Harvard’s E.O. Wilson on career passion

In an excerpt from his new book, a celebrated Harvard biologist offers advice for a happy career.

Wilson searching for insects, the same way he did as a boy.
Wilson searching for insects, the same way he did as a boy. Alex Harris

Reprinted from Letters to a Young Scientist, by Edward O. Wilson. Copyright © 2013 by Edward O. Wilson, with permission of Liveright Publishing Corp., a division of W.W. Norton & Co.

BACK IN 1938 WHEN I WAS 9 YEARS OLD, my family moved from the Deep South to Washington, D.C. I was an only child, but not especially lonely. Any kid that age can find a buddy or fit into some small neighborhood group, maybe at the risk of a fistfight with the alpha boy. Nevertheless, I was alone that first summer and was left to my own devices. No stifling piano lessons, no boring visits to relatives, no summer school, no guided tours, no boys’ clubs, nothing. It was wonderful!


I was enchanted at this time by Frank Buck movies I’d seen about his expeditions to distant jungles to capture wild animals. I also read National Geographic articles that told about the world of insects — big metallic-colored beetles and garish butterflies. I found an especially absorbing piece in a 1934 issue titled “Stalking Ants, Savage and Civilized,” which led me to search for these insects — searches that were always successful due to the overwhelming abundance of ants everywhere I looked.

There were postage stamps to collect and comic books, of course, but also butterflies and ants. For a while, anyway, they served as my lions and tigers, not exactly big game snared in nets by a hundred native assistants, but nevertheless the real thing. Thus fired up, I put some bottles in a cloth bag and walked over to the woods of Rock Creek Park on my first expedition. I remember vividly the animals I brought home that day. They included a wolf spider and the red and green nymph of a long-horned grasshopper.

Subsequently I decided to add butterflies as my quarry. My stepmother made me a butterfly net. (I put together a lot of them in the years to follow. In case you would like to do the same, bend a wire coat hanger into a loop, straighten the hook, heat the hook until it can burn wood, then push it into the end of a sawed-off broomstick. Finally, sew a net of cheesecloth or mosquito netting around the hoop.)


My future was set. My best friend Ellis MacLeod, who years later was to be a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois, and I agreed we were going to be entomologists when we grew up. We delved into college-level textbooks, which we could scarcely read, although we tried very hard. One that we checked out from a library and worked on page by page was Robert E. Snodgrass’s formidable Principles of Insect Morphology. We visited the insect collections on display at the awesome National Museum of Natural History, aware that professional entomologists were curators there. I never saw one of these demigods (one was Snodgrass himself), but just knowing they were there as part of the United States government gave me hope that one day I might ascend to this unimaginably high level.

Returning in 1940 with my family to Mobile, Alabama, I plunged into the rich new fauna of butterflies. To the red admirals, painted ladies, great spangled fritillaries, and mourning cloaks characteristic of the more northern climes, I added snout butterflies, Gulf fritillaries, Brazilian skippers, great purple hairstreaks, and several magnificent swallowtails — giant, zebra, and spicebush.


Then I turned to ants, monomaniacally determined to find every kind living in the weed-grown vacant lot next to our large family house on Charleston Street. I didn’t know the scientific names of the species, but I do now: the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile); large black ants with snapping jaws and vicious stings (Odontomachus brunneus); a huge mound-dwelling colony of the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta); and a colony of a tiny yellow species (Pheidole floridana) nesting beneath an old whiskey bottle.

I’ve gone into this boyhood story to make a point that may be relevant to your own career trajectory. I have never changed. Not even to this day, as I pass through my 80s. Encountering creatures in unexplored lands is the magic I still conjure in my dreams. The inner feelings remain the same. I did not let them be smothered by the trivial necessities of life, and I hope that, whatever path you choose, neither will you.

E.O. Wilson lives in Lexington. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.