Story by Sarah Pratt | Photos by John Ulan
Ron Madge has spent a lifetime unlocking the secrets of the natural world — now he wants to help others find their own answers
Ron Madge is waiting on the front porch of his childhood home in Calgary at exactly noon, a canvas messenger bag tucked under one arm. After a polite greeting as he climbs into the passenger seat, he buckles his seatbelt and navigates the few blocks it takes to reach his favourite restaurant, Dragon Pearl.
At the restaurant, Madge removes his newsboy cap, adjusts his cardigan and places his bag on an empty chair. He orders his usual (if unusual) dish: an upon-request-only blend of wonton and hot-and-sour soup. The retired entomologist, who celebrated his 81st birthday a few days earlier, is soft-spoken and effortlessly dapper, his 28 years living in London evident in his style and careful enunciation. He tells stories in a precise way, cataloguing his interests and adventures in detail. He has brought a collection of items that represent different milestones in his life. He reaches into his bag and takes out a black and white photo of him as a nine-year-old boy with six childhood friends. A memento of a young man who was filled with wonder about the world that surrounded him.
Madge spent his childhood fascinated by science and nature. He loved catching butterflies. His mother, eager to encourage her son’s curiosity, made him a net from a badminton racket hung with fine cloth. She wasn’t squeamish about bugs but put her foot down when he tried to store his bottles of insects in the fridge.
His father wanted him to pursue a traditional career such as dentistry, but Madge knew early on that he would spend his life unlocking secrets of the natural world. Despite a brief romance with astronomy in junior high, he ultimately chose to study insects. That choice led to a lifetime spent in pursuit of answers.
Madge began his studies in entomology at the University of Alberta in 1953 and was surprised to be the only student in a second-year insect taxonomy course, where he learned to identify and categorize insects. It was like a private class, he says. In fact, many of his university classes were small, allowing him the kind of quiet, focused learning that would carry forward into his career.
Encouraged by his mentor, renowned UAlberta entomologist George Ball, Madge directed his keen focus and doctoral research on the ground beetle genus Lebia. But carrion beetles — insects that feed on the bodies of dead and decaying animals — were his true love, he says. Decades later, the mysterious creatures continue to fascinate Madge. They are surprisingly easy to collect, he explains, since all you need is a dead body. (A friend in Nova Scotia collected roadkill when he knew Madge was coming for a visit. “A good friend,” he says.)
Some knowledge is found in books, but other answers can only come through experience, and so Madge’s studies naturally included fieldwork. As a student in the 1950s he did a stint rearing caterpillars in Kananaskis and another fending off ticks while scouring bushes for insects in southern Manitoba. He also collected specimens in northern Alaska for the Canadian Department of Agriculture. As he recounts these stories, Madge reaches up and touches his bolo tie, the sliding clasp made of walrus ivory carved with the image of an Alaskan meat-drying hut.
After earning his PhD from UAlberta in 1963, Madge studied at the famed Natural History Museum in London, England, as a post-doctoral fellow. He remained at the museum from 1965 until his retirement in 1992, working as a beetle taxonomist for the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux. The museum’s terracotta tiles and arched ceilings house more than 80 million specimens, including the oldest entomology collection in the world, with more than 34 million species of insects and arachnids. Madge describes the museum’s library as a treasure that answers every question and satisfies curiosity — perfect for a man eager to spend his life collecting and cataloguing knowledge. “It’s absolutely fabulous,” he says. “Over time, I just found the books there were better and better.”
And London offered its own mysteries for Madge to investigate — “it took me a long time to get used to looking the wrong way” — and sparked an interest in language, history and British comedy (The Two Ronnies was a favourite). He reaches once more into the canvas bag and this time pulls out a book of rhyming Cockney slang and a 15th-century Scottish poem. He flips through pages of the slang book, explaining how he finds satisfaction in the rhythm of the words and learning the meaning of each phrase. One of his favourites is, “Let’s have a butcher’s (hook),” which is Cockney slang for, “Let’s have a look.”
The poem Christ’s Kirk on the Green has held his interest for decades, partially because it has the first recorded use of the word “clock.” Surprisingly, the word also means beetle, and you can still hear it used in this way throughout northern Britain today. Madge has spent more than 30 years working on his own restoration of the poem. His favourite line is a young woman telling her unwanted suitor that he isn’t worth two dung beetles. “I think today she would just say, ‘Get lost, you creep!’ ” he says with a laugh.
Madge’s canvas messenger bag might be nondescript at first glance, but as he pulls out one unique object after another — maps, books, photos, poetry — it becomes apparent that this simple tote is filled with a lifetime of curiosities.
The world-class library Madge has helped create at UAlberta is, too, equal parts instruction and delightful surprises. Since 1995, his financial donations helped build the Dr. Ronald B. Madge Entomology Collection, which houses nearly 500 rare and antiquarian books, manuscripts, journals and print ephemera in UAlberta’s Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. Tucked in among the collection are gems such as A Quaint Treatise on Fleas. (The photos for this story were taken at the Peel library as well as at the university’s E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum.)
“Books go on for years,” Madge says. “I hope whoever wants to use the collection will do so, and hopefully the books will still be around in hundreds of years.”
His academic legacy also endures. Insects that were named for Madge include a small, dull moth and Pachnoda madgei, a green African beetle with orange spots.
These days Madge digs in the dirt to garden, not to hunt insects. But he continues to ponder the world around him — “entomological thinking,” as he calls it, is still his favourite pastime.
“I like answers,” he says. “That’s why I like science but also why I like libraries and especially the Natural History Museum library in London. If you need an answer from a book you don’t have to wonder if they have it — of course they do. I want that for University of Alberta students.”
Thanks to Ron Madge’s generosity and commitment, the University of Alberta’s Bruce Peel Special Collections Library has built one of the great collections of historic entomology, notable for books of both scientific significance and esthetic beauty.
To learn more about making a gift to University of Alberta Libraries, contact Della Paradis at 780-492-7537 or firstname.lastname@example.org