Very Truly Yours, C.H. Curran
by Rebecca Morgan on
This is a guest post for the Library News Blog written by Museum Archives intern Molly Treangen. Molly came to know Curran through her work on his papers this past fall.
Surprisingly little history can be readily found on Dr. Charles Howard Curran, a former curator in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. Howard to his friends and close colleagues, he was the first Dipterist (fly specialist) hired by the Museum entomology department, where he served as a curator from 1928 to 1960. Fortunately, the Museum Archives hold a rich collection of this notable entomologist's correspondence.
Dr. Curran expanded the department’s thin fly collection into a robust and much sought-after resource for scientists around the world. During his career Dr. Curran described 2,648 specimens within Diptera, the scientific order that includes flies and mosquitoes. This contribution was greater than anyone in the 150 year history of AMNH, and a number of species are named in his honor. Spending time with the Museum’s collection of Dr. Curran’s personal communications reveals a useful record of his accomplishments and character beyond the evidence of his great influence on the field of entomology.
From 1945 to his retirement Dr. Curran spent time at Bear Mountain, N.Y. in the Palisades, where he was one of the first scientists to conduct pest control experiments with DDT. His research team developed application techniques aimed to cause the least possible damage to the surrounding ecosystem. In the midst of widespread and well-founded fears surrounding DDT, he made strong efforts to educate the public on the dangers of such chemicals.
In 1947, Curran collaborated with the photographer Henry M. Lester and the Sperry Gyroscope Company to capture a fly in flight for the first time. The footage made waves and was widely distributed in the realms of entomology and film. In his 1948 Natural History article recounting the project, Dr. Curran says “Many of the flies proved to be prima donnas. With film flying through the machine at a mile a minute, the drone fly would have been as expensive as many a Hollywood star if results had not been so forthcoming.”
In his day-to-day work, Dr. Curran devoted much time responding to letters from the public about insects. The letters - sometimes with samples attached - sought help identifying which pesky insects ruined gardens or invaded homes. There was no story too bizarre, no question was too ridiculous to go unanswered, even the mystery of a "continuous siz-z-z-ling sound in the trees in summer" which Curran resolved as belonging to cicadas.
Dr. Curran’s collection serves as an example of how the Museum’s archives can enrich the portrait of a scientist’s life. By creating a new collection guide to his papers, we now have a clearer idea of Dr. C. H. Curran's importance to the Museum, the field of entomology, the public and beyond.