A tribute to William Doherty

by Peter Andrews


A brief tribute to William Doherty, an early insect collector.

Surprisingly no one has yet written a biography of William Doherty ( 1857-1901). This article is only a brief tribute to the great collector, touching on a few phases of his adventurous but short life. The last historical researcher to give an account of Doherty was his fellow American William Leach in his excellent history of his countries 19th century lepidopterists ' The Butterfly People ' (2013). Leach was able to access the letters that Doherty had sent to his parents and those that survived the 'great bonfire' of the Tring Museum (during World War Two much of the museums archives were burnt by a certain Major Fellows) and are held in the library of the BMNH. Doherty seems to have been very camera shy. In the archives of the BMNH among Doherty's correspondence, there is a small collection of his British East African photographs ; two of which show Doherty in the field and are reproduced in Leech's book. If anyone here knows of any other images of Doherty please let me know. Miriam Rothschild included a brief chapter on Doherty in her fascinating book ' Dear Lord Rothschild '. Miriam was able to access some of Doherty's diaries that he kept for his sister. Miriam Rothschild wrote " Doherty was an indefatigable collector - for instance on his fourth trip to Perak (Malaya) he took 30,000 beetles and those were the days before ultraviolet light ". Doherty was not exclusively a Rothschild collector, although Walter got most of his new birds, Doherty collected for many of the worlds great private collectors.

William Doherty really wanted to become a scientist studying entomology but he became a professional collector out of necessity. His fortunes had changed when his father, who had thus so far subsidized his wanderings through Europe and Asia, lost his directors job with the railroad. This decision by Doherty to become a professional collector would eventually cost him his life. Leech ( 2013) writes " The decision was extraordinary considering that, only a year or two earlier, he had insisted that he would never " throw away my gift " declaring that " selling my butterflies would be like selling my own toes ". Doherty said later he saw " dollar bills waving their green wings".

Some here may have seen an article elsewhere that I have written on Doherty's mysterious butterfly that he encountered, but was unable to catch in Northern India at the Sarju River gorge at Kapkot in the Kumaon during 1885. In the ' Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal ' for 1886, Doherty wrote that he spent half a day trying to capture a magnificent Morphid species but he could not catch them because of the precipitous nature of the ravine; " They had true Morphid flight, and always settled on the underside of the leaves with wings folded ". In pers comm, the Indian butterfly authory Peter Smetacek has mentioned that no Amathusinae are known west of Kathmandu. Doherty seems to have collected many of the butterflies in this region and those of Nepal, so it seems unlikely that he was mistaken. Although there has been habitat change in that region there would not have been in the gorge. Peter has mentioned that he lives some 200 km from the locality, which is difficult to access during the rainy season but is going to investigate the gorge at Kapkot during 2015. Hopefully he will find Doherty's missing magnificent butterfly and I wish him every success.

On his travels through the Malay Archipelago Doherty visited islands where no entomologist had yet managed to explore and collect. In the ' Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal ' for 1891 we have Doherty's excellent account of his visit to two of those islands' - The butterflies of Sambawa and Sumba. What I especially like about the few papers that Doherty produced are not only the accounts and descriptions of the new species and races of lepidoptera peculiar to those islands, he also gives us further information on the Geology, habitat, fauna and peoples that he encountered during his expeditions .Doherty's papers in the Asiatic Society of Bengal are far from the rather usual dry 19th century scientific accounts given by some museum entomologists that are important to a few specialists but are usually quickly passed over by the majority. Doherty's papers are not just important scientifically, they are in themselves, a valuable resource as historical documents. As Doherty had a flair for writing, it is a very great pity that he did not write an account of his travels. His friend Ernst Hartert wrote that if he Doherty had written such a book, it would have surpassed Wallace's classic ' the Malay Archipelago' What a exciting read that would have been.

In 1887, Doherty landed on the north coast of the island of Sumba in the Lesser Sunda Islands in present day Indonesia. For forty miles inland from the Sumba coast Doherty found the land resembled a desert, it consisted of coral rocks covered in thorns. He was told by the natives there was a lush tropical rainforest in the mountains of the interior. He mentions that after a few days the sharp rocks destroyed his boots, one wonders how many pairs Doherty had and once they were gone what he resorted to wearing. The natives he met were openly hostile towards his party. Reaching the mountains there was indeed montane rainforest where he captured many interesting new species. On nearby Sambawa he visited the more luxuriant rainforest in the eastern part of the island, however during his stay there it rained most of the time. Today sadly, on both islands, only small isolated patches of forest remain.

When Doherty was capturing his new butterflies in the Islands of Sumba and Sambawa and later describing them in 1891, it is important to realize that it was not until several years later that Rothschild and Jordan pioneered the use of trinomial nomenclature between 1895- 1896. This new idea especially in Britain was not at first accepted by most taxonomic entomologists and ornithologists. Some of those butterflies Doherty described from the Lesser Sunda Islands in his 1891 paper are now recognised as subspecies rather than full species.

As far as butterflies are concerned, Doherty seems to have had a wonderful time in the Lesser Sunda Islands, finding many new species, he was then at the height of his collecting powers. Some of his new butterflies were named after his well known American clients. The endemic Papilio neumoegeni Honrath ( 1890) which had been previously named by Doherty P. maremba in 1890 was named after Berthold Neumoegen ( 1845-1895). The then wealthy Neumoegen, a stock broker, received all of Doherty's Sambawa butterflies. Neumoegen once a man of wealth died penniless . It took five years for Neumoegen's widow to sell his butterflies. They passed through the hands of the Booklyn Museum, then a private collector, William Schaus bought the collection presumably with Doherty's Sambawa butterflies for the Smithsonian Museum where they remain today. Limenitis (Parasarpa) hollandi was named for William Holland (1848-1932), another famous American lepidopterist. Doherty's Sumba butterflies fared less well, he had them in his possession for four years, many decayed, the survivors were sold to the great French collector Charles Oberthur.

1892 was a momentous year for Doherty. At the start of the year he was collecting in the Moluccus ( Maluka) on the Island of Buru, he then went on to Bachan where he was the first since Wallace to capture the beautiful Ornithoptera croesus. Doherty mailed the O. croesus he had captured in tins to Charles Oberthur and the London dealer Edward Janson. More new insects were found on Obi Island. During his exploration of Talaut Island he found his own new birdwing, one of his finest butterfly discoveries, Troides dohertyi. Doherty ever the industrious collector then voyaged to Timor and the Tanimbar Islands before going on to Ambon and Barbar Island. Returning to the Moluccas he visited Halmahera.

Later in 1892 and during 1893 fresh from his success in the Moluccas, Doherty began his first exploration of New Guinea. At Lake Sentani on the north coast of the then Dutch New Guinea he had to make a hasty retreat to the coast pursued by hostile natives. On arriving at Jobi (Yapen) at the village of Ansus his boat was attacked by the natives, but he was able to make a short lived peace. The next day collecting in the forest his faithful friend and lead collector Pambu was ambushed and killed by the natives . Doherty collecting alone at another place in the forest was unharmed. It rained all the time and Doherty nearly died when he caught beri beri. Doherty called New Guinea ' Hell on Earth' but returned to collect on the island several years later in 1896. In this article, I have only mentioned a few of the Islands where Doherty made important collections. There were many other adventures on many other Islands and numerous other lepidoptera discoveries. In his later years, Doherty weaken by illness became gloomy and fatalistic. Miriam Rothschild wrote of Doherty and his fellow collectors.

" Most of Walter's collectors of the Doherty type- if they survived the occupational health hazards of their trade -seemed to lose much of their joie de vivre as time went on. Bouts of fever and other tropical diseases undermined the constitution, and sense of well Being"

Doherty friend Ernst Hartert tried to disuade him on account of a recent attack of malaria from his next East African expedition in 1900. Doherty repiled " that he simply must go ". While collecting in East Africa Doherty contracted dysentery and in May 1901 he died at Nairobi , he was only forty-four years old. The year Doherty died Ernst Hartert published an obituary in the 1901 volume of the Tring's Museum journal, Novitates Zoologicae . In the same volume Jordan and Rothschild described some of the last insects Doherty caught in British East Africa (Kenya and Uganda). In present day Kenya, Doherty had found a colourful new Goliath beetle, Stephanocrates dohertyi, two males of the new Papilio nandina (now known through recent DNA studies to be a natural hybrid between P. dardanus and P. phorcas) and a new Charaxes, also named nandina. These further new discoveries are a testament to his dedication and skill as a field collector.

When the news reached Walter Rothschild he was appalled by Doherty's death, he wrote " that a man who had braved the Moluccas and New Guinea for twenty years could die within a few months arrival in East Africa ". Walter called Doherty " unquestionally the best field collector for the last fifty years". Considering Walter Rothschild was known to praise men rarely, this was a very fine tribute to the last of the great 19th field collectors.

Troides dohertyi, from Robert Rippons Icones Ornithopterorum Volume two (1898-1907). Rippon described this birdwing in Doherty's honour, originally as Ornithoptera ( Priamoptera) dohertyi (1893). Some regard this species as a subspecies of T. rhadamantes.

Plate two from Charles Oberthur's Etudes d' entomological (1894) Fig 2 is Delias dohertyi -Oberthur 1894 collected by Doherty on his ill fated Jobi ( Yapen) visit during 1892. The Satyrids Fig 3 & 3a Drusilliopsis dohertyi female -Oberthur 1894 and Fig 4 & 4a Hamadryopsis drusillodes male are infact the same sexually dimorphic species that is now known as Mycalesis drusillodes. Both were collected by Doherty at Wandesi (Wariap) in Geelvink Bay, New Guinea in 1892. Both sexes of M. drusillodes are mimics of two different species of New Guinea butterflies. The female mimics Taenaris species (Nymphalidae) and the male mimics Tellervo zoilus ( Danaidae). An interesting mimic association.


by Peter Andrews

January 2015

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