#124: The Smell of Naphthalene

February 11th, 2013

“The name is magic,” Dr. Thayer told me as we walked through a gap she had cranked between two of the 80 aisles of dead beetles, roaches, flies and spiders. “So much of taxonomy depends on the name.”

We were walking between ash-white cabinets on rollers, like the stacks at a university library. A long counter-top ran along the wall across from the stacks. It was inhabited by a few microscopes and a few scientists. One of them was a young woman with short, punky hair. As she adjusted the focus on her microscope, her sleeve drooped to reveal a forearm covered in tattoos.

The Field Museum of Natural History’s Division of Insects contains 4.1 million pinned insects and 8 million specimens or lots of insects and other arthropods in alcohol or on slides, the website says. It’s the fifth-largest collection of Arthropoda (excluding Crustacea) in North America.

From that, the Field found me a beetle the size of a fingernail clipping.

Dr. Margaret Thayer, Ph.D., a curator in the Division of Insects, had met me that morning on the main floor of the Field, by the security desk and Sue the T-Rex.

She had walked me to a glass elevator taking me up to the back areas of this academic Wonka Factory, had walked me down dimly lit and chipped paint hallways, through a maze of rooms and occasional animal skulls, past the wall of varied marked woods from the Department of Botany and finally to a brightly lit room containing ash-white cabinets, half-finished cubicle space and a punk rock entomologist looking through a microscope.

I knew it was the right room before we even opened the door. The smell of naphthalene billowed into the hall.

You know the smell from traditional mothballs, the poisonous ones. I know it from childhood visits to Florida where I would sprint out of my parents’ car after the two days from Illinois toward grandparent hugs, sometimes a cake and the magical room where my grandfather kept photos of rocket launches and his collection of pinned and mounted insects.

Once again, I was running toward my grandfather through a cloud of naphthalene.

From my initial vague description of the fingernail clipping, Collection Manager James Boone had been able to locate the accession record showing the Field received four specimens of it in February 1948 as part of an exchange.

But it wasn’t until my uncle found that magic name “Figulus” in some of my grandfather’s writings that Dr. Thayer could find my little bug, a South Pacific wood-pulp-eating stag beetle named Figulus curvicornis Benesh.

Dr. William R. Rose, my grandfather, discovered it.

“It happened in Luzon, in the Philippines,” my grandfather wrote in his memoirs — Bill Rose was the type of man who wrote his memoirs. “I was writing a letter home when the beast fell on my head. I clawed it off, realized what it was and popped it into a bottle. It is presently in the collection of the Field Museum in Chicago.”

I had heard the story a thousand times — Bill Rose was the type of man who re-told stories.

Naphthalene, the National Center for Biotechnology Information website tells me, also goes by the names albocarbon, camphor tar and naphthalin. With a molecular formula of C10H8 and a molecular weight of 128.17052, it’s a distillate of coal tar.

Insect collectors use naphthalene — moth balls — to keep specimens from being devoured from the outside, Dr. Thayer told me. Before they add a new beetle or other insect to the collection, they freeze it to kill any potential destroyer still living in the dead animal’s guts. They don’t want a parasite eating its way through its host’s pinned corpse to attack the rest of the collection.

Dr. Thayer gestured to the division’s newest freezer as she told me this. It was still in the box.

There had been specimens of Figulus curvicornis Benesh found before my grandfather’s, the 1950 entomological journal Dr. Thayer was kind enough to scan for me said. They had been misnamed or miscategorized, mistakenly identified as other species or given a random title but never described — a nomen nudum, the journal called it. That name wasn’t magic.

My grandfather’s specimens helped Dr. Bernard Benesh realize this was something new. This was Figulus curvicornis Benesh, paratypes provided by “Dr. Wm. Rose, collector.” I would soon see the little red tags that would confirm this honor.

“Alas, this find constitutes my only claim to scientific immortality,” my grandfather wrote. “Goodbye to dreams of having my name rank in the forefront of medicine, along with Pasteur, Fleming and Salk; the name of Rose shall be perpetuated in the annals of science only because I once discovered a little black Figulus beetle.”

From the one stack of 80, Dr. Thayer went to a cabinet. From that cabinet, she pulled a wooden case. At the counter-top table outside the stacks, she opened the case. Inside, were many white cardboard boxes, open on top with pinned beetles inside.

She pulled one small box out, no more than a few inches in length. It had five specimens of a small, black beetle, none longer than a dime.

The beetles were attached to pins, each pin piercing a few slivers of paper with important notes on them.

On one of the notes on the sliver on the pins of the two beetles on the left of a small white box in a case in a cabinet in a stack in a room of stacks down a maze above a museum along the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, Illinois, someone had written my grandfather’s name.

Dr. Thayer took me to look at my grandfather’s beetle under a microscope. She called it a “scope.”

It looked prehistoric and savage through the scope. It was beautiful.

My grandfather was a brilliant man, a doctor who never let his patients go without care even when they couldn’t pay a dime. He saved lives. He supported his family financially in every way and he loved us as much as he could.

He took a shine to me because we shared the same interests and aptitudes and because I was always so far behind him in these fields. He liked people when they looked up at him.

We would talk about insects and the space program and Pogo by Walt Kelly. I learned about Kurt Vonnegut from him — I still have his copies of “Slapstick” and “Galapagos.” I have his books by explorer William Beebe. And I have his complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories where my grandmother Dorothy had written “Merry Xmas & Happy Sleuthing. Dor. Dec. 1949.”

We both loved Sherlock Holmes, a man considered better than everyone else because he was so godawful smart. That says a lot about my grandfather. I don’t know what that says about me.

He supported me in everything I ever did, but he always let me know he could have done it better. If I talked about the newspaper where I worked, he would puff up about his time on the high school paper. If my mother talked about her MFA, he would take credit because he liked to doodle. Our successes were reflections on him. We were mirrors for his countenance.

Even his kindness was inept and mean. He told me “Birth is 100 percent fatal” by phone while I was at the hospital waiting for my other grandfather to die. He meant it to be comforting.

But he was trying to comfort me.

He comforted me over a breakup once in a conversation where he forgot my name. I was used to that by then. That’s the hard part of it all. He devoted his life to expanding that strange, glowing mind of his only to have life take that mind right back. Here’s where the story cuts off. Here’s where you get no more.

Things look savage and beautiful when viewed through a scope.

I can’t take these complicated, conflicted feelings of love and resentment and put them away in a little box, put that box in a case and turn the crank to make it disappear in stacks and stacks of other little boxes. They won’t be held. They thicken and infuse the air I breathe. They’re part of me, these warm memories of astringency where a whiff of poison feels like home.

See photos of the beetle on the 1,001 Chicago Afternoons Facebook page

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