Donisthorpe, Horace St. John Kelly (1870-1951)

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BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Horace St. John Kelly Donisthorpe (March 17, 1870 – April 22, 1951) was an eccentric British myrmecologist and coleopterist, memorable in part for his enthusiastic championing of the renaming of the genus Lasius after him as Donisthorpea, and for his many claims of discovering new species of beetles and ants. He is often considered to be the greatest figure in British myrmecology.

Educated at Mill Hill House, Leicester and Oakham School, Donisthorpe went to Heidelberg University to read medicine. However, his "too sensitive nature" forced him to give up this career. Being possessed of a private income, from about 1890 he devoted his life to the study of beetles and ants.

Probably the best known of his collecting grounds were the ancient forests of Windsor Great Park in Berkshire where he had permission to collect extensively and where so many of his important discoveries were made.

Donisthorpe was controversial in part because he was often considered overeager in his attempts to identify new species of ants and beetles. In fact, of the 30 new species he identified, 24 were subsequently deemed to be insufficiently distinct to be considered separate species or to be synonymous with previous valid species. It is, however, accepted that he did indeed identify new species:

Educated at Mill Hill House, Leicester and Oakham Grammar School, Donisthorpe went to Heidelberg University to read medicine. However, his "too sensitive nature" forced him to give up this career. Being possessed of a private income, from about 1890 he devoted his life to the study of beetles and ants. Probably the best known of his collecting grounds were the ancient forests of Windsor Great Park in Berkshire where he had permission to collect extensively and where .

Information about Donisthorpe is surprisingly thin considering that he lived to the age of 80 and for much of his life was one of our foremost Coleopterists. One might have thought that the strength of character hinted at by contemporaries; his 'kinks', about which I have heard and seen various references; and the controversy which surrounded some of his new species, would have ensured a fuller record, but this is not the case. (But see below).

He was educated at Mill Hill House, Leicester and Oackham Grammar School before going to Heidelberg University to study medicine. His 'too sensitive nature' forced him to give up this career however, and, being possessed of a private income, from about 1890 he devoted his life to the study of beetles and ants. Frank Bouskell, who described Donisthorpe as 'his oldest friend' wrote in ERJV, 63, 1951, p.228: 'He did his early collecting with me at Bradgate Park, Bardon Hill and Budon Wood where he was first interested in ants and their hosts. About this time I first introduced him to Mr F. Bates, brother of Bates of the Amazons, who later gave him his almost complete collection of Coleoptera. [On this statement see Bates, F.]. Later on we went to Wicken Fen, the New Forest, Isle of Wight, etc... I should [also] mention our joint trip to South Kerry'. Probably the best known of his collecting grounds was Windsor where he had permission to collect extensively and where so many of his important discoveries were made.

Donisthorpe published some 800 books and articles from 1890 when his first note, on Creophilus maxillosus v. ciliaris Steph. appeared in the EMM The majority were on beetles and ants. His first article on myrmecophilous Coleoptera specifically appeared in 1896. The most important of his publications are: Catalogue of British Coleoptera, 1904, compiled with T. Hudson Beare; 'The Coleoptera of the Isle of Wight' in Leics. Lit. Phil. Soc., 10, 1906, pp.3-23; the supplementary sixth volume which he compiled with W. W. Fowler to the latter's Coleoptera of the British Isles, 1913; chapter on entomology in Grant Duff, Life and Work of Lord Avebury, 1924; British Ants their Life-History and Classification, 1915, second edition 1927; Guests of British Ants, 1927; An Annotated List of the Additions to the British Coleopterous Fauna, 1931; and A Preliminary List of the Coleoptera of Windsor Forest, 1939, dedicated to the memory of Florence Jane Kirk, for long his constant companion on collecting trips.

Donisthorpe showed no reluctance to determine specimens both as new to Britain and new to science. Some of his contemporaries considered that he was overly enthusiastic in this respect. K.G. Blair in his obituary in EMM, 87, 1951, p.215, wrote: 'While there is no doubt that 'Donnie' as he was known to his friends, had an unusually keen eye for a new species, about 30 having been described by him on the British list, not to mention numerous new varieties of already known species and known continental species first discovered in Britain by him, his zeal sometimes led him into indiscretion and some few of his new species will have to be abandoned as insufficiently distinct...' Blair's concern has been borne out by modern research so that today only two of Donisthorpe's new species remain in our list: Ilyobates bennetti, 1914, and Leptacinus intermedius, 1936. The suppression of most of Donisthorpe's species is unfortunate if for no other reason than that many of them commemorated other well known coleopterists.

One of Donisthorpe's foibles was that he would not permit specimens collected by others in his collection. R.W. Lloyd wrote to the EMM, 87, 1951, p.215 about this as follows: 'Mr Donisthorpe was a very fine Coleopterist, but he had that curious 'kink' shared by one or two other people, that he would only put in his collection beetles he had taken with his own hands. Luckily for him he was a man of leisure and he was able to go about the country when he heard of any rare beetles being taken. It led, however, to some curious results, as on a celebrated occasion when a collector in the New Forest got a very rare beetle - Velleius I believe it was - and advised Mr Donisthorpe, who telegraphed him to put a tumbler over it on the ground and keep it there until he was able to go and collect it himself.'

Donisthorpe's work on ants, which led to his becoming an unofficial member of staff of the NHM where he studied foreign species in particular, involved him in setting up elaborate breeding cages. In these he was not only able to study the relationship of ants and beetles, which led to many important discoveries, but the cages were also used by Chapman and Frohawk to work out the life cycle of the large blue butterfly Maculinea arion L.

Donisthorpe made more than one hundred gifts of insects to the NHM between 1889, when he presented 400 beetles collected in Germany, and his death. Several of these gifts were of material collected by other coleopterists and several included larvae, etc.. His main British collection of Coleoptera amounting to 22,084 specimens was presented in 1934 (1934.4). It was originally preserved in a 40-drawer cabinet but has now been amalgamated into the general collection. The collection included more than 100 types. This gift also included a spirit collection of larvae, etc., microscope preparations, books, and 63 volumes of separates.

Donisthorpe also made numerous gifts to the HDO between 1899 and 1924, and in 1927 a Windsor collection to which he continued to add specimens until 1943. In connection with this collection K.G. Blair noted: 'after the completion of his own series of six the next specimen was always reserved for the Hope Department'. This collection is maintained separately. The Hope Department also houses Donisthorpe's MS Windsor notes in 4 volumes; annotated copies of his and Beare's 1904 Catalogue, and Beare's A Catalogue of the Recorded Coleoptera of the British Isles, 1930; an interleaved copy of his Windsor Preliminary List, 1939; and a copy of the photograph in the front of the same publication in a carved oak frame. Smith (1986, p.115) also records that Donisthorpe sold his collection of ants and associated insects to the HDO in 1927 for

I have also seen beetles collected by Donisthorpe at Manchester in the general collection, in the Kauffmnn collection of Cerambycidae and in Colin Johnson's collection of weevils, and in the RSM in the May collection. The Manchester Museum also has some manuscript and other material relating to Donisthorpe including a small notebook of 87 pages with an index of species and lists of localities, the first page being stamped 'Bibliotheca H. Donisthorpe', and a volume listing the people to whom he sent reprints after 1932.

The main collection of Donisthorpe's manuscript material is in the NHM and includes: five volumes titled Journal of British Coleoptera captured by H. Donisthorpe, being A list of the British Coleoptera taken by me and in my collection with dates, localities and notes on how captured, arranged in the form of a journal, 1879-1883, 1902-1914, 1915-1930, 1930-1938, 1938-1940; a notebook listing the Coleoptera and Hymenoptera duplicates including the names of people to whom specimens were given; a notebook listing the Coleoptera of Cambridgeshire; an annotated copy of Catalogue of British Coleoptera, 1904; and a correspondence collection of 200 items covering the period from 1900-1948 which includes letters from A.A. Allen, T.H. Beare and J.H. Keys; for a full list see Harvey et al. (1996, pp. 61-62).

Donisthorpe was a member of the editorial panel of the ERJV from 1897; FRES from 1891 (Vice President 1911, Council on three occasions, Special Life Fellow); a Corresponding Member of the Dutch Entomological Society from 1931; and a member of the Entomological Club of which he became senior member and Secretary.

Apart from the notices mentioned above Gilbert (1977: 95) lists: Ent. Ber., Amst., 13, 1951, p. 317 (by P. Van de Wiel); Proc. RESL, C, 16, 1952, p.84 (by N.D. Riley) and J. Soc. Brit. Ent., 4, 1951, pp. 23-24 (by R.B. Benson). A photograph of Donisthorpe with Florence Kirk and members of the Crown Estate Office at Windsor, taken from the original at Oxford, is included in his Windsor list. (MD 6/02)

Since writing the above I have received extensive information about the Donisthorpe family from Andrew Belsey. Horace was the second son of George Ernest Donisthorpe and his wife Rebecca Sabina n


TAXONOMIC PUBLICATIONS

  • Donisthorpe, H. 1908a. Additions to the wild fauna and flora of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: VII. I. Fauna. Hymenoptera. Formicidae (Ants). Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1908:121-122.
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1908b. Ants found in Great Britain. Transactions of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society 12:221-233. [1908-07] 124196
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1909a. Additions to the wild fauna and flora of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: IX. Fauna. Hymenoptera. Formicidae (Ants). Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1909:250-251. [1909-09] 124197
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1909b. Formica sanguinea, Latr. at Bewdley, with an account of a slave-raid, and description of two gynandromorphs. Zoologist 1909:463-466. [1909-12] 124198
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1911a. Lasius mixtus, Nyl., in Britain. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation 23:236-238. [1911-09] 124199
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1911b. Additions to the wild fauna and flora of the Royal Botanic Gardens: XII. Hymenoptera. Formicidae (Ants). Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1911:367-369. [1911-12-02] 124200
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1911c. A revised list of the British ants. Entomologist 44:389-391. [1911-12] 124201
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1912a. Myrmecophilous notes for 1911. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation 24:4-10. [1912-01-15] 124202
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1912b. Some races of ants new to Britain. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation 24:306. [1912-12-15] 124203
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1913a. Some notes on the genus Myrmica. [part]. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation 25:1-8. [1913-01-15] 124204
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1913b. Some notes on the genus Myrmica, Latr. [concl.]. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation 25:42-48. [1913-02-15] 124205
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1913c. Myrmecophilous notes for 1912. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation 25:61-68. [1913-03-15] 124206
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1913d. Ants and myrmecophiles on Lundy. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation 25:267-269. [1913-11-15] 124207
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1913e. On some remarkable associations between ants of different species. Annual Report and Proceedings of the Lancashire and Cheshire Entomological Society 36:38-56. [1913] 124208
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1915a. Genital armature of the male ant. Transactions of the Entomological Society of London 1915:l-liii. [1915-08-05] 124211
  • Donisthorpe, H. 1915b. Marriage-flights of Donisthorpea species on August 8th, etc. Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation 27:206-207. [1915-09-15] 124212

REFERENCE

P. Gilbert. 2005. The Entomological Club and Verrall Supper. A History (1826-2004), 81pp. London. p. 37-38, portrait.

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