Robert Leslie Usinger (1912-1968) served on the faculty in the Department of Entomology at the University of California at Berkeley from 1946 until his untimely death in 1968. Dr. Usinger was a native Californian, born in Ft. Bragg (Mendocino Co.) on October 24th, 1912. When Usinger was young his family moved to San Anselmo for a short time and subsequently to Oakland. His interest in insects dated from his earliest years and was nurtured by his mother who, when he was twelve, brought him to Agriculture (now Wellman) Hall to meet entomologists at work there.
The Bay Area young entomologists scene was lively, and during his teens Usinger had contact with many later first-rate entomologists, including E. Gorton Linsley, J. Linsley Gressitt, and John W. MacSwain. Usinger and his friends were also fortunate in having contact with the strong professional entomological community in the area, receiving encouragement from E.C. Van Dyke, E.P. Van Duzee, E.O. Essig, G.F. Ferris and others. Usinger began attending meetings of the Pacific Coast Entomological Society and the Bay Area Biosystematists, groups with which he had life-long dealings, during his teenage years. Usinger’s devotion to Hemiptera, particularly the aquatic members, began during these early years due in part to his association with Van Duzee at the California Academy of Sciences. A revision of the scutellerid genus Vanduzeeina, Usinger’s first entomological paper, was completed prior to his graduation from high school.
During Usinger’s undergraduate years at the University of California he supported himself working in various labs on campus, ranging in focus from termites to chemistry. Along with his undergraduate studies he found the time to experiment with caste determination in honeybees, study bloodsucking in phytophagous (yes, phytophagous) hemiptera (himself the primary blood supplier), investigate the life histories of naucorid bugs, and compile a catalogue of the Enicocephalidae of the world. He also ventured on many field expeditions including a trip through Mexico on a shoestring with classmate Howard E. Hinton where his interests in Cimicidae (bedbugs) began to develop.
Following his graduation, Usinger was invited to spend a year at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu where he made many contacts and found a dissertation project in a tribe of Hawaiian Miridae (plant bugs) which had undergone extensive radiation on the islands. He returned to the continental U.S., by way of Guam, the Philippines, China and Japan, to accept a position at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco . He married Martha Putnam in 1938, received his Ph.D. in 1939 and accepted a position at the University of California at Davis shortly thereafter. In 1943 the war took Dr. Usinger, as a medical entomologist, away from Davis to combat malaria in the pacific region. He returned from service in 1946 and joined the Berkeley faculty. As a faculty member Usinger, with E.G. Linsley, worked to establish a strong program in systematic entomology. He taught courses in systematic entomology and aquatic entomology, as well as numerous graduate seminars. He is said to have been a brilliant teacher and motivated a veritable army of capable students.
During his academic career, Usinger continued to pursue studies in all aspects of Hemiptera biology and systematics, as well as aquatic biology and systematic biology in general. There are few groups of bugs which did not receive his attentions at one point or another. He published major works on the Reduviidae, Cimicidae, Aradidae, Naucoridae, Enicocephalidae, Gerridae, and others. His contributions to the development of systematic biology are noteworthy, as well, serving as the president of the Society for Systematic Zoology in 1967, and publishing Methods and Principles of Systematic Zoology (1953) with Ernst Mayr and E.G. Linsley, one of the first major texts in systematic theory and practice.
Dr. Usinger’s service to the international biological community must also be mentioned. Through his interests in the evolution of the Pacific Basin biota, he became involved in several international efforts to survey this region. In 1961, he organized the biological portions of the Pacific Science Congress in Honolulu. He directed the celebrated 1964 Galapagos International Scientific Project. He also served as a permanent member of the Committee of the International Congress of Entomology from 1953 until the time of his death in 1968.
The Usinger Heteroptera collection housed in the Essig Museum of Entomology originally included 61,919 specimens, forming the foundation of our entire holdings in the group. Recently, approximately 8,000 specimens, representing most of the Old World material, have been moved to the California Academy of Sciences. We have retained Usinger’s worldwide collections of Cimicidae and Polyctenidae. This collection comprises approximately 3500 slide-mounted specimens, about 500 pinned or pointed, and about 10,000 more in alcohol. It includes paratypes of most of Usinger’s species as well as some others. Outside of these two families, Usinger’s Heteroptera collection forms the basis for our entire holdings for the order. The collection is especially strong in Aradidae, Tingidae, Miridae, Enicocephalidae, and all of the aquatic heteropteran groups, particularly the Naucoridae. Additionally, Usinger’s collection of orsilline Lygaeidae, representing many years of work in the Pacific Islands and in the neotropics, is very strong. This group was the basis for his dissertation as well as later research. The collection is mostly very well-curated owing to Usinger’s efforts, as well as those of other prominent hemipterists.
Usinger kept an extensive library which has been moved around somewhat since his death. His reprint library still resides in the Essig Museum. His large library of Linnaean literature was given by Mrs. Usinger to the Smithsonian Institution. The Bancroft Library on the University of Caifornia, Berkeley campus houses the majority of his field notes and some personal and professional correspondence. Otherwise his books were given to the library in the Department of Entomology at the California Academy of Sciences.
Usinger, R.L., 1940. A revised classification of the Reduvioidea with a new subfamily from South America. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 36(4): 602-618.
Usinger, R.L., 1945. Classification of the Enicocephalidae. Ann. Ent. Soc. Am. 38(3): 321-342.
Mayr, E., E.G. Linsley, and R.L. Usinger, 1953. Methods and Principles of Systematic Zoology. McGraw-Hill, New York. 328 p.
Usinger, R.L., ed. 1956. Aquatic Insects of California. University of California Press, Berkeley. 508 p.
Usinger, R.L., 1966. Monograph of Cimicidae. The Thomas Say Foundation / Entomological Society of America 7: 1-585.
This short biography was adapted from
Linsley, E.G., 1969. Robert Leslie Usinger 1912-1968. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist 45(3): 166-203.
Usinger, R.L., 1972. Robert Leslie Usinger: Autobiography of an Entomologist. Memoirs of the Pacific Coast Entomological Society 4: 1-330.