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Math to Moths: Donald Wright Retires

'Donald J. Wright retired at the end of winter quarter, after almost 40 years on the faculty of the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Date: 4/16/2007
By: Joanna Mitro
Phone: (513) 556-4087
Donald J. Wright retired at the end of winter quarter, after almost 40 years on the faculty of the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

A highly respected teacher and former assistant head of the department, Wright is the author of the linear algebra textbook used by the department and a set of notes that serves as text for the Introduction to Analysis class required for math majors.

His retirement from teaching will allow him to concentrate more of his time and energy to his alter ego as one of the nation’s most knowledgeable experts on a family of small moths: the Tortricidae.


Professor Donald J. Wright retired at the end of winter quarter after almost 40 years on the UC Math faculty.

By his own admission, Wright never took a formal course in biology. But he grew up surrounded by the plains and woods of Iowa, where he was raised, and Minnesota, where he attended high school and college, and always enjoyed nature.

Although he did some bird watching as a Boy Scout, Wright started to take a real interest in birds when he went to University of Kansas for graduate school and encountered the western kingbird. Later, while completing his doctorate at the University of Kentucky, he lived just across the fence from an experimental farm at the south end of campus. He'd hop the fence and trek around the farm to unwind from his studies. On his rambles at the farm during early spring, he was surrounded by the spring migration of birds, and began to consider himself a birdwatcher.

Wright finished his doctorate in 1968 and began his career at the University of Cincinnati. He continued bird watching here with his colleague (now emeritus professor) David Styer.

However, Wright found he was not as good at identifying birds through their songs as were David and most other avid bird watchers, and this kept him from developing a real mastery of the activity.

Meanwhile, he was raising a family and was busy with other activities such as leading a Boy Scout troop in Clifton. He and his children participated in nature activities at the Museum of Natural History, and it was at a museum-sponsored butterfly count in Adams County that he found himself becoming enthralled with moths.

Best of all, there was room in the field of mothing to do some serious work. Many moth species remain undescribed and unnamed. The scientific collection and study of North American moths dates back to the mid-19th century; seminal collections reside at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the British Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Museum. Early lepidopterists relied on gross morphological characteristics such as shape, color, venation of wings, etc. to describe and classify moths.

In the early 20th century, microscopic features, especially characters of the male genitalia, began to be used, and in 1923 Carl Heinrich published the first illustrations of male genitalia for North American species of Torticidae. Even today, moth identification remains a tricky business, and Heinrich’s book is a standard reference.

Wright soon found that, beyond curiosity, he had the necessary skills to become good at collecting and identifying moths: patience, attention to detail and fine manual dexterity (first exercised as a boy building model airplanes) – skills he characterizes as "craftsmanship."

He decided to focus his attention on a few genera of Tortricidae whose caterpillars bore into the roots of plants of the family Asteracae (e.g., sunflowers). As he collects specimens, mostly from the western United States, he attempts to identify the species. Sometimes this involves borrowing and dissecting specimens from museum collections, and occasionally he encounters misidentifications made by early scientists who lacked some of today’s techniques or who based their conclusions on small samples of specimens.

Clarifying the application of currently available names and describing some of the many still unrecognized Tortricid species keeps Wright engaged and excited about this work. To date, he has named eight new species, and he continues to publish in this area. One long-range goal for his retirement is to publish a guide to the genera in which he has specialized, for which he has developed both a fine admiration and the acute eye of a detective.

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