The Knull Legacy

For the past several weeks, Zach Griebenow (undergraduate student assistant, blogger, majoring in Entomology), and I, with some help from Abbie Zimmer (volunteer, majoring in Art) and Dr. Natalia Molotievskiy, have been reorganizing the beetle holdings of the Triplehorn collection to reflect the changes in the classification of the Coleoptera at the superfamily and family levels (per Bouchard et al., 2011).  This is a laborious process that involves moving (almost) all of the 1,629 (heavy!) wooden drawers containing beetles. On any given day we may move 100-200 drawers in a couple of hours. We are now more than two-thirds of the way done and hope to finish ‘the big switcheroo’ in 2-3 weeks. This re-organization is a big step, and it will greatly facilitate the next phase of the re-curation and digitization of the beetles in the collection.

As we worked, moving drawers in and out of tall metal cabinets, I had a chance to look at the contents of the collection again, not with the critical eye of the professional whose job is to upgrade the curatorial status of it, but with the eye of the student who was seeing it for the first time. This rekindled my appreciation for Joe Knull’s work and his dedication to the collection.

Josef N. Knull

Josef N. Knull

For those unfamiliar with the Triplehorn Insect Collection’s history, Josef Nissley Knull (1891-1975) was hired in 1934 as the full-time curator of insects, and that marks the initiation of a formal entomological collection at Ohio State.

Joe Knull was notoriously meticulous in his care for the collection. He was held up by most entomologists across the country as the extreme example of tidiness and organization. We still have many drawers of beetles that were arranged by him: long series of accurately determined, properly mounted, neatly positioned, and perfectly preserved specimens. There are many stories about Joe’s strict rules in the collection: no smoking, no whistling, no careless people, absolutely no breaking specimens. He allegedly kept a list of all the people who broke specimens. Unfortunately, we have no hard evidence that this list existed, but those who knew him say it would be very much like Joe to do that.

For 28 ½ years Professor Knull devoted his career to the expansion and arrangement of the collection. Each summer of all those years, and those afterward during his retirement, was spent in the field with his wife and fellow entomologist, Dr. Dorothy Johnson Knull. Both were outstanding collectors, and the results of their efforts are reflected in the volume and diversity of material they added to the collection.

Joe was interested in all insects, but he was dedicated to the study of beetles. He published more than 190 papers between 1918 and 1975, particularly on the families Buprestidae, Cerambycidae, Elateridae and Cleridae (Davidson & Bellamy, 2002). The many years of field work with emphasis on beetles, particularly in the Midwestern and  Southwestern states, resulted in a truly outstanding collection of North American Coleoptera.

Professor Josef Knull retired from OSU in January of 1962, but continued collecting and contributing to the OSU collection until the early 1970’s. He died, here in Columbus, on April 24, 1975 at the age of 83. His legacy lives on in every publication generated by the use of the specimens he so carefully collected and preserved, in every visit the collection receives by scientists from the US and abroad, in every specimen image we make available online, in every database query of the 148,154 beetle specimens we have already digitized.

We started re-curating the beetles in 2011. To date, the Carabidae, all 41,466 of them, have been moved to archival quality trays and entirely digitized. Our student assistants are now deep into the digitization of the Tenebrionidae, a whopping 65,150 specimens.  Our volunteers are helping with collection organization. As we continue on with the task of re-curating and digitizing this vast beetle collection (estimated at around 1 million specimens), we keenly feel the responsibility of living up to Joe’s high standards of collection care. I hope he would approve of our work.

Check out the collection’s Facebook page for more photos of Joe Knull and other personalities in our history.

If you are interested in learning more about our work, or would like to volunteer to help us tackle this enormous project, please get in touch.



☘ Davidson, J. M. & C. L. Bellamy. 2002. The Entomological Contributions of Josef Nissley Knull (1891 – 1975). Zootaxa 37: 1-24.

☘ Bouchard et al. 2011. Family-Group Names In Coleoptera (Insecta). ZooKeys 88: 1-972.

☘ An earlier version of this article appeared in the MBDNewsletter Spring Semester 2013, page 4.  Johnson & Musetti. The Knull Legacy – Joe Knull.

For more about Zach Griebenow, read his interview to Paige Brown Jarreau at From the Lab Bench blog.


About the Authors: Dr. Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection; Dr. Norman Johnson is Professor of Entomology and Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

Impressions of working in the Herbarium

I have been working at The Ohio State University Herbarium in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology (EEOB) since May 2015. This particular unit is known for its vast collection of botanical specimens. A quick stroll through the herbarium paints a picture of its deep reserve of information. This stroll both begins and ends with my workplace, the herbarium preparation room, where my co-workers and I mount pressed plants as our student job.

Workplace to process plant specimens in the herbarium

Workplace to process plant specimens in the herbarium

For us, a typical work day starts by preparing all the necessary utensils or equipment. First I lay out a sheet of plexiglass as the working surface. Then I prepare a suitable ratio of Elmer’s glue (used for wood, paper, etc.) with water, and the brushes that I’ll need for the day. There’s a cabinet that includes the specimens that I and other assistants work from. One day we work with simpler, more sturdy specimens with wide leaves, like those of the Asteraceae (the daisy family) or Solanaceae (the potato family) – families of plants that I learned well while working here. Other days we work with grasses, the Poaceae, that are harder to mount as there are many thin surfaces to attach to the mounting paper. This will then be kept in a bin for up to 48 hours to dry, after which it will be taken out, sorted out, and given an accession number.  Additional work such as taping and sewing is done by volunteers. Finally the specimens are stored for posterity in the herbarium’s collection.

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What is interesting about these dry plants is that each specimen was brought to the herbarium for a particular purpose. Each specimen has its own story. Although the action of mounting the plants requires attentive handling and an affinity for aesthetics and composition, the heart of the process really lies in the plant’s journey to the OSU herbarium. Some of the plants we mount are fifty or even hundred years older than us. Others come from remote parts of the world that we had never heard of and, at times, we resort to a discussion of geography and history with the herbarium staff to satisfy our curiosity.

To think that many of these plants crossed oceans to be stored for dozens or hundreds of years is quite humbling. They are the fruits of botanists who travel the world to catalogue and annotate their findings on a piece of archival paper. The information contained in the collected specimen is crucial to the progress of research. That’s why scientists go through such lengths to collect more data.

A small perk of working with old specimens is that they often come wrapped in a newspaper from their time of collection. It’s interesting to see the age of the dried plants and to gain an appreciation of their historical context. Once, I opened a bundle wrapped in a Ugandan newspaper so old that the images were added manually before being printed, instead of being inserted digitally. I then wondered how far technology has progressed. The newspapers also tell other stories, for example the news items, prices of products, etc., 50 or even 100 years ago. So, there is another kind of history in a herbarium collection.

Quirks aside, there are some more serious undertones to the practice of mounting plants. Truthfully, I feel like it is a declining practice. With the growing emphasis on molecular biology in research facilities, the value placed on plant preservation or mounting is dwindling. Although understandable, as genetic analyses can be more lucrative, it’s a shame that plant collecting and mounting is losing attention.

There will always be demand for mounted specimens as they are reflections of botanical history. They give researchers eyes-on contact with their subject of botanical research. Familiarity with the plant of study is paramount to creating quality research. Furthermore, the practice of plant collecting underlies botanical methods laid out by the famous Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, from the start.

Plant mounting connects the botanical community. It’s a reliable way of building relationships between universities while building on the communal body of knowledge. We just have to make sure not to lose sight of its importance. Students like me who work in such facilities have also built up relationships with one another and with the staff of the unit as well as the volunteers who come once a week to help in this process of preserving biodiversity.

Plant mounting makes the botanical community grow tighter. It’s a practice that has been used for hundreds of years, and will continue to be used well into the future.

I learned a lot not only about botany but also history and geography while working in The Ohio State University Herbarium.


About the Author: Martin Stuessy is an undergraduate senior at The Ohio State University, majoring in Philosophy.