Back E. O. Wilson, “Krakatau”

Edward O. Wilson (b. 1929)
From Edward O. Wilson: Biophilia, The Diversity of Life, Naturalist

Detail from “View of Krakatoa during the Earlier State of the Eruption, from a photograph taken on Sunday, the 27th of May, 1883.” Parker and Coward, lithographers. Chromolithographic plate from The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena (1888), edited by George James Symonds and published by the Royal Society, Great Britain. (Houghton Library via WikiCommons)

E. O. Wilson turns 92 today, Thursday, June 10.

In 1936 seven-year-old Edward Wilson was sent by his parents to live with a family in Paradise Beach, Florida, for the summer. He went fishing one day “jerking pinfish out of the water as soon as they struck the bait,” he recalls. “I carelessly yanked too hard when one of the fish pulled on my line. It flew out of the water and into my face. One of its spines pierced the pupil of my right eye.” Left untreated, his eye developed a traumatic cataract months later and he underwent surgery at Pensacola Hospital, partially losing his sight. “I was left with full sight in the left eye only. Fortunately, that vision proved to be more acute at close range than average—20/10 on the ophthalmologist’s chart—and has remained so all my life.”

By the time he was in high school, he had decided to become a biologist. But then he lost most of his hearing in the upper registers from a cause that was never determined. “So when I set out later as a teenager with Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds and binoculars in hand, as all true naturalists in America must at one time or other, I proved to be a wretched birdwatcher. I couldn’t hear birds; I couldn’t locate them unless they obligingly fluttered past in clear view; even one bird singing in a tree close by was invisible unless someone pointed a finger straight at it. The same was true of frogs.”

These two childhood events shaped his fate: “I am blind in one eye and cannot hear high-frequency sounds; therefore I am an entomologist.” More specifically, he became a myrmecologist (a scientist who studies ants), not to mention one of the best-selling and most popular science writers of recent decades.

Later in life, the island of Krakatau played a pivotal role in his groundbreaking research. In a fascinating essay from his book The Diversity of Life (included in the first Library of America volume of his collected writings), Wilson presents a history of the 1883 eruption of the island and of the reappearance of life on its remnants, and we have featured the selection as our Story of the Week.

Read “Krakatau” by E. O. Wilson

Library of America

A champion of America’s great writers and timeless works, Library of America guides readers in finding and exploring the exceptional writing that reflects the nation’s history and culture.

Learn More

From poetry, novels, and memoirs to journalism, crime writing, and science fiction, the more than 300 volumes published by Library of America are widely recognized as America’s literary canon.

Browse our books Subscribe

With contributions from donors, Library of America preserves and celebrates a vital part of our cultural heritage for generations to come.

Support our mission