This is an archived article.

June 18, 1997

A professor’s lost butterfly collection is replaced with young children’s gift of words, color and caring

Joel Kingsolver thought he had lost his butterflies: 10,000 carefully preserved wings, representing nearly two decades of work, all apparently destroyed in a disastrous fire at the University of Washington’s zoology department last March.

But within weeks his butterflies had “returned” — the heartfelt gift of a host of young children who had set about replacing the lost wings with colorful, imaginative and sometimes poignant butterfly pictures.

Today, the temporary quarters that house zoology professor Kingsolver and his staff are decorated with the dazzling pictures, many with thoughtful comments from young schoolchildren at Laurelhurst Elementary in Seattle, and at Lakeside Elementary and Island Park Elementary, both on Mercer Island:

From Caitlin: “I feel very sorry for you and your butterflys.”

From Chelsie: “I am so sory this trogoty happened. I hope it will make you feel better.”

From Matt: “I’m sorry your scientific things got burned down. You worked so hard on them. I feel bad for you.”

From Elsie: “I hop you get a betr lab.”

From Taisha: “I hoped that didn’t happen.”

Says Kingsolver, 44, who has been at the UW since 1986: “These wonderful pictures are much more colorful than the butterflies I usually work on. They will be the wallpaper for my new lab when it is finished.”

How did the children hear about the butterflies? For the past six months Kingsolver has taught a weekly kindergarten science class at Laurelhurst, where son Dylan, 6, is a student. And the children at Lakeside remembered Kingsolver’s visit last year to talk about his work.

On the night of March 24, fire broke out in Kingsolver’s lab on the fifth floor of the zoology department, apparently caused by a hot plate that had been left on. About $200,000 worth of equipment was destroyed, and smoke damage was so great that the entire floor is now being refurbished.

The lost equipment and supplies are slowly being replaced through grants from the National Science Foundation and the UW’s graduate school. What cannot be replaced are the fruits of Kingsolver’s nearly 20 years of work trying to understand the evolution of wing color patterns in butterflies. These were partly contained in the 10,000 butterfly wings collected on field trips from the Rockies to Patagonia, and another 5,000 wings recorded on videotapes.

For 24 hours after the fire, Kingsolver feared the worst. “I was thinking about how much I have in my retirement fund,” he says. “It was a difficult time.”

His first discovery was that his office was intact. His field and lab notebooks stretching back over 22 years, his manuscripts and analyses, his slides for teaching and research, his computer files — all were unharmed. Then, a major surprise: as Kingsolver and his students poked around the wreckage of his lab, they found intact butterfly wings, wrapped in three layers of plastic, inside burned out wooden drawers and cabinets. Carefully, Kingsolver’s assistant, Kristina Williams, and his three graduate students laid each delicate wing out to dry. Painstakingly, they have managed to save as much as 10 percent, possibly 20 percent, of the collection.

Other research did not fare as well. Graduate student Art Woods had planned to use caterpillar specimens stored in the lab freezer for a chemical analysis to be included in his doctoral thesis. The caterpillars were destroyed, but Woods will still be able to complete his thesis. Similarly, tens of thousands of seeds for a research project were lost.

But three months after the fire, Kingsolver is sanguine about the losses. “We really didn’t lose any data at all,” he says. “My students have lost remarkably little, mainly because they have all been very good about keeping their records backed up, and putting their lab notes in a safe place.”

What impresses him most about the fire is the outpouring of “thoughtfulness,” not only from his colleagues and from students, but also from strangers. “My family and I were amazed at how many people seemed to be touched by the image of delicate wings going up in smoke. We received literally hundreds of phone calls.”

One loss cannot be replaced: a bug playground with plastic insects ascending seesaws and monkey bars. It was made by Dylan, and one fateful day was left in the lab.

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Kingsolver can be reached at (206) 543-2147, or kingsolver@zoology.washington.edu

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