While living in Rock Island, Benjamin Dann Walsh published more than 800 notes and scientific papers on insects. Recognized as America’s first important entomologist, he was also America’s first strong advocate for Charles Darwin’s theories on the origin of species and natural selection.
His early life, interestingly, seems completely disconnected to his years in Rock Island. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge, intending to be an Anglican minister. A scholar of ancient-Greek language and literature at Trinity, he taught philosophy and classical literature before growing disillusioned with university’s practices and policies that advantaged the wealthy and high-born.
In 1838, when he was 30, Walsh moved with his wife to America’s western wilderness: Henry County, Illinois. As he wrote in one of many correspondences with Charles Darwin, “I was possessed with an absurd notion that I would live a perfectly natural life, independent of the whole world. So I bought several hundred acres of wild land in the wilderness, twenty miles from any settlement that you would call even a village, and with only a single neighbor. There I gradually opened a farm, working myself like a horse.”
When a dam built near his farm brought the threat of malaria, he moved to Rock Island. Here, he established a lumber business, built a row of houses, and then turned his attention to the study of insects. In this time, he would be seen around town with staff, net and wearing a cap on which he pinned his specimens. Attorney E. H. Guyer wrote that Walsh’s “daily activities in collecting insects and butterflies, of which he made a vast and famous collection, made him known to all the then inhabitants of the city. Every boy, as I then was, delighted in assisting him.”
His collection of carefully classified and mounted insects would grow to more than 30,000 specimens and 10,000 species: the largest private collection in America. But he was more than a simple collector. Walsh wrote practically about pests that destroyed crops, as well as academic papers. In 1865, he became the editor of the Practical Entomologist, the first journal devoted to economic entomology. In 1868, with Charles Valentine Riley, he started another publication, the American Entomologist.
Shortly after his appointment as the first State Entomologist of Illinois, he suffered a tragic – and fatal – accident.
From the Rock Island Argus: “On the morning of Friday, he walked up the Rock Island railroad reading a letter. Above the roundhouse Mr. Walsh was run down by a Chicago bound train and his left foot was crushed. In attempting to throw himself from before the engine he fell heavily on his right side and received internal injuries from the effects of which he died.
“Even in his affliction he made jest of his injury, saying, 'Why, don't you see what an advantage a cork leg would be to me? When I am hunting bugs I can make an excellent pincushion of it, and if I lose a cork from my bottle, I can carve one out of my foot;' On the day of his amputation he wrote to the local press exonerating the railroad company and the engine crew from all blame.
“On being told that he could not recover, he replied calmly and mildly, and with no signs of bravado, that he had not lived 61 years for nothing. 'I am as well prepared to die now as I ever will be. I fear neither death, nor man.'”
Walsh was buried in Chippiannock Cemetery (lot 1141) on November 20, 1869, two days after his death. His tombstone has the following words, “Benjamin D. Walsh State Entomologist of Illinois Died November 18, 1869, Aged 61 yrs. 2 mos. 6 Days. Science mourns one of her most Devoted and Successful Students.”
Bruce Walters is a Professor Emeritus in Art conferred by Western Illinois University.
This is part of an occasional series on famous (or infamous) people buried in cemeteries in the Quad Cities, and their history that is not so well-known today. If there’s a piece of history buried here that you’d like to learn more about, e-mail the location and a brief description to BD-Walters@wiu.edu.