James Abram Garfield Rehn (1881-1965) is considered one of the Academy’s most productive and influential scientists. He chaired the Entomology Department in the mid-20th century and became one of the world’s leading orthopterists (a person that studies grasshoppers, crickets and katydids.)
He and his colleague, Morgan Hebard (1887-1946), added more than 500,000 Orthoptera to the Academy’s insect collection. He was born in 1881, the same year President James Abram Garfield was assassinated. Rehn’s parents named their newborn son after the president.
Rehn began his career at the Academy in 1900 as a Jessup Fellow, a fellowship offered to scientists in the early stages of their careers. (The fellowship is still awarded today.) He was an avid naturalist interested at that time in birds.
In 1902 Rehn and another Jessup Fellow, Henry Lorenz Viereck (1881-1931), decided to go on an expedition to Texas and New Mexico. (New Mexico didn’t become the 47th state until 1912.) At the time, Rehn and Viereck were both 21 years old and became fast friends — the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of natural history.
Rehn and Viereck were both members of the “Johnson Boys,” a naturalist club led by Charles W. Johnson, a curator at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia. Viereck followed a similar path as Rehn and became an important hymenopterist studying bees and wasps. Many of his specimens are part of the Academy’s insect collection. Viereck’s career was sadly cut short when he was killed in 1931 while collecting insects along a roadside in Ohio.
The Rehn and Viereck trip of 1902 would be Rehn’s first of 23 expeditions to the southwestern U.S. On many of these expeditions, Rehn was accompanied by Morgan Hebard as they surveyed the American West for orthoptera by covered wagon, horse and buggy, Model A Ford, and steam locomotive.
Rehn was a copious notetaker and filled notebook after notebook of his exploits on these many expeditions. The Academy’s Library and Archives houses the Rehn field notes, and in 2017 a National Science Foundation grant, OrthopNet: Connecting Specimens to Field Notes, made it possible to digitize several of these field notebooks; make them available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library; search the field note entries for the grasshoppers, crickets and katydids that were collected; locate these specimens in our insect collection; and create an online database of these insect records.
In the early months of the COVID-19 shutdown last year while working from home, I transcribed Rehn’s 1902 notebook of his first expedition with Viereck. This field notebook chronicles their expedition to Texas and New Mexico from March 30 to May 23, 1902.
They arrived in El Paso, Texas, from Philadelphia by train on March 30. They canceled the Texas portion of their trip after only a few days (there was poor collecting because of a drought) and caught the Rock Island train to Alamogordo, N.M. In Alamogordo they secured accommodations at a boarding house with meals for $12.50 a week and began making daily collecting excursions into the nearby Sacramento Mountains.
Rehn arrived back in Philadelphia on May 28, while Viereck continued on to Cloudcroft, N.M. The following is a transcription of a typical entry from Rehn’s 1902 Texas and New Mexico field notebook. (Anything in [square brackets] is added for clarification.)
April 22, 1902, pages 22 and 23:
April 22. Alamogordo and vicinity of Dry Canyon, Otero Co., N.M.
We left the house at 7:20 A.M. and steered for the quarry to the north of Dry Canyon, Viereck spending his time with insects and I spent my time after birds. The foothills between the quarry and the mouth of Dry Canyon were traversed. Two specimens of Say’s Phoebe [Sayornis saya] were secured and two Myiarchus [genus of Tyrant Flycatchers]. The plants were very interesting and numerous, our press being completely filled in a few hours. In Dry Canyon one plant (or rather a bush) in particular, of which I took a picture, proved an excellent bait for Diptera [flies] and Hymenoptera [bees and wasps]. Several lizards were collected and a Brachiopod [marine animals that look like clams] was patiently hammered out of a boulder at the mouth of the canyon. In the evening I prepared a box of plants for shipment, labelled [sic] the plants collected during the day and prepared the reptiles. Our blotters [used in the plant press] had to be removed and dried.
Rehn’s field notes from 1902 point out how he and Viereck were renaissance naturalists collecting and working across many of the Academy’s collections. In addition to the insect material they collected, the 1902 Expedition to Texas and New Mexico resulted in 26 lots of mollusks deposited in the Malacology Collection; Botany accessioned 32 plant specimens; Ornithology, 176 birds; Mammalogy, 33 mammals; and Herpetology, 118 reptiles!
Rehn’s Field Notes are a living testament to Academy research and collections in the early to mid-20th century. The 1902 Expedition provided a fascinating window into Rehn’s nascent career as an entomologist. He is historically described as one of the world’s leading orthopterists, but it was Viereck who collected the insects on this trip while Rehn trapped mammals and reptiles and ended most journal entries with the birds he had seen that day!
This was Rehn’s first real expedition, and his interest in Orthoptera hadn’t been fully formed yet. Rehn would continue to collect, partner with the likes of Morgan Hebard, and soak up the atmosphere of the Academy before he would realize the entomological calling that would put him in the history books.
The material collected in 1902 in Alamogordo is only about 75 miles from the Trinity site where the first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945. Collections provide a backdrop, a baseline, against which the future can be measured.
By Greg Cowper, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Entomology
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I didn’t know very much about Rehn, so thank you for this article! I love the photo of the Calistoga wagon at their campsite.
In Rehn’s defense, “labelled” is not incorrect, although this spelling is used mostly in Britain.
A wonderful bit of history. Thanks so much. I was privileged to have known JAGR for several years before he died.