Redefining Wonder Woman Series 4: Obsessed With Scuttle Flies

I’m always intrigued by people who have discovered their passion. However, of all the passions I have witnessed or heard about; the subject of this interview has got to be the most fascinating. I interviewed Dr Henry Disney about his passion for scuttle flies. Never heard of them before? Neither had I until I met him. Dr Henry Disney graduated from Cambridge University as an ecologist in 1962. Fifty years later, he works as a Senior Research Associate at Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. I hope you find his interview as inspiring as I did.

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RWW: Could you describe in a few words what you do for a living?
DHD: In my ‘retirement’ I continue my research on the scuttle flies (Diptera, Phoridae) of the world. This family of insects has a greater diversity of larval habits than any other family that has evolved. I essentially identify, or often describe as new, specimens from around the world that I am requested to name; because they have new data or they are of applied importance (as a pest, in a forensic case, as a biological control agent, as a monitor of pollution, etc.)

RWW: How did you go from entomologist to ecologist to taxonomist? Phew!
DHD: In the 1960s I was a medical entomologist in Belize and then Cameroon. Every problem ended up in a taxonomic problem. In the 1970s I was intrigued by the larvae of meniscus midges and ended up writing a Handbook on the larvae, pupae and adults of the British species. I then got interested in the diverse habits of scuttle fly larvae and ended up writing a two volume Handbook on the British species. People from around the world then started asking me to identify their scuttle flies. So I had to write many identification keys and revisions in order to do this.

RWW: What Were your interests as a child?
DHD: I was always interested in natural history and archaeology from an early age.

RWW: I understand your expertise helped solved a crime.
DHD: As some larvae of scuttle flies feed on corpses they are occasionally critical in solving a crime. The commonest question is when was the first egg laid that gave rise to the larvae in the corpse? Thus in a case last year I worked out that this was a few days BEFORE when the accused said he had been talking to the victim!
Other larvae may occur in food. Thus in a French case a company blamed a French supply company, who said they had imported the package from Japan. I found that the species was a Japanese species.

RWW: What has it taken to become an expert
DHD: Obsession! Close attention to detail. Hard work. Being prepared to question the textbooks. My career has had a series of unexpected changes, but I have continued my obsession with small flies throughout.

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    A scuttle fly laying its egg into a prepupa of a ladybird beetle. Its larva develops as a parasite in the pupa.

RWW: Writing is your other passion and you’re also a poet. What do you love writing about the most?
DHD: My poems are meditations on events in my life, on people, on issues of the day,etc. – but all with reference to Gospel values and insights.

RWW: Writing and Entomology are two diverse passions. Do they collide or complement one another?
DHD: They complement each other. Scientific writing aims to be objective. In poetry, one is trying to explore the subjective along with the surface narrative.

RWW: You also explore your faith and science. Can you tell me a bit about that?
DHD: The blurb on the back of my third collection of poems said that I regarded “observed facts and authenticated experience as sacred but all interpretation as provisional”. Where I deviate from Richard Dawkins is in disagreeing with his claim that there is no evidence for the existence of God. I have encountered too many people whose lives have been transformed following their turning to Christ. I interpret this as evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. When asked what is God like I respond that we will be able to answer that question in the afterlife. For now He is the being Jesus referred to as Our Father and My Father. In this life our concern is to allow the Holy Spirit to align our actions and relationships with the values and purposes of His Kingdom. That is all we really need to know this side of death.

RWW: What are your cherished moments of being a father and grandfather?
DHD: My three children and four grandchildren are a great blessing. They are all different and it has been wonderful seeing their differing personalities develop.

RWW: What are your regrets about fatherhood?
DHD: Work leading to me not spending more time with my children, especially when I had extensive admin and teaching commitments when in Yorkshire.

RWW: Do you have any advice for fathers today?
DHD: Spend more time with your children before, too soon, they leave home. Some of those ‘important’ distractions can be postponed or ignored!

My sincere thanks go to Dr Disney for taking the time to answer my questions. You can read more about Dr Disney’s work here.


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*Felix Bennet

PS There’s a lot I could write about after this interview but I’m going to be brave enough to let the words speak for themselves. Note to parents – please encourage whatever passions your children have.

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