Lorna Levi

forLorna1Last week we learned the sad news that Lorna Levi passed away, less that two weeks after the death of her partner of 65 years, Herb Levi. She was 86.

After Herb passed away, I began to write a letter to Lorna. It wasn’t yet finished when I heard of her death. This is how I had begun it:

To you and Frances I send my condolences for the loss of Herb. I have so many memories of Herb, and many of them are also memories of you. Although I didn’t observe your relationship often, it was clear that your lives were deeply intertwined. It was hard to think of Herb without thinking of you, especially when I visited Pepperell, or when I thought of Herb working at his home laboratory from Wednesdays through Sundays. I imagine the little tortoise walking around between his feet. The two of you, your house, the land and animals and food that you nurtured, gave to me a way to think about how to build a life and a better world.

That last sentence is very much how I thought of Lorna. Understated, with bright eyes holding a mischievous wit, full of the colours and textures of nature. She built not by cutting and imposing our straight lines, but by nurturing — plants, fabrics, and the pot of rich food on her stove. Oh, the multifarious Thanksgiving meals she put on for the “orphaned” graduate students in Herb’s lab!

She was a partner in the background of much of Herb’s contributions as a spider taxonomist, supporting him in more than one way. There’s a story — I hope I have this right — of her helping Herb to get over the fence at some foreign museum unexpectedly closed, so that he could get in and look at important specimens. That is the image I am left with, Lorna being a tiny bit subversive and doing what needed to be done.

“Och, my head is full of spider genitalia!”

leviPepperellHerbert Walter Levi, one of the grand arachnologists of the 20th century, died on Monday 3 November 2014. He was my PhD supervisor, and the supervisor of many of our most prominent spider systematists (and non-systematists). I took the photograph above in the 1980’s when I was a grad student. At right you can just see his beloved Lorna’s arm with a blue jay on it. They are on their property out in Pepperell.

Over his career, he described about 1200 new species of spiders, showing his commitment through tireless efforts on taxonomic monographs. Every species was to be described well, illustrated beautifully: every one was to be respected. As my supervisor, he provided for me a perfectly equipped laboratory in which to grow into arachnology, but mostly he was a role model: he showed me that it was OK to love your organisms, to become immersed in their diversity and to dedicate your life to them.

Herb said that he hadn’t planned to be a taxonomist, but rather found that he couldn’t identify his specimens for the ecological work he intended, and hence had to divert into taxonomy, a diversion that lasted his life. His taxonomic revisions then enabled other biologists to write hundreds of papers on spider ecology, behaviour, evolution, and of course systematics. He taught not only the undergrads in his Invertebrate Biology course, and his graduate students, but also the public. He was author (along with Lorna) of the Golden Nature Guide “Spiders and their Kin”, which was my first spider field guide, when I was 13 years old.

Here is his brief timeline:
1921 born in Frankfurt, Germany
1938 emigrated to U.S.A.
1946 BS University of Connecticut
1947 MS University of Wisconsin
1949 PhD University of Wisconsin
1949 married Lorna Rose
1949-1956 instructor – associate professor, University of Wisconsin
1956-1991 associate curator then curator then professor then Agassiz professor, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

I remember once I walked into his office, and Herb was talking to his secretary. Apparently he had forgotten to do some bureaucratic task, and in dismay, he slapped his forehead and exclaimed “Och, my head is full of spider genitalia”. Truly, it was. And that was what was marvellous about him. He illuminated his cherished spiders for us. We have more than 1200 reasons to remember him for the next few centuries.