Department Remembers Dr. Horace Burke

Horace Burke, right, with Dr. John Oswald in 2009 during a faculty meeting.

Dr. Horace Burke, right, with Dr. John Oswald in 2009 during a faculty meeting. Photo by Rob Williams.

Dr. Horace Burke, Professor Emeritus, passed away on Tuesday, September 6, 2016, in College Station, Texas.

Burke was born April 1, 1926 near Elkhart, Texas to Franklin Parks Burke and Minnie Lee Walling Burke. After attending Elkhart High School, he served in the United States Army 17th Airborne Division, 194th Glider Infantry in World War II.  Burke also served as part of the 13th Airborne and 82nd Airborne Divisions.

Upon resuming civilian life back in Texas, Horace attended Sam Houston State University where he earned a degree in Biology, then achieved his Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Entomology from Texas A&M University.

After working for the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station for several years, he became a professor of Entomology at Texas A&M in 1958, where he continued to teach and perform scientific research for nearly 40 years. Burke retired in 1996 and was named Professor Emeritus, where he continued to serve as the historian for the Department until his death.

Burke was instrumental in the teaching program at TAMU entomology. For many years, he taught the entire insect systematics curriculum, which included graduate and undergraduate courses in biodiversity, the principles of systematic entomology, and phylogeny and classification of insects. He continued teaching part of the systematics curriculum after other systematics faculty joined the department.

To this day, his former students still remember and remark on the difficulty and challenging nature of “Burke’s classes” and note, in retrospect, just how much they gained by having had Burke as a professor and mentor. Burke advanced to Professor in 1969 and later served as Associate Department Head. In 1975, he was chosen as the Outstanding Professor in the Department for his exceptional teaching efforts.

Throughout his career Burke has encouraged his graduate students to undertake fieldwork, stressing the need to know one’s research subject in the field and encouraged the development of high-quality research collections, consisting of well-prepared specimens in series with host data. Later in his tenure, Burke was instrumental in formulating the modern systematics curriculum that is currently in place in the department.

The major emphasis of Burke’s research career has been on the systematics and biology of the weevil family Curculionidae, specializing on the tribe Anthonomini, which is a speciose and poorly known group of mostly tropical weevils that includes the boll weevil.

Burke and his associates studied the boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis) on its native host plants in Mexico, which subsequently opened multiple lines of research, including the revision of the systematics of the grandis group of Anthonomus. Most of the approximately 140 papers, reviews, and book chapters authored or coauthored by Horace deal with the systematics and biology of weevils.

Many of his publications on weevil morphology and systematics are well known. Among those are his treatises on the pupae and the larvae of the Anthonomini which taken together with his numerous subsequent papers on the subject make known the immature stages of more species of Anthonomini than for any other comparable group of weevils.  Burke’s first paper on Anthonomini appeared in 1959 and his most recent in 2010. He has authored or coauthored 84 new species and three new genera.  In addition to weevils, Horace has authored a few papers on other beetles other beetle families (Elmidae, Lycidae).

During his tenure as the Faculty Curator of the Texas A&M Insect Collection, Burke was instrumental in modernizing the collection storage systems, established a hard-money assistant curator position, designed the new quarters to house the collection (Room 216 in the Heep Center), received the first National Science Foundation collection improvement grant, and established of the first endowments for the collection.

As curator, the collection grew substantially from around 300,000 to over 1 million, with a significant portion of that growth being in Coleoptera. Burke emphasized to all personnel associated with the collection the need for high quality specimens and the importance of growing the collection in size and promoting its use. The collection was then, and remains now, heavily used by local, national and international researchers.  The collection’s reputation and record of use is directly traced to Burke’s influence.

Burke also served as the Departmental representative and advisor to the TAMU Library Systems (1960-1991), where he developed the campus library’s holdings of entomological literature. In 1979, he was instrumental in creating the first copy of Curculio, a newsletter directed at an international audience of weevil workers, which was the longest running taxon-specific newsletters in coleopterology.

Burkes’ passion for natural history exploration can be viewed as Sam Houston State recently opened the Horace R. Burke Library of Natural History Exploration inside of the Sam Houston State Natural History Museum. The collection houses more than 4,000 books on natural history that Burke had donated and can be considered a valuable resource for biologists and other persons interested in natural history.

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