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Beetle Expert

Remembering Entomologist
Henry P. Stockwell

November 20, 2023

Elizabeth (Liz) Stockwell sent this obituary of her father, STRI research associate, Henry Stockwell, in May, 2023.  We published a brief mention at the time and include the entire text here.

Henry Stockwell, a long-time research associate at STRI, died peacefully at the end of April from complications of a stroke. He was 88. Henry was a pediatrician at Gorgas Hospital (1969–1997) by vocation but a passionate and highly regarded entomologist by avocation. A Coleoptera specialist, Henry had an encyclopedic knowledge of Neotropical beetles and their plant associations, with a particular interest in weevils. He was a consummate learner and teacher and had a remarkable ability to not just recall insect or botanical names, but details of natural history as well. The definitive guide to Isthmian Coleoptera and their plant associations was a stack of notes Henry had written on spare Gorgas Hospital prescription pads, held together with rubber bands and to which he continuously updated information. At Don Windsor's encouragement, this compendium was transferred to a database that could be accessed online through the STRI website.

Henry loved to share his knowledge, and many of us may still hear Henry's voice saying, "Now, here's an interesting plant..." followed by details of insect associations, identifying characteristics, and stories. A number of scientists credit Henry for inspiring their career choices. The Stockwell home in Ancon was a frequent host to visiting scientists (Henry's wife Hannah never knew who or how many would be showing up for dinner or to sleep on the living room floor!), and Henry gave many newly arrived students their first introductions to the tropical forest. In collaboration with Don Windsor and Annette Aiello, he established the STRI beetle collection, which is still consulted by STRI researchers, visiting entomologists from around the world, and students to this day. Throughout the nearly 45 years he was active at STRI, he collaborated with and hosted dozens of scientists from all over the world. He was invited to be an instructor on field courses in tropical ecology and entomology for Universidad de Panamá, Princeton, McGill, Guelph and other universities at sites in Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and the US. His final field course was in Arizona in 2010, for University of Guelph.

2002 Princeton Tropical Ecology course in Bocas del Toro, Panama, left to right: Roberto Lombardo, student from Santiago de Veraguas, Panama; Donald Windsor and Henry Stockwell, instructors, STRI. The plant is Byttneria aculeata (Malvaceae).

Born and raised in Ottawa, Canada, Henry spent time exploring the fields and woods near his home. Henry always wanted to live in the tropics, and after medical school at McGill University, he began searching for medical residencies that would allow him to work abroad. After first landing in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he met Hannah, he spent a year working at University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica (1965–1966). He returned to North Carolina, and, although still a Canadian citizen, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, as part of emergency measures to recruit physicians. As Henry would say later in life, being drafted was the best thing that ever happened to him, because he was assigned to Panama. After three years with the military, he stayed on at Gorgas Hospital as a civilian employee of the Panama Canal Company. As a pediatrician, he attended the birth of many STRI babies over the years, and he graciously received middle-of-the-night phone calls when folks on BCI needed a quick medical consult.

Henry was a true Renaissance man. In his teenage years he developed an interest in HAM radio and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a radio operator during his university years. He later taught Morse code to other radio enthusiasts to help them get their licenses. As a member of the Isthmian Road Runners, Henry ran relays and marathons, often getting up early in the morning to run to Gamboa in time to catch the train back home to Ancon. He was also a classical pianist and hosted chamber music afternoons and concerts as part of the Curundu Chamber Ensemble, which included many STRI scientists, students, and family members over the years. When not looking at beetles or plants, Henry was an avid birdwatcher and long-time member of the Panama Audubon Society. He coordinated Christmas bird counts, led birding tours, and had an excellent ear for identifying birds by sound.

Stockwell, Henry, 1978
Henry Stockwell holding turtle, 1978

Henry retired in 1997 but practiced medicine part-time until age 70, after he and Hannah had returned to North Carolina. He continued to visit Panama regularly until 2013, after which physical limitations made it difficult to travel. As Henry's health continued to decline, he and Hannah moved to Burnaby, British Columbia, in May 2019, to be closer to daughter Liz and her family.

Henry will be remembered as a brilliant colleague, teacher, punster, and storyteller. He was, as STRI associate Jeff Brawn once said, "the nicest man in the world."

Henry is survived by wife Hannah (Burnaby, BC); daughters Liz (Burnaby, BC; Michael Hart) and Catherine (Lisbon, Portugal; Eric Murphy); and grandchildren Henry and Rachel Hart, and Ally and Sara Murphy.

Henry Stockwell's beetles occupy some 200 drawers in the STRI insect collection including about 80 drawers of Curculionidae (weevils).
Credit: Steven Paton

Donations in Henry's memory may be made through the STRI donations page for a memorial fellowship in Henry's name, to support Latin American university students in entomology research. Please indicate in the Comments that the donation is being made in memory of Henry Stockwell.

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