MCZ, Harvard history trivia. Strange markings on the floor.

A few days ago I posted some images I took while on my recent trip to the MCZ at Harvard that show an odd wear pattern in the wooden floor. I asked people to guess what caused the marks and who made them. A number of guesses, some pretty close and others hilariously absurd,  included students being thrashed by long gone Harvard professors and incidents involving cross-dressing students from some years ago.

Those marks were made by this guy:

Philip J. Darlington, Jr.

Philip J. Darlington, Jr.

Darlington, was a Harvard professor and is well-know to coleopterists, particularly carabidologists, as one of the best carabidologists ever. You can read a very short synopsis of his contributions here on page by Charles Smith or a much longer and well written Biographical Memoir at the National Academies Press. In term of his character Darlington is well known for many things, but one of the most notable was that his “collecting ability was legendary, as were his quiet toughness and determination in the field.”  One of his most amazing exploits is “an episode with a crocodile.” I include the text from the memoir that tells it best below.

The marks? Well, apparently Darlington’s desk was in that spot and for years he had a habit of sliding his foot back and forth and over time wore a groove in the floor. Perhaps it was a tick when he was in deep thought about some beetle or the biogeography of Australia, perhaps he never quite stopped kicking that crocodile (a touch of CAPT. Hook?).

“an episode with a crocodile”

“One Darlington exploit from that era became a standard of zoology lore. Alone in the jungle looking for specimens, he went out on a submerged log to sample water from the middle of a stagnant jungle pool, when a giant crocodile rose from the depths. As he edged back gingerly toward shore, he slipped into the water from the slimy log. The crocodile rushed him, mouth gaping, huge teeth bared. He tried to grasp its jaws, got one grip, then lost it.

“I can’t describe the horror of that instant,” he told reporters at the time, “but I was scared and I kept thinking: What a hell of a predicament for a naturalist to be in.”

The thirty-nine-year-old Darlington was 6-foot 2-inches and 190 pounds; the crocodile several hundred pounds and in its element. It spun him over and over, finally carrying him to the bottom.

“Those few seconds seemed hours,” he said. “I kicked, but it was like trying to kick in a sea of molasses. My legs seemed heavy as lead and it was hard to force my muscles to respond.” Whether because of a well-placed kick or some other reason, the animal suddenly opened its jaws and Darlington swam free. Despite torn arms, he made for the shore, scrambling frantically up the bank, since crocodiles sometimes pursue prey onto land. Slipping in the mud, he rolled back again into the ooze.

“It was a nightmare. That’s the first time I’ve ever hollered for help,” he said. “But there was no one to hear me.” Finally reaching the jungle, he became aware of the pain in his arms and his weakness from loss of blood. “That hike to the hospital, which I knew was nearby, was the longest I’ve ever made.” The muscles and ligaments of both arms were torn and the bones of his right arm were crushed, while the crocodile’s teeth had pierced both his hands.

With characteristic understatement, Darlington wrote to his wife of “an episode with a crocodile” but supplied no further details.”



About Kip Will

I'm an insect systematist with expertise in carabid beetles, who is always happiest in the bush.
This entry was posted in Entomology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to MCZ, Harvard history trivia. Strange markings on the floor.

  1. Jon Quist says:

    Very neat piece of history, thanks for posting.

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