WASHINGTON — Carl J. Drake spent his life studying bugs, everything from aphids to water striders. When he died in 1965, the entomologist left his life savings and his vast insect collection to the Smithsonian. But now Drake’s will has become something of a pest.
The Smithsonian Institution says that after nearly half a century, it’s having a hard time carrying out Drake’s wishes, including fulfilling the mission he gave the institution for his money: buy more bugs. So, the Smithsonian is asking a federal judge in Washington for permission to modify Drake’s will.
The Smithsonian says it’s only had to ask to modify a will once or twice in the last half century. But carrying out certain elements of Drake’s will has “become impossible, impracticable, and wasteful,” Department of Justice lawyers wrote on the Smithsonian’s behalf in asking a judge in late April to approve the modifications it wants.
Lawyers wrote that over the years the Smithsonian has used Drake’s dollars to purchase about a dozen insect collections, but now buying new bugs is tough. Lawyers wrote that’s because of changes to an environmental law made in the 1980s. Those changes increased the red tape surrounding insect collecting, such as documents needed to prove the collections were made legally.
The Smithsonian wants to use the income from Drake’s investment, which has grown from around $250,000 to about $4 million, not only to purchase insects but also to buy supplies and to support scientific research on Drake’s collection and other “True Bugs” it owns. That’s the type of insects Drake collected, a group that includes bed bugs and other bugs with mouths like hypodermic needles.
The Smithsonian also wants to be able to loan items from Drake’s collection, a no-no according to Drake’s will because in his day, insects often broke during shipping.
And the institution wants to integrate Drake’s collection into its collection as a whole. Right now, Drake’s approximately 250,000 carefully preserved specimens – that’s dead bugs to the uninitiated – are kept in separate cabinets at the National Museum of Natural History, as he asked. But the Smithsonian says that taxes “increasingly scarce collection space” and is inconvenient for researchers who use the collection on the fifth floor of the natural history museum’s east wing, a space not generally accessible to the some 8 million people who visit the museum every year.
There, rows of white metal cabinets hold wood boxes that pull out like dresser drawers, revealing glass-topped cases of insects. Some specimens are so small that several would fit on a pencil eraser. Others are closer to fist-sized. The space smells like the chemical in moth balls, which is used to keep living pests away.
Drake spent the last eight years of his life working at the Smithsonian as an honorary research associate. While he was born in Ohio in 1883 and spent many years teaching at Iowa State University, he came to the Smithsonian in 1957 and worked six and a half days a week into his 80s.
Over the years, he identified nearly 1,500 new insect species and he studied a wide range of bugs, from grasshoppers to lace bugs, a particular favorite of his. He wrote hundreds of papers, including ones on a green stink bug that attacked crops in Florida and the influence of insects on alfalfa seed production in Iowa.
When he died at the age of 82, he left a three-page will. Drake, who never married, left his nephew and nephew’s wife $15,000. His nephew’s daughter, Kay Ann, got $5,000. The rest of his money went to the Smithsonian. Lawyers for the Smithsonian wrote that “out of an abundance of caution” they tried to contact Kay Ann to tell her about the changes they’re requesting, but they haven’t heard from her and don’t think she’d be able to intervene legally anyway.
For now, the petition is in a federal judge’s hands. It’s unknown when she will rule