Bernard DeWitt Burks (1909-1990)
Entomologist and professor, Barnard (Bernard) DeWitt Burks was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico on November 12, 1909. He studied entomology, zoology, chemistry, and plant pathology at the University of Illinois, completing a Bachelor’s degree in 1933 and a Master’s degree the following year. Burks remained at the university as a research fellow while completing his doctoral degree, publishing studies of insects and plants including “Food Plant Studies on the Chinch Bug” (1934) and “Diseases of Adult Bees” (1935). In 1937 he became Assistant State Entomologist for Illinois.
During World War II, Burks served with the U.S. Army Sanitary Corps in North Africa, Italy, and southern France, using his knowledge of insect diseases to study the spread of malaria among U.S. troops. In September 1945 he received an assignment with the MFAA as a Scientific Collections Specialist in Berlin. Burks worked alongside Monuments Man S/Sgt. Robert G. Armstrong to salvage and reassemble collections belonging to scientific museums and institutions in Germany. At the beginning of the war, many of these anthropological, geological, entomological, and mineralogical collections were stored for safekeeping in repositories scattered across Germany. For example, Burks found items belonging to the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in thirty-six separate repositories.
In order to manage the overwhelming influx of specimens, objects, scientific instruments, and research archives, Burks recommended the establishment of a Scientific Museum Collections Section within the MFAA Branch of the Office of Military Government, U.S. Zone (OMGUS). He argued that more attention and resources should be allocated to the protection and recovery of scientific museum collections, stating that further destruction would be a serious loss not only to the German museums, but to the entire international science community:
“The definite knowledge that certain crucial type specimens have or have not been destroyed poses immediate work problems for a large number of scientists in the United States and all over the world. At the same time, the orientation of work in many research institutes in the United States and the world as a whole becomes very difficult in the absence of such definite information concerning the German collections.”
Burks and Armstrong collaborated with museum officials in Germany and the United States, establishing a plan for the reopening of these collections “for international scientific work and exchange.”
Following his return to the United States, Burks worked as an entomologist at the U.S. National Museum (today, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History) in Washington, D.C. He conducted pioneering research into the Hymenoptera, an order of winged insects including sawflies, bees, wasps, and ants. In addition to lectures at universities and institutions across the United States, Burks traveled the world researching new species and adding to his own collection of specimens. In 1969 he took a leave of absence to hunt Tetratichus parasites of the citrus weevil Diaprepes in Puerto Rico. Burks undertook similar expeditions to India, Israel, and Pakistan as well as extensive research at the British Museum in London. He retired in 1974.
B.D. Burks died in 1990 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
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Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois.