In the summer of 1975, my wife, Nancy, and I enrolled in a U-M adult education course, “The Natural History of Butterflies.” I had just begun my academic career as an assistant professor of surgery, and the class offered a breather from my busy schedule. We met in a rickety third-floor classroom in the Natural History Building, a venerable campus structure where years earlier I had sat in comparative anatomy and mammalian endocrinology courses.
Warren H. Wagner Jr.–known to all as Herb–held forth as our instructor. He was a world-famous botanist whose writings on phylogenetic relations in the evolution of ferns not only advanced the science of plants but made him a cult hero to students and a revered scientist among his peers.
Herb Wagner was also an enthusiastic lepidopterist, something that fit well with his interest in plant ecology. He had written or coauthored twenty papers on butterflies and possessed an extensive collection. His course met for six weeks, in the classroom and laboratory from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and in the field to collect specimens on Saturday afternoons. It was pure joy.
Herb was an outrageous performer who engaged every soul in the classroom. His energy was contagious, particularly for one of his students and one of the medical school’s most beloved faculty members, Edgar A. Kahn. Dr. Kahn, affectionately known as Eddie, had just retired as a member of the neurosurgery faculty, which he had headed from 1950 to 1969. He was a legend and remains so today. Independently wealthy, Kahn was the son of America’s foremost industrial architect, Albert Kahn. He was also, at seventy-five, the oldest student in the class. Less than a decade earlier he had been the attending physician on my first rotation as a surgical resident. Kahn was wiry, five foot six inches tall, hyperkinetic, and just sufficiently hard of hearing that he spoke a little louder than everyone else.
The inaugural class began with Wagner bringing in a half-dozen Schmitt boxes containing hundreds of sulfur butterflies, arranged in rows, from a pale yellow (caught in early spring) to a dark golden orange (caught in late fall). Fifteen minutes after he had begun to explain the color variations, in walked Eddie Kahn–and not quietly. The steel-legged chairs that furnished the classroom made a creaking sound on the old wooden floor every time they were moved, but it was unlikely that Dr. Kahn heard the clatter he made as he rearranged his chair in the row directly behind me. Nor did he realize that his whisper to me was an announcement to the class: “Jim, Jim Stanley! What the hell are you doing here?”
Not in the least upset, Dr. Wagner took the opportunity to introduce Dr. Kahn to the class. That night, late or not, Eddie Kahn was treated like a visiting dignitary. In fact, he was. It was a fun start.
Eddie Kahn blossomed in the class. One night he let all of us know of his amazement at learning that the iridescent blue of the Morpho butterfly’s topside wings was not because of blue pigment. When he viewed the wings with a polarizing microscope, he was flabbergasted at the absence of any blue color, and, in his excitement, and in a voice loud enough to be heard on the street, he managed to tell everyone in the lab about it. (The blue color is due to light being refracted on microscopic ridges along the surface of the wing’s otherwise colorless scales.) Dr. Kahn was also mesmerized by metamorphosis: the process by which the caterpillar loses its wormlike characteristics to become a chrysalis, from which months later emerges a graceful butterfly. Neither he nor I had a clue about the cellular or molecular underpinnings of what was one of nature’s most dramatic events–but then that was why we were in Dr. Wagner’s class.
Dr. Kahn marveled at the senses of these small creatures. On one of the class’s Saturday outings we explored a bog on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, where the spring brood of Baltimore checkerspots held residence. Kahn arrived in his Mercedes sedan with his wife, Rose, an internist at the university, and I pulled up behind him with my wife and our eight- and ten-year old sons in our older Volvo station wagon.
As the outing progressed, our youngest, Jeff, caught a monarch that Eddie had trouble running after and gave the butterfly to him. Shortly thereafter an appreciative Dr. Kahn struck up a conversation with Jeff, bits of which I overheard. As the two climbed down an embankment, this silver-haired icon asked our eight-year-old what the butterfly’s antennae were for. Jeff explained: “That’s how butterflies know where they are.”
Indeed, the segmented antennae or feelers in these small creatures provide a sense of balance and smell. Dr. Kahn replied like a proud teacher: “That’s right, son, they’re neurosensory organs.”
Eddie was in his element. I think Jeff got it.
Before taking the class, I kept my mounted specimens in an array of cardboard boxes, all containing naphtha balls, usually used to keep pests from devouring wool clothes when stored over the warm months. Herb knew I wanted to be a serious collector, and he gave me a dozen or so airtight, wooden, museum-quality boxes that continue to hold some of the butterflies I caught in the 1970s. Those specimens remain perfect today. As for Eddie Kahn, for the next decade, until his death in 1985, whenever we would meet he would ask how my collection was going.
While our children were young, my wife and I would often gather them and a handful of the neighbors’ kids and head into the open fields surrounding our subdivision off Nixon Rd. to chase butterflies. These weekly excursions were lessons in observation and the beginning of a lifelong interest in nature for some.
Over the ensuing decades, from May to October, I always had a butterfly net in the backseat of my car and on occasion could be seen pulling over next to a field where the hill-topping flight of a swallowtail caught my attention and became the object of a chase. Some sight: a young doctor in a white shirt and tie running after a speck of color!
This is an edited excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s memoir, Boundaries: Coming of Age in Two College Towns (CreateSpace, 2015).
Eddie Kahn, hockey star
To the Observer:
As I was reading through the September issue of the Observer, I took notice of the [My Town] article–Chasing Butterflies–Learning from Herb Wagner and Eddie Kahn.
I had the pleasure of meeting Eddie Kahn back in 1971. As I was researching old time Michigan hockey records for players to be eligible for induction into the Dekers Hockey Hall of Fame, I found very interesting information on one Eddie Kahn being on the first hockey team. He was inducted in 1971 in the fifth class of inductees. The first class was inducted in 1965.
Eddie played on the very first varsity Michigan hockey team under Coach Joseph Barss, who also was a doctor in the Medical School. This first team only had nine hockey players. Eddie was an outstanding forward for two seasons–1922-23 and 1923-24–and was elected Captain during his senior year. He graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1924.
He had not been back to see a hockey game since he graduated and I was able to convince him to come to his induction ceremony to receive his past due recognition. His picture was then hung in the old coliseum and transferred over to Yost Ice Arena in 1973.