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Brief Biography of Entomologist/Ornithologist Lawrence Bruner

Lawrence Bruner – Nebraska Entomology’s Foundation
Distinguished Alumnus Presentation
12 April 2019
John Ruberson
We honor many wonderful achievements tonight. In this context, I’d like to briefly look
backwards. Why? Because the first real entomologist at the University of Nebraska – Lawrence
Bruner - is worth remembering on a night when we recognize notable accomplishments, and
reflect on our own legacies.
Bruner was born in Pennsylvania in 1856, and shortly thereafter his family moved to a farm
near Omaha. When Bruner was 13, his family moved to West Point Nebraska, northwest of
Omaha. Lawrence was second of 9 children, 8 of whom are shown here. A younger brother died
when Bruner was 18. Life in West Point germinated a deep love for animals in Bruner. He was
particularly drawn to birds and insects, which he collected and stored in a barn built behind his
home, which is still there today.
Severe and devastating outbreaks of Rocky Mountain locusts shook Nebraska in Bruner’s late
teen years. The locusts fascinated him and triggered a keen interest in grasshoppers. He
published his first scientific paper in 1876 entitled “New Species of Nebraska Acrididae”,
although two of the three new species he described were already described. Literature sources
were limited on the western frontier. In 1877 he published a catalogue of the grasshoppers that
he had found and identified in his studies of the Nebraska fauna. He was hired by famed
entomologist Charles Valentine Riley as a temporary employee in 1878, and as a full Assistant
to the United States Entomological Commission in 1880, focused on the Rocky Mountain locust.
He worked in Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Washington, and
Oregon. On Christmas Day 1881, he married Marcia Dewell, made a wedding trip to the East,
and subsequently made home in West Point. Lawrence and Marcia had three daughters –
Psyche (see note below on possible origin of her name), Helen, Alice, and adopted son Charles
Hall (according to 1900 Census; age 11). But first, he returned to the field in 1882 making
numerous important observations on the biology of the locust which he published in 1883. In
1883, he went off to study locusts in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. He
continued his studies of the locust in 1884, but concentrating on Nebraska, and began
expanding studies and collections of other insects. In 1885 he returned to the native regions of
the locust, conducting field work in Montana and North Dakota. He was back working in
Nebraska in 1886 and 1887, focusing more on pest species in the state. Throughout this period,
he spent much time in the field working alone, traveling by horse, stagecoach or wagon, and by
In 1888, Bruner accepted a position at the Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station. He moved
his family to Lincoln and assumed his work with great energy. He published numerous reports
addressing various insects – including descriptions, biology and behavior, pest status, and
management. He also published numerous reports on birds. He contributed popular articles in
Nebraska Farmer, and included articles addressing the value of birds for biological control of
insect pests, merging his interests in a truly multidisciplinary way.
Bruner became an instructor of entomology at UNL in 1890, but actually started offering
informal courses in entomology in 1888 in response to student requests. The courses were
formalized in 1890, and in 1895 Bruner became the head of the newly established Department
of Entomology and Ornithology. As both the head and the entire faculty of the one-man
department he likely had few faculty conflicts. He handled the diverse demands of teaching and
research with the help of his “boys” – students like Myron Swenk who were committed to
entomology and/or ornithology, and whose great respect and commitment to Bruner fostered
a keen desire to serve and build the department.
Bruner had a keen interest in students. Myron Swenk described meeting Lawrence Bruner:
“The forty-three year old man, of much superior knowledge and experience about birds,
and on a busy day, gave up a large part of his afternoon telling the sixteen year old lad
[Swenk] about his recent trip to South America, showing him the specimens of bird skins
and eggs brought back, as well as the insects collected, giving him a copy of the 1896
report and encouraging him to enter the University upon graduation from the Beatrice
High School.”
He trained noted entomologists Harry G. Barber, W. Dwight Pierce, Harry Scott Smith, Clarence
Mickel, Myron Swenk, and J. C. Crawford, among others.
As a recognized authority on Orthoptera, Bruner was called upon to help with serious locust
outbreaks in Argentina. He was hired as a consultant to Argentina to help deal with their
migratory locust problems from 1897-98. His work, published in two reports in 1898 and 1900,
recommended the use of natural enemies of the locusts, notably fungal pathogens and
improved conservation of birds. In recognition of his global reputation, the University of
Nebraska bestowed an honorary Bachelor’s degree on Bruner in 1897.
Bruner was widely recognized for his work and leadership. He was elected president of the
Association of Economic Entomologists in 1900. In 1915 he was elected as Nebraska’s “most
distinguished citizen” and became the state’s representative to the 1915 San Francisco Panama
Pacific International Exposition – a World’s Fair. He beat out the famous William Jennings Bryan
for the honor. His selection was unanimous, and one member of the selection committee
observed that “Political fame, such as possessed by Bryan, is a bubble and fleeting. True
distinction only is lasting. That’s why we picked Bruner.” (NY Times; Jan 31 1937, p. 46) Not too
Myron Swenk took over as department head in 1919, after Lawrence’s health declined rapidly
“under the stress of his continued indoor work” (Swenk, p. 46). From 1920, Lawrence lived in
California, and was able to engage in much less field work after 1922. In 1931, Lawrence was
made a professor emeritus of the University of Nebraska, and in 1933, Lawrence presented his
book and publications collection on Orthoptera to the University of Nebraska. It consisted of
2,591 books and other documents. He also donated his collection of thousands of Orthoptera
to the university, and they are still here.
Bruner passed away in 1937, but was a remarkable man and alumnus, who epitomizes what we
should strive to be. He was energetic and fearless in seeking new knowledge, even engaging in
multi-disciplinary work. He had a deep passion for mentoring students and was a motivated and
motivating teacher. He was committed to extension and science literacy - helping his
stakeholders and sharing his knowledge and passion with the public, and doing so with care and
enthusiasm. And through it all, he maintained a strong family despite trials and tragedies. What
a great man to be our foundation, and truly worthy of our honor and emulation. That is the
bedrock of our legacy and the model of our mission. So, looking ahead, what do you want your
addition to that foundation to look like 100 years from now?
Bruner, L (1876) New Species of Nebraska Acrididae. Canadian Entomologist 8: 123-125.
Bruner, L (1877) List of Acrididae found in Nebraska. Canadian Entomologist 9:144-145.
Howard, LO (1930) A History of Applied Entomology. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Mallis, A (1971) American Entomologists. Rutgers University Press. Rahway, New Jersey.
Swenk, MH (1937) In memoriam, Lawrence Bruner. Nebraska Bird Review, 696: 35-48
Regarding name of Psyche Bruner:
L.O. Howard was an entomologist with the USDA’s Bureau of Entomology starting in 1878, and
eventually becoming Bureau Chief in 1894, where he remained until 1927. He shared this about
Lawrence and his daughter Psyche:
“[Lawrence] came to Washington on his wedding trip. He had married a charming
Nebraska girl. Some time later I received a telegram from him announcing the birth of a
daughter. I wired him a reply of congratulations, and added that if he would name the
daughter Psyche, the Division of Entomology would stand as godfather. This dispatch
was not answered, but I learned a year later that this little girl bore the unusual name of
Psyche; whereupon the entomological force in Washington sent her a silver cup. It may
be interesting to know that this little girl eventually became the wife of Harry S. Smith,
so well known to all American entomologists.” (“History of Applied Entomology”, p. 103)
Smith married Psyche on December 23rd, 1908, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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