University Mourns Passing of Charles D. Michener

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Charles MichenerThe University of Kansas mourns the passing of Distinguished Professor & Senior Curator Emeritus Charles D. Michener, aged 97.  Mich passed peacefully at home in Lawrence early on 1 November 2015, surrounded by his family.  Mich was born 22 September 1918 in Pasadena, California and into a family of avid naturalists.  Both of Mich's parents were active birders and members of the Western Bird Banding Association, and encouraged his passion for natural history.  By the age of 10 he had already made detailed notes on the regional flora, and began to shift his remarkable talents to the insects, particularly the bees.  At the age of 14 he wrote to the prominent bee systematist of the day, Theodore Cockerell (himself a former assistant of Alfred Russell Wallace) for advice in identifying species, and later spent a summer at Cockerell's home learning much about bees.  Mich published his first scientific paper at the age of 16, and at least partly based on data he had collected as early as age 12.  

Mich went to the University of California, Berkeley for his B.S. (1939) and Ph.D. (1941), the latter of which culminated in the monograph, "Comparative External Morphology, Phylogeny, and a Classification of the Bees", a work that garnered the A. Cressy Morrison Prize in Natural Sciences in 1942 and established him as the leading authority on bees.  In this work he provided a rigorous phylogenetic framework for understanding the evolution of bees, and a comprehensive classification of the world's fauna as it was then known.  It rightly ushered in the 'Michener Era' of bee study, and has remained strong ever since.  In 1942 Mich became curator at the American Museum of Natural History, assigned to the collection of butterflies and moths, and through this appointment became a resource to a young Paul Ehrlich and Vladimir Nabokov, among others.  During this period he also served in the U.S. Army's Sanitary Corps, working on mosquitoes and chiggers, before returning to his position at the AMNH.  His work on the Lepidoptera culminated in his 1952 monograph on the Saturniidae (a group that includes the famous 'Luna Moth'), which remains to this day the classic and definitive treatment of the family.

In 1948 Mich relocated to the University of Kansas, and remained there.  The move to Kansas afforded him the opportunity to return to his primary interest in bees.  At KU he was able to expand his work into bee biology and behavior, allowing him to more fully explore aspects of pollination biology and the influences on the evolution of their intricate social systems.  This work resulted in expansive treatments of leafcutter bees, and made possible the future development of the 'Alfalfa Leafcutter Bee' as a more efficient managed pollinator of such crops.  He explored the development of insect communication and social systems, developing theories for their evolution and a revised classification of arthropod social groups.  It was this body of work that would later be expanded upon by E.O. Wilson and others during the rise of the field of 'Sociobiology', and for which Mich's 1974 classic, "The Social Behavior of the Bees" remains a primary reference.  Simultaneously, Mich was working on the new quantitative methods in classification, with his colleagues Robert Sokal and Peter Sneath.  The earliest applications of their newly founded, 'Numerical Taxonomy' (or 'phenetics') were on the classification and evolution of osmiine bees, of with Mich was deeply involved at the time.  In April 1965 Mich became the first Kansan elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and this was followed by many other honors, too numerous to enumerate.  Mich received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 which allowed him and his entire family to spend a year in Brazil working on the South American bee fauna, and a second Guggenheim supported the family for 14 months exploring bees in Africa in 1966 (exploring and collecting their way from South Africa to Uganda!).  A 1957 Fulbright Research Award took the family to Australia for a year, where Mich launched a generation of new bee biologists and later produced a massive monograph of the Australian and South Pacific bee fauna. 

Mich retired in 1989, but remained as active as ever and in 2000 published his magnum opus, "The Bees of the World".  At nearly 1000 pages it covered over 16,000 species and is, quite simply, the single greatest work produced on the subject.  That is until he revised it for an even more grand second edition in 2007.  After the second edition, Mich continued to write papers on bees, work on the bee research collection, correspond and consult with researchers worldwide, host visitors to the bee collection, advise students and colleagues at KU, identify species for pollination and conservation biologists, and bless everyone with his warm generosity.  He continued to visit the KU Biodiversity Institute's entomological collections as recently as mid-October. 

Aside from his numerous academic achievements, Mich was most importantly a genuinely wonderful human being.  Soft-spoken and mild in demeanor, he was generous with his time and expertise, and was always unassuming.  While many who achieve his level of fame become distant or self-absorbed, he was instead the consummate gentleman and had an open door through which one could walk in at any time and say, "Hi Mich, can I ask you a question?"  To which he would always set aside what he was doing, turn with a warm smile, fold his hands characteristically, and listen and converse for as long as one would like, and on any subject.  He treated everyone with the same level of affectionate dignity.  His kind manner was a constant in a world of persistent change, and is missed. 

Everyone at KU mourns his loss, and offer to his family their most heartfelt condolences. 

KU Endowment maintains the “Charles D. Michener Bee Collection Fund (Acct. 32534)”, which supports the continued maintenance, growth, and development of the finest collection of the world’s bee fauna – the result of Mich’s lengthy tenure with KU and his life-long exploration into the diversity and biology of bees. 

A family obituary appeared in the 4 November, Lawrence Journal World.


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