was built for his friend Mrs. Wellesca Allen, whose husband reportedly worked in Philadelphia. (No one but Dr. Dyar seems to have met Mr. Allen.) After Dyar’s death, the Department of Agriculture bought the house, perhaps to use the tunnel’s dark, moist passages for mushroom-growing experiments. During WWII, the tunnels were considered for use as an air raid shelter.
Marc E. Epstein discusses Dyar’s fascinating story, both scientific and personal, as recounted in his new biography Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes: The Eccentric Life of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr. (Oxford University Press). Epstein is a research associate at the Natural History Museum and senior insect biosystematist for lepidoptera at the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes is available for signing.
Learn the intriguing story behind the tunnels that Harrison Dyar constructed under P Street, NW, between 1906 and 1916, and see some details of their elaborate construction.