KU scholar unearths treasures in American Museum of Natural History’s rare books collection for sumptuous volume on earth’s most diverse animals
Michael Engel is one of the world’s foremost entomologists, yet a love for bugs hardly runs through the story of his life.
The only buggy boyhood anecdote that Engel, c’93, c’93, University Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and senior curator at KU’s Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum, readily recalls is one he doesn’t even remember, passed down from his mother, about how he used to draw roly polies, to scale, the images too tiny to be of much use except to illustrate his need for exactness.
“I was really big into drawing things,” Engel says with his easy laugh. “Only, I like things to be accurate.”
Themes that do run through the story of his remarkably productive life are passions for history, art, books and museums, so when his colleagues at New York’s American Museum of Natural History offered Engel the opportunity to sift through their closely guarded rare books collection to produce a book illustrating the beauty of their insect-related holdings, he accepted faster than roly polies curl into protective little balls.
“I’ve gone through rare book collections before, but usually it’s like, ‘I’m doing study Y and I need to see volume Y,’ and you’re given access to volume Y. So you’re telling me I don’t have to have any other excuse other than I need to look at these books and I can just go look at as many as I want? Whoa! All right! Give me the keys to the rare book room and let me loose!
“And you know what? It was great.”
The result of his year and a half of loving labor is the exceptional Innumerable Insects: The Story of the Most Diverse and Myriad Animals on Earth, the fourth in a rare-books series launched by the AMNH in 2012 with the much-heralded Natural Histories, edited by Tom Baione, the museum’s Harold Boeschenstein Director of the department of library services.
As with Natural Histories, subsequent volumes on birds and oceans tended to focus on the stories of the rare books in which illustrations were found, with narratives about scientists, artists and expeditions. The text for each volume was published in a softcover book, along with 40 reproductions of the illustrations examined in the book, all packaged by Sterling Publishing Co. in clamshell boxes.
“For this fourth volume,” Baione says from his office within the AMNH complex on Central Park West, “the publishers wanted to try something different. So we went with a hardback volume. I guess they felt the other format was exhausted.”
The project editors turned to Engel, who has nurtured a long affiliation with the museum. His first job after completing his Cornell University PhD in 1998 was as a research scientist in the museum’s division of invertebrate zoology, a job he held until returning to KU two years later as an assistant professor and assistant curator. Engel has since maintained his ties to the New York City landmark as research associate.
When he received the Paleontological Society’s 2008 Charles Schuchert Award, recognizing promising scientists under 40, Engel was introduced by his AMNH colleague and collaborator David Grimaldi as “arguably the world’s foremost authority on the evolutionary history of insects.” Engel was 37 at the time. He already had published more than 200 papers on living and extinct insects and co-authored, with Grimaldi, the landmark textbook Evolution of the Insects, which is being readied for a second edition by Cambridge University Press.
Engel’s academic and scientific credentials were impeccable, but the trait that sold AMNH librarians on entrusting him with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dive into their unimaginably deep holdings of insect-related rare books—considered by experts as perhaps the finest such collection in the world—and share highlights with the wider world is that Engel is much more than an expert entomologist.
He is also, his colleagues knew, a book lover, historian and world-class scientist who cultivates an appreciation for the arts.
“Michael has an amazing knowledge of the retrospective literature in entomology,” says Mai Reitmeyer, the museum’s senior research services librarian. “He appreciates and loves the old books—of course the old ones that are relevant to his work, but I think he even knows the history of some of the older books that may be out of date now, yet he appreciates them as artifacts.”
Published last October by Sterling, which is owned by Barnes & Noble, at a notably reasonable $27.95, Innumerable Insects grabbed the attention of lay and expert audiences alike.
Described by Barbara Berger, Sterling Editorial’s executive editor, as one of Barnes & Noble’s holiday success stories—“I totally think it’s a classic,” she says from her New York office—Innumerable Insects occasionally sells out even in the museum’s gift shop. It was hailed as a top-five read by Nature magazine, which promised that insect aficionados “will be entranced by this homage to the class Insecta,” with “spectacular images” that “glow like jewels.” In April the book was named a Nautilus Book Awards silver medalist.
Writing in the Nov. 2 Minneapolis Star Tribune, Robin Thomson, curator of the University of Minnesota Insect Collection, opened by describing Engel’s first book, Evolution of the Insects, as “the go-to text for learning more than you ever thought you needed to about insects, their diversity, and entire evolutionary history.” Explaining that she feared Innumerable Insects would be more of the same, Thomson shared her thrill at discovering scientists and illustrators previously unknown to her, and summarized Innumerable Insects as “a visually mesmerizing entry point for anyone interested in exploring insects and the history of their study.”
Berger says Sterling was eager to publish the book not as a vanity project that would extend its affiliation with a prestigious institution like the AMNH, but because it made good business sense. Everyone involved gave the project extraordinary levels of care and devotion, she says, but, ultimately, the beautiful book about beautiful books had to sell.
“I think a lot of people are fascinated by the subject, not just scientists, and it seemed like there was a dearth of something like it in the market,” Berger says. “It fills a niche.”
Given complete autonomy to create and follow his vision for the book’s text, Engel chose to deviate from previous standards set by the series—collections of essays on the histories of the illustrations, the books from which they were selected, and scientists, artists and expeditions—and instead write about the animals. In this case, earth’s mighty swarms of insects past and present.
“Insects were among the earliest animals to transition to land, the first to fly, the first to sing, the first to disguise themselves with camouflage, the first to evolve societies, the first to develop agriculture, and the first to use an abstract language, and they did all of this tens if not hundreds of millions of years before humans ever appeared to mimic these achievements,” Engel writes. “Today’s insects are the various descendants of life’s greatest diversification.”
While diligently telling the story of insects with 10 chapters on various aspects of their evolution and existence, each sumptuously illustrated with plates from the museum’s rare book collection, Engel also pauses along the way to replicate the strategy of earlier volumes in the series: historical vignettes on the people who created these lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched old books. Of the fascinating figures Engel profiles, none captured his imagination more surely than Charles Butler.
Butler, a “radical English vicar and beekeeper,” in 1609 published The Feminine Monarchie, which Engel describes as the first English-language book on beekeeping—already an ancient craft by the time Aristotle wrote Historia animalium, in which the great thinker described a hive’s leader as the “king.”
Butler offers practical instructions on capturing swarms and building hives, and his observations were so profoundly keen that, inspired by the sounds of active hives that spoke to his heart, Butler, also a musician, wrote a four-part madrigal—reproduced in Innumerable Insects—that was a “transliteration of the tones he perceived the bees to be making.”
Butler’s crowning achievement, however, was placing the crown properly upon the hive’s dominant female.
God save the queen.
“It was always this misogynistic view that surely the ruler of the hive has to be a king; it can’t be a woman,” Engel says. “And Butler was, like, well, the ruler of the hive happens to have ovaries and seems to be laying eggs, so I tend to think this is a female. So the title of the book is The Feminine Monarchie, which is also particularly fascinating because he’s publishing it in the later years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.”
As a leading authority on the evolution of bees, Engel naturally delights in the story of a rebellious polymath—Butler was also an authoritative grammarian, for instance—who identifies the queen as supreme ruler. But Engel has other reasons to respond to the story of the queen: Powerful and wonderful women shaped the boy and young man into the man in full he became.
Engel’s father, A. Gayle, was a parish minister in the United Church of Christ. When he was promoted to administrative posts, the family moved from Arizona to Walnut Creek, California, then a rustic retreat that, as the last stop on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, allowed Rev. Engel access to his work in San Francisco while the family enjoyed a tranquil home.
“I wasn’t out collecting insects or anything like that; they weren’t really on my radar screen,” Engel says. “Instead, I was out climbing the fruit trees in our backyard, burning off energy like any little boy does.”
Early on most Sunday mornings, the Engels piled into the family car and headed for area churches, where Rev. Engel would often serve as guest minister before meeting with local church officials. While his father was so occupied, Engel’s mother, Donna, would often play organ music for the children—Michael has a younger brother and sister—or lead them to nearby natural history and art galleries. Even their time in the car was used for betterment, with the children encouraged to create “imaginative games about things we’re seeing outside the window as we’re going along.”
Engel suspects that his deep interest in history was influenced by large age gaps within his family. One of his grandfathers, born in 1893, was the baby of his family; siblings were born in the 1880s.
“They were very elderly, but when the family would get together you would have all of these people who are literally of the Victorian era sitting around and talking,” Engel says. “I was talking to history for the early parts of my life.”
The family moved to Wichita when Engel was a high school senior. Though his parents moved again shortly after their eldest son graduated from Southeast High School, leaving Kansas behind, Michael remained for the in-state tuition at KU.
“By the time I got here, I was broadly interested in everything,” Engel says. “I took classes in archaeology and Eastern religions and whatnot. One of my favorite professors here—and in hindsight, had I not interacted with some other people, I might have gone and followed her—was Elizabeth Banks. I adored her. During the semester I took with her, and even to this day, in some ways, the sun rose and set around Betty Banks.”
Banks, assoc., director of the Wilcox Classical Museum from 1970 to 2001 and an associate professor of classics until retirement, once urged her eager student to visit Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. When Engel explained that he didn’t have a car, she set an appointment to pick him up, and sure enough, “here she came along with her little car and threw me in and zipped off and took me on a private tour through the Nelson-Atkins.” While in Greece one summer, Banks sent Engel a postcard, assuring him that “one day you’re going to come here and see all this yourself.”
“She was absolutely the greatest,” Engel says. “I really loved her. Four or five years ago I got some award from KU, so I had to give a little talk, and then afterward—and by this time she’s rather frail—here comes Betty Banks. She said, ‘I saw you were giving a talk, so I did everything I could to come and be here. I’m so proud of you.’
“I almost broke into tears.”
Despite her encouragement, Engel did not major in classics, instead choosing dual degrees in chemistry and physiology and cell biology. His advisers were Barbara Schowen, assoc., now retired as director of the KU Honors Program, and Sally Frost-Mason, who went on to become dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, provost at Purdue University, and, until her 2015 retirement, president of the University of Iowa. Banks, Schowen and Frost-Mason are all members of the KU Women’s Hall of Fame.
“I had these incredibly amazing women around me who were giving me the most incredible insight and education and life input,” Engel says. “I thank every star in heaven.”
Engel recalls that he was a first-semester sophomore when Frost-Mason encouraged him to take an upper-level developmental biology course, where an annoyed professor assured Engel he would fail and urged him to drop immediately. Frost-Mason told Engel he would be fine, and he was, at which point she encouraged him to begin developing a research program that could grow into an honors thesis (although he was not, technically, enrolled in the KU Honors Program).
To help him identify a thesis, Frost-Mason suggested Engel enroll in a seminar class, in which students heard each week from different professors in different fields. Engel was not particularly impressed.
“I know we had a couple of people in there—Oh, my God, you are really not good at public speaking. Great science, but you’re killing us here,” Engel recalls. “And then there was a faculty member who had not yet even started at the University. He was just about to start, he had been hired, but he was still finishing up his postdoc at the Smithsonian. Byron Alexander.”
Alexander, who died in 1996, told the class that he studied systematics of insects, then presented his research on the genealogical history of honey bees and the evolution of their language.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s different, that’s kind of cool,’” Engel recalls. “He had a great manner of relating with people. There’s not a soul on earth who didn’t just love Byron.”
Although he was already working toward dual degrees outside the field, Engel approached Alexander about research opportunities; the scholar told the student that he was still in the process of setting up his lab, but suggested he reach out to a trio of towering KU entomologists: the late Distinguished Professor Emeritus Charles Michener, Professor Emeritus Orley “Chip” Taylor and Professor Deborah Smith.
Taylor hired Engel as a research assistant, Smith worked with him on his undergraduate honors thesis, and both Michener and Alexander welcomed discussions with the eager undergrad.
“It was really great,” Engel says, “but I didn’t stop my degrees. I was far enough along that it would be foolish to start over.”
Engel applied to doctoral programs in chemistry and medicine, but pinned his hopes on entomology: “Sure enough, several of them shot me down, said I didn’t have enough of the background.” Then Cornell University said yes—specifically, Professor George Eickwort, PhD’67, a Charles Michener protégé. Eickwort was tragically killed in an automobile accident in Jamaica a year after Engel arrived at Cornell, yet Engel still describes him as “my mentor.”
“When George Eickwort said, ‘We’d love to have you,’ I remember thinking, ‘Oh, no, now I really do have to make a choice. It’s not being made for me. So do I take the path less traveled or not?’
“Obviously I did choose that path, and went off to Cornell.”
Two years after earning his PhD, Engel was back at KU. Eight years later, he was a full professor. (For context, new assistant professors, if they earn tenure, are typically promoted to associate in seven years, and a promotion to professor can take longer still, even for academic stars.) In 2018 Engel reached the lofty heights of University Distinguished Professor.
“A lot of my life, career, everything, has just been serendipity. Who knows what could have happened, for any of our lives? It could have fallen out in any one of a billion different ways. For me, I was broadly interested in things, and had I been at a different school and interacted with similarly engaging faculty, who knows what I could have been.
“It just so happened that my life intersected with the right people at the right time.”
You don’t need to be a student of entomology to be entranced by the beauty of Michael Engel’s book. Innumerable Insects passes the eye test. Anyone who likes books or history or art will crave a comfy chair to crawl into when handed Innumerable Insects, in part for the rare access it represents.
Tom Baione, the AMNH’s director of library services, says the museum’s rare book rooms are second in security only to the Earth and Planetary Science gem and mineral collection, and only a small group of library staff even have access.
Whenever work took Engel to New York, he would spend a few days with Mai Reitmeyer, the senior research services librarian, who appreciated the opportunity to mingle in the collection as much as Engel did.
“I don’t get to work with the rare book collection every day,” she says. “So any time we do one of these books it’s amazing to sort of go on a scavenger hunt into the collection to see what we can find that’s kind of fresh, that hasn’t been seen to death.”
Engel says that even on his workaday trips to Watson Library, he tries to set aside three hours, because he knows that once he finds the intended book or journal he’ll also read through chapters in whatever else he spies nearby and return to his office with a stack of 11.
“That was sort of this experience, on steroids,” Engel says of his AMNH access, “and I took every imaginable detour. I would pull volumes full-well knowing there’s a 99 percent chance that this sucker is not going in, but, dear lord, I have got to to see this.”
Engel says he was told Innumerable Insects would need 150 to 180 images; his pared list reached 400. For each section of the book, he consulted Baione and Reitmeyer, then turned to his wife, Kellie Magill, c’07, research project coordinator at KU’s Achievement & Assessment Institute.
“I’d say, ‘OK, for this section I’ve got 10 images, and they said I could only use two. Looking at all of this, which strike you most powerfully?’ She’d inevitably end up picking the two that were right from a lay person’s perspective … but not the one that shows the wing I like.”
Engel laughs, and says his wife offered similarly expert advice when Sterling Publishing’s designers began marrying text and images. As Engel worked back and forth with editor Barbara Berger, Magill would counsel, “Calm down, trust Barbara, she’s going to make it look great.” Sure enough, “Every single time Barbara would come back with something, it would be stunning.”
It’s a book full of right choices made by a lot of smart people who cared very much about creating an important book that would be equally accessible to expert scientists and kindergartners looking at pretty pictures.
“We’d love to think,” Baione says, “that young minds, or minds of all ages, are inspired to change direction, perhaps in their educational career, by seeing these books that we’ve produced.”
Sounds … serendipitous.