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Posted February 27, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Pathologist has studied, enjoyed insects since childhood

By Alex Bridges - abridges@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER - Local pathologist Robert "Bob" Dillingham loves the beetles and the scorpions -- ones more likely to be found near or under rocks rather than in rock music.

Dozens of insects line the walls leading to and in his office in the laboratory area at Winchester Medical Center. While some specimens may give a few people the creeps, many of his co-workers delight in having the collection.

"[They say] the usual stuff, either 'gross' or 'that's really cool,'" Dillingham said. "This tarantula lived in my office for almost 10 years."

That now-dead tarantula, which he named after a fellow pathologist in Leesburg, sits inside a clear, plastic box.

"I think it's neat to walk in and see all the things he's got around," said Joseph DeLozier, a first assistant in the operating room for open-heart and bariatric surgery. "It would take more than that to creep me out, all that I've seen."

Dillingham's fascination with insects of all kinds started at an early age, when he lived in Panama and his father worked for a branch of Florida State University in the Canal Zone. Central America, where he traveled a lot as a child, provided him with a wide variety of insect families and species, Dillingham said.

"I was sent down there to work for his friends, doing projects in the summer -- orchid collection," he recalled. "I collected bats one summer, so I just sorta ... halfway grew up in the tropics."

Now the doctor has amassed a collection of hundreds of species of insects.

"Oh, I've been interested in it my whole life," Dillingham said. "Since I was a little kid I was always interested [in insects]."

Some of the insects he displays on his office wall he found locally and prepared himself.

"I never used to go anywhere without my butterfly net and smuggling a thing of chloroform in my suitcase," he said. "But I don't do that anymore."

The doctor recalled that he collected live black widows, one of the deadliest spiders, when he was young. He said he had a way to collect their silk which he then sold to be used to make cross hairs for rifles.

Most of the specimens in Dillingham's collection come from South America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, he said. But other, less exotic, acquisitions came from places closer to home, and some of those appear in the clear, plastic containers he hangs on a wall in his office.

He buys many of his specimens from other suppliers, including dealers in New York City and in Key West, Fla. But not many places exist where a person can buy exotic insects, he said.

He has the insects mounted and placed in containers that he can then hang on walls. Many of the specimens are of museum display quality, he said, but they decorate the walls in the laboratory area of the hospital near his office -- and he has many more at home.

"A lot of these come from sustainable sources -- projects that are done in villages around the world because, I mean, frankly, there's a good supply of ants around," said Dillingham, who has several cases of such insects each approximately an inch long. "Most of the butterflies live for a short period anyway."

The collector pointed to a stick insect from the Pacific measuring nearly 12 inches.

"There's not a big problem with depletion," he added. "Some of them, like these large, stick insects have a very limited range and collection of those is discouraged now."

By contrast, the Emperor scorpion from North Africa, which he pointed to in another case, is "exceedingly" common, Dillingham said.

"They aren't very aggressive at all," he said. "They have just a big aquarium with 50 of them, and then if you want to buy 10 the guy just scoops in with his hand and pulls out 10 for you."

A whip scorpion, displayed in one container, looks more like a spider than a typical scorpion. It has no tail; it has long feelers in front that resemble a fourth set of legs to its six.

"There's essentially an inverse relationship between the size of the scorpion and the strength of the poison," he said. "The ones that can really kill you, there's some in northern Mexico, some in Israel that are actually really deadly and they're less than an inch long."

Dillingham said he finds beetles "fascinating," and pointed out several specimens with brightly colored shells that glisten under his office light. A rhinoceros beetle, all black with large pincers and nearly the size of a baseball, also shines.

There are more species of beetles than all other types of insects combined, he said.

Another specimen comes from the "true bug" family of insect. The large insect is related to the "stink bug" and the "bed bug" as well as leaf hoppers, Dillingham explained.

His collection also includes several dozen butterflies and moths, many of which have bright color patterns on their wings.

Dillingham pulled from a shelf a book titled "An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles" by Arthur V. Evans and Charles L. Bellamy. Inside, he pointed out other species and their color patterns.

Unlike many people who react by stepping on or squashing a bug that comes near, Dillingham said his reflex is to not kill the insect.

He acknowledged that some people have a revulsion to certain insects, especially spiders, but he has found the bugs can help calm the children who may come to the laboratory to give blood. The insects sometimes can keep their minds off the pain of being stuck with a needle, he said.

"The people that draw the blood know they can guide them back here to look at all the stuff," Dillingham said.

Dillingham plans to put together another exhibit of insects that will be on permanent display at the outpatient diagnostic center in the hospital. He also invites people to view the collection he keeps on display near his office.

"In the last few years since I put this exhibit in here, it's been so well received by so many people that come around that it's encouraged me to do more," he said. "It's my little contribution to the hospital."

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