Saturday, 16 February 2013

PhD week 50: Thomas Broun

Portrait of Thomas Broun. From Searell P, Watt JC. 1974. Science gallery: Thomas Broun (1838–1919). New Zealand's Natural Heritage. 3(37) via Bugz

The key figure in the study of New Zealand beetles is without a doubt Thomas Broun (1838–1919). Born in Scotland, he served in the British Army, seeing action in the Crimean War and the Indian Rebellion. He arrived in New Zealand in 1863, where he served in the New Zealand wars before becoming a school teacher on retirement from the army. While he had a strong interest in natural history from a young age, it was not until his arrival in New Zealand he began serious taxonomic research, describing insects in the evenings after work. Over the course of his 56 years in New Zealand, he described 3538 beetle species, covering all families.

While his work has not, in the words of Elwood Zimmerman "stood the test of time", it must be remembered that it was done in testing conditions and with the aid of substantially poorer optics than we have today. Being so distant from the centre of entomological research at the time, he had to rely on the literature he was able to obtain from European colleagues. His decision to bequeath his collection to the British Museum of Natural History has indeed limited further research into New Zealand beetles; but this decision was a prudent one in an age where New Zealand institutions were still very much in their infancy.

He described approximately 70 species of Irenimus, though he described them in the genus Catoptes. He recognised the difficulty of the group, and made the following comment in 1904:

[Catoptes (= Irenimus) duplex] is one of several species that do not accord exactly with Catoptes, Brachyolus or Inophloeus, but partake more or less the structure and appearence of all three. In order to avoid confusion it will be necessary before long to redescribe these genera and define their limits more accurately; when that is accomplished the aberrant species alluded to above may be referred to new but certainly very intermediate genera. As I have not seen some of these species as yet, and as very few examples of some others are possessed by me, the difficult task must be allowed to stand over at present
This "difficult task" has been left until now. Here's hoping that my contribution will finally make this group tractable.

Crosby TK. 2012. 'Broun, Thomas - Broun, Thomas', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara—the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Cheesman TF. 1920. Major Thomas Broun 1838–1919. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 52: ix–x

   Ferngren GB (Editor). 2002. Science and Religion. A Historical Introduction Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press
   Hughes P (Translator). 1937. Meditations for Lent from St. Thomas Aquinas. London: Sheed and Ward

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