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Alaska's leading expert on butterflies, Ken Philip leaves legacy for Smithsonian

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- Not many people trace the inspiration for their life’s work to an experience they had at summer camp as a 6-year-old, but that was just one of the ways in which Kenelm “Ken” Philip stood out.

There it is on the second line on a resume he wrote for National Moth Week: “Introduced to butterflies: Camp Treetops (in Adirondacks), 1938.” More than seven decades after attending the rustic camp in upstate New York, he called the camp director to say how much the experience had meant.

“I've never forgotten what Treetops has given me,” he said.

Now, with his death on March 13 at age 82, it is what Philip has given the world of science that stands out — the second-largest collection of arctic butterflies in the world.

“It’s a strong indicator of the importance of the collection that he’s been sponsored by the Smithsonian over the years,” said Jim Kruse, a friend of Philip’s and an entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

The Philip collection will remain with the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Alaska Museum of the North and the National Park Service as testament to the dedication of Alaska's leading expert on butterflies. There are voluminous records showing when and where each specimen was taken, essential information in documenting the biology of northern butterflies.

“Some of the places he went to were actually quite dangerous. He had to wait for them to fly by and try to net them as they went past,” Kruse said.

The founder of the Alaska Lepidoptera Survey, he drove a yellow pickup with “INSECT” as his license plate and a decal for the survey on the doors. Using his talents as a woodworker, Philip created shelves for his truck to organize specimens he collected on his widespread travels throughout Alaska.

While he chased butterflies with the best of them, Philip could not cover all of Alaska, eastern Russian or western Canada. He worked with more than 600 volunteer collectors over the years. They collected and classified more than 83,000 butterfly specimens from across the northern regions of the globe, a collection surpassed only by the Canadian National Collection in Ottawa.

When Washington author, Robert Pyle set out to try and see all 800 species of butterflies in the United States in a “big year,” Philip served as his guide in Alaska.

“Putting nets and supplies in the hands of Alaskans all over the state, from fishermen and Natives to pipeline workers, Ken built an invaluable reference collection and a rich database on the Alaskan fauna,” Pyle wrote.

With classical music playing on the iPod, Pyle accompanied Philip to some of his favorite spots in Alaska — Murphy Dome near Fairbanks, Eagle Summit on the Steese Highway and Galbraith Lake off the Dalton Highway.

'First Dude of Alaska Leps'

“Looking back,” Pyle said of watching Philip in action on the North Slope, “I saw Ken perched on his special sitting rock: red, white and black plaid jacket, trademark black slacks and blue shirt, safari cap with earflaps and English net with short wooden handle, teardrop hoop and dark bag. I was tickled to have swung nets here on the North Slope with the First Dude of Alaska Leps.”

Leps is short for lepidopterists, those who study moths and butterflies. And to think that this self-educated lepidopterist only came to this profession after a mid-career change.

Philip grew up on the East Coast and earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate at Yale, where he studied astronomy and physics. His specialty was radio astronomy. He was a staff astronomer at the Yale Observatory, specializing in observations of Jupiter and other solar system phenomena. Then he moved to Alaska and joined the Geophysical Institute, as a researcher and physics professor.

He gradually shifted more of his professional attention away form the distant reaches of space and toward the beauty he saw in butterflies close at hand. He worked with a variety of institutions, from the Institute of Arctic Biology to the Smithsonian.

Denali butterfly search

Philip had become an accomplished photographer over the last decade, capturing photographs for a book on Alaska butterflies. In 2012, he spent considerable time in Denali National Park, looking for one butterfly.

"His goal in Denali was to take a photo of Parnassius phoebus (or Phoebus Apollo, a kind of swallowtail) near Highway Pass where he has documented a colony in the past. Unfortunately, Philip did not see any of the butterflies that were expected to be freshly-emerged and in-flight in July during his park visit," the Park Service said.

There are about 85 species of butterflies in Alaska and Philip helped coordinate efforts to find them in as many places as possible, which is why there are tens of thousands, collected across hundreds of thousands of square miles.

“Particularly when he was younger, he traveled all over the place, including eastern Russia western Canada. He’s been all over the North Slope and Kenai and down through Southeast,” said Kruse. “He was trying to document these butterflies across their entire range.”

Philip married a fellow Yale graduate student in 1958. The late Betty Anne Phillips Philip earned her doctorate in chemistry. She died from a stroke in 2010.

They moved to Fairbanks in 1965. While he dealt with physics, collecting butterflies on the side, she taught chemistry. They lost their daughter, Mary Van Ness Philip, in a 1986 car accident when she was 17.

Classical music buff

Ken and Betty Anne loved science fiction and classical music. Fairbanks lawyer Jim DeWitt said that Ken could sit in his chair in the "sweet spot" amid the sound system speakers.

"He could identify any work of classical music in the first few notes, and in the first two or three bars tell you the symphony and conductor," DeWitt said.

Though Philip had a pronounced stutter, he never allowed that to hinder his communication with others. And his enthusiasm about the thrill of discovery could take unusual forms.

For instance, in 2012 he could barely contain himself after he figured out a way to photograph the colors in the brilliant arch at the exit of Fairbanks International Airport -- the secret, he told the newspaper, is underexposure -- set the camera to two F-stops lower than you think it should be. He had been thinking about this for 27 years, he said.

“He always had time to talk about any of the many subjects that interested him or interested you,” DeWitt said.

One of the aspects of his field of study that fascinated Philip was the way in which subspecies of butterflies got their names. Subspecies in the butterfly world have run amok, he said.

He once wrote that his views the subject were "rank heresy. But having a few heretics around keeps life interesting."

"If two populations look somewhat different because of environmental effects on a constant genotype, then those are not subspecies. Unfortunately, without a lot of work there is no way to tell what's going on when you first encounter a new and slightly different population. Using a locality indicator at least lets you refrain from jumping to conclusions too early," he once wrote.

"I decided to ignore subspecies entirely in the Alaska Lepidoptera Survey collection, and lay out the material in strictly geographical sequence — on the assumption that any patterns would thereby be revealed," he said.

It is a measure of the respect that butterfly researchers have for the life of Ken Philip that a subspecies of "Rosov's Arctic," which flies in spruce bogs, was named "philipi" in his honor, with the common name of "Philip's Arctic."

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole