WILLIS WAGNER WIRTH

Photo of Willis Wirth

Willis was born on a farm near Dunbar, Nebraska, on October 17, 1916. He went to Peru State Teachers College in Nebraska from 1933 to 1938 and majored in biology, after which he moved on to Iowa State University to receive a BS degree in zoology and entomology in 1940. He attended Louisiana State University, earning an MS degree in entomology in 1947, and then a PhD degree from the University of California at Berkeley in systematic entomology in 1950.

Willis served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service during World War II. He worked on malaria control in Louisiana and then quarantine service in both Mississippi and Honolulu, Hawaii. In Hawaii he discovered that the oriental fruit fly and other Asian and West Pacific insects had become established. From 1947 to 1949, Willis worked as a teaching assistant in insect systematics and forest entomology at the University of California at Berkeley. During this time he spent his summers studying encephalitis virusesa and taking mosquito surveys for the California Department of Health. Willis became a research entomologist for the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., in 1949. At this time he was studying Diptera, particularly biting midges of the family Ceratopogonidae. He undertook many special assignments for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1951, he studied biting midges in Florida, and in 1953 and 1955 he went to the U.S. Livestock Insects Research Laboratory in Kerrville, Texas. In 1956, he was a Fulbright Research Scholar at the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, Australia. There he studied the biology and taxonomy of Australian biting midges. He traveled to Europe in 1957 to visit museums and study the collections of earlier taxonomists. In 1961, he worked at the New York State Museum and in 1965 worked on a Smithsonian-Archbold-Bredin biological survey of Dominica. He went to Panama in 1967 to study the breeding areas of neotropical biting midges and then returned to the Great Plains to study biting midges and brine flies two years later.

Throughout his years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Willis was awarded citations for superior performance several times. He wrote more than 400 scientific publications, mostly on topics of public health and Ephydridae, Chironomidae, Canaceidae, Dolichopodidae, and Ceratopogonidae. He retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1983. He then moved to Gainesville, Florida, but remained active as a research associate of the Florida Department of Plant Industry. He also continued to present and publish papers, help graduate students, and share his knowledge and collection.

Willis held positions in many scientific organizations. He was a life member and fellow of the Entomological Society of America, serving on the editorial board from 1960 to 1964 and as secretary of Section A in 1960. He was a member of the American Mosquito Control Association, the Entomological Society of Washington, the Pacific Coast Entomological Society, the Hawaiian Entomological Society, the Florida Entomological Society, the Kansas Entomological Society, the Association for Tropical Biology, the Biological Society of Washington, and the Society for Systematic Zoology. He was also an adjunct professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland and the University of Florida and a research associate of the Florida State Collection of Arthropods.

Willis was elected a member of the Washington Biologists’ Field Club member in 1975 and became a non-resident member in 1983 until his death on September 3, 1994, in Gainesville, Florida. Willis is remembered as a kind, generous, and friendly man.