Willis J. Gertsch, ESA Fellow (1940)
Dr. Willis J. Gertsch (deceased 12 December 1998), curator at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), was elected as Fellow in 1940. He was best known for his identification, classification, and discovery of a variety of arachnid species, including the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa Gertsch & Malaik). He has authored or assisted in writing 123 works, appearing in 165 publications, and three languages.
Dr. Gertsch was born in Montpelier, ID on 4 October 1906. He was the eldest of four children born to parents of Swiss ancestry and while in high school he worked at a local movie theater to supplement the family income. During high school, Gertsch developed an interest in nature and began collecting butterflies. In 1924, the Gertsch family relocated to Salt Lake City, UT so Willis could attend the University of Utah (U of U). While attending the university, Gertsch met Dr. Ralph Vary Chamberlin, a well-known professor of zoology, and was greatly influenced by him. Gertsch remained at the U of U after obtaining his B.S. degree in 1928, studying under Dr. Chamberlin for his M.S. degree, which he received in 1930. He began his doctorate degree at the University of Minnesota (U of M) in 1930, where he met his wife, Jean Elizabeth Moore. They were married on 20 August 1932 while they were both working towards degrees and living off fellowship stipends of $66 per month, a large sum during the Great Depression.
In 1933, Dr. Frank E. Lutz interviewed Gertsch for the post of assistant curator in the entomology department at AMNH. He was hired for the post and moved to Connecticut with Jean later that year. In the fall, he purchased a house in Ramsey, NJ near Dr. Lutz where he remained, commuting to work with Lutz and raising three children in the neighborhood. In 1935, Gertsch earned his Ph.D. in absentia from the U of M while working at AMNH. The collection and identification of thousands of specimens during his years at the museum made Gertsch well known and respected within the scientific community. He was instrumental in acquiring various collections for the museum, including the S.C. Bishop and R.V. Chamberlin collections, and arranging for long-term loans from Cornell University and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Dr. Gertsch served on the board of directors for the American Arachnological Society and the editorial board of the Journal of Arachnology. Upon his retirement in 1968, after 36 years at the museum, Dr. Gertsch and Jean moved to Portal, AZ. For many years he hosted arachnologists who gathered in Portal at the AMNH’s research station in the vicinity for the American Arachnological Society meeting.
(Updated May, 2012)