The Curious Life of Harrison Dyar

Author: Mosquito Squad of Greater Washington DC

For most of the world, February 14th marks one of the year’s most romantic holidays: Valentine’s Day. But for us at DC Mosquito Squad, we are also celebrating the birthday of one truly unique mosquito scientist.

Harrison Dyar was an entomologist born in New York City who spent much of his career in Washington, D.C. Almost everything about his life is unusual in some way – from his hobby of digging tunnels to his tumultuous love life. In honor of Dyar’s birthday, here’s a snapshot of the fascinating scientist.

Harrison Dyar’s family

Apparently, Morse Code should really be called Dyar Code. Dyar’s father, also named Harrison Dyar, supposedly invented the telegraph, but he didn’t get the credit. Luckily, Dyar Sr. found success on another path: patents for chemical dyes. Fittingly, the family’s last name is a variation of the word “dyer.” Dyar Sr. died in 1875 when Dyar Jr. was just 9 years old, but he left a fortune for his heirs.

Harrison Dyar’s education

Dyar Jr. received a B.S. in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1889, and both an A.M. and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1894 and 1895.

Harrison Dyar’s career

After finishing his studies, Dyar became an assistant bacteriologist at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He then moved to Washington, D.C. in 1897 to begin his career as an entomologist at the United States National Museum.

During this time, Dyar helped to finance a local park, the Stony Man Camp near Luray, Virginia, while it was being developed by George Freeman Pollock. The park eventually became Shenandoah National Park.

At the National Museum, Dyar was the Honorary Custodian of Lepidoptera – the order of insects including moths and butterflies. However, he became well known as a mosquito expert. Mosquitoes were an important topic during the 1900s, because it was recently discovered that the insects could spread disease.

Dyar was a prolific author on the topic of mosquitoes. He coauthored the four-volume Mosquitoes of North and Central America and the West Indies, as well as 297 papers on mosquitoes and a revision of mosquito classification, called Mosquitoes of the Americas.

In 1924, Dyar was named a captain in the Sanitary Department of the Officers Reserve Corps because of his work with mosquitoes. He was very opinionated on insect taxonomy, and he was known to get into heated debates with his colleagues. Dyar eventually was appointed as an expert for the Bureau of Entomology at the USDA.