Daily Archives: April 26, 2013

Friday Feature: The Ernst J. Dornfeld Papers, A Labor of Love

At first blush, the Ernst J. Dornfeld Papers appear to be the output of a career entomologist. The stacks of maps charting butterfly movement, the encapsulated wings, and the thousands of butterfly photographs all point to the work of a rank-and-file lepidopterist.

Encapsulated butterfly wings

But something doesn’t add up. Dornfeld’s Ph.D., minted at the University of Wisconsin, reads “Zoology” and his curriculum vitae is littered with references to cytochemistry and histology. Upon digging into the Dornfeld Papers, one will unearth lecture notes on cytology and histology, images of cellular mitosis, and a thick bundle of reprints with titles like “Structural and functional reconstitution of ultra-centrifuged rat adrenal cells in autoplastic grafts.” Dornfeld, as it turns out, led a double life.

Ernst’s fascination with butterflies developed during childhood and carried into his early scientific career. However, after taking a position at Oregon State University in 1938, he immersed himself in his teaching and cell biology work. He became interested in embryology and cytochemistry, began publishing his work on reproductive cells, and threw himself into his teaching duties. Consequently, his interest in lepidopterology faded into the background.

In the late 1950s, Dornfeld returned to his lapsed hobby with renewed vigor. He crisscrossed Oregon on scouting trips with his son, developed contacts with other lepidopterists, and amassed an astounding collection of specimens from the Pacific Northwest. He also redirected some of his teaching and writing efforts to butterfly work, publishing papers and giving talks on local butterfly biology and ecology. Moonlighting as a lepidopterist afforded Dornfeld the opportunity to work directly with other enthusiasts. His correspondence with colleagues includes discussions of new species, plans for collecting trips, and arrangements for specimen trading, all of it written in the intense tones of obsession.

Following his retirement from OSU in 1976, Dornfeld began developing a comprehensive guide to Oregon lepidoptera. In 1980, he completed Butterflies of Oregon, the definitive work on the subject. He also put in long volunteer hours cataloging the OSU Systematic Entomology Laboratory’s specimen collection—shaping it into a valuable teaching tool. To this end, he even contributed his own collection, the result of hundreds of hours in the field.
The Dornfeld Papers have been placed in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center for all the usual reasons. The collection is a rich resource for entomologists, ecologists, and historians of science. It’s also a part of OSU’s history—something we’re dedicated to preserving. But it takes only a few minutes with this collection to realize it’s more than the sum total of its research value. The Ernst J. Dornfeld Papers are a tribute to a labor of love.

The Ernst J. Dornfeld Papers and other related questions are available for access 8:30AM-5:00PM Monday through Friday at the Special Collection & Archives Research Center. For questions about the Dornfeld Papers or other holdings, please contact us at scarc@oregonstate.edu.