The Dirt on Ants

On March 19, 1865, American entomologist William Morton Wheeler was born. Fluent in English, German, French, and Spanish he learned to read and write in Greek and Latin. Wheeler learned taxonomy on the fly as he helped unpack, assemble and set the specimens out for display at a new natural science emporium after graduating. He catalogued shells, sponges, marsupials, even some fish in preservative alcohol. Wheeler created a shell catalogue that collectors used for many years.

Returning to his Milwaukee home, he fell under the happy influence of Dr. George W. Peckham and his wife, Elizabeth, a teaching-researching duo who lived and worked in Milwaukee. They were especially interested in taxonomy and entomology. Wheeler took a position teaching German and physiology at their school. A former medical doctor, Peckham stocked his school with the latest texts, microtome, and everything needed to stain tissue sections. Wheeler spent time collaborating on papers and fieldwork with the Peckhams.

Wheeler racked up several positions and field experiences over the next years. He became Professor of Economic Entomology at the Bussey Institution and spent 30 years with Harvard University.

Wheeler wrote comprehensive texts including Ants; their structure, development and behaviour, Social Life Among the Insects, Social Insects; their origin and evolution, and The Insect Societies. One of the insect societies that intrigued Wheeler is the arboreal Acacia ant species.

He wrote booklets and hundreds of papers and essays. An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, Wheeler was also a member of many academies and societies, serving in their executives. Honours he received include the Daniel Giraud Elliot from the National Academy of Sciences and the Joseph Leidy Medal from the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.


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