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Great Species Seekers: William Doherty

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 17, 2011

The Cincinnati-bred  lepidopterist William Doherty worked in the Indo-Pacific in the 1880s and 90s, and was frequently vexed with tropical afflictions.  He wrote home that he couldn’t keep his specimen pins from rusting in the rainy season.  “Salt and sugar here liquefy every night and have to be dried over the fire every day,” he added, “and the boots I take off at night are sometimes covered with mould in the morning.”

Doherty was generally too busy to dwell on his misfortunes.  He once summed up a year’s work in the Indo-Pacific islands in telegraphese, sounding a bit like Fearless Fosdick, the comic book hero who could describe it as “merely a flesh wound” even when machine gun bullets made his midsection look like Swiss cheese:  “Loss of all my collections, money, journals and scientific notes at Surabaya in Java.  Proceed by way of Macassar to the island of Sumba.  Dangerous journey in the interior.  Discovery of an inland forest region, and many new species of Lepidoptera.  King Tunggu, human sacrifices, strange currency …. Visit to the Smeru country.  Hunted by a tiger when moth-catching.  Hunt tigers myself.  Leave for Borneo.  Ascent of the Martapura River from Banjermasin.  Life among the Dyaks in the Pengaron country.  Head-hunting.  The orang-utan.”

The real peril, as for many species seekers, was disease, a less colorful but more efficient killer. In a letter sent from Kenya in February 1901, William Doherty was characteristically dismissive about what he called “the usual adventures.  The first were with lions and rhinos.  Lately it has been with wild buffalo, a rogue elephant, and a leopard who comes in our boma [a corral or enclosure] every night. … Only the other night I had to fight for my life with the marauding Masai.”

About that time, a friend sent a note to Doherty from England.  It came back a few months later stamped “decede deceased.”  The cause, it turned out, was dysentery.

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