Paul Dessart was the taxonomist who did the majority of the work on Ceraphronoidea from 1962 to 2001. While translating his papers I’ve come to appreciate the personal touches he added, whether it’s a complaint about how the curators wouldn’t let him dissect holotype specimens or a joke that doesn’t quite translate (the albo in albovarius doesn’t mean “egg”). I know Paul Dessart the taxonomist, but I wanted to know more about Paul Dessart the man. He passed away in 2001, but I spoke to his dear friend, Lubomír Masner, who was able to share some stories that paint a more complete picture of the taxonomist in whose footsteps I’ve been following.
Paul Dessart was born in La Hulpe in Belgium, just outside of Brussels. He actually started out as a dipterist working on Ceratopogonidae, and was even stationed in the Belgian Congo for a while before coming back to work in Brussels. When he was hired by the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique, he was told that they needed a hymenopterist, so he switched. He decided to work on Ceraphronoidea because he knew he would be the only one working on the group.
Indeed, Dessart became the “unopposed emperor” of Ceraphronoidea. He had a very productive career, authoring over 100 publications on the superfamily during his lifetime, but the work was not without its frustrations. The more he worked on Ceraphronidae, the more Ceraphron and Aphanogmus seemed to merge together. This frustration followed him outside of the office. Dessart had a dog named Ceraphron, but when he was angry he would sometimes call it Aphanogmus. This happened often enough that the dog started to associate that name with his anger, and started to avoid him at the mere mention of the word.
While Dessart was a very good taxonomist, he was not the best curator. When Lubomír went to visit him, they both spent more time looking for a specimen than actually studying the specimen because of how disorganized the collection was.
Dessart married an Italian woman from Naples named Franca. They settled in Brussels and had 5 children, 2 boys and 3 girls. Dessart was very proud of his French heritage (perhaps the reason why most of his papers are published in French), and went to great lengths to preserve it, even correcting local waiters so their grammar would reflect 16th century archaic French.
Dessart was always clean-shaven, and was rather short; his wife was much taller than him. Regardless, he was a very skilled dancer. Lubomír remembers taking Dessart and his wife out to a club one night, where their dancing entranced the entire club. They even cleared everyone else off the dance floor to let them dance, watching them for almost an hour.
Unfortunately, Dessart and his wife separated, and she went back to live in Italy. Dessart spent a few of his summers in Italy after that, but otherwise continued with his work in Brussels. He kept publishing papers, with this last publication being a review of Dendrocerus outside Europe and North America (Dessart 2001), the follow-up to a similar paper he published on Conostigmus in 1997 (Dessart 1997a).
Dessart seemed hesitant to work on revising Conostigmus in the Nearctic, and only published one paper focusing on three species with unique coloration (Dessart 1997b). Lubomír once asked him why he didn’t do further work on Conostigmus in the Nearctic, but he didn’t elaborate. I’m not sure that we’ll ever know the reason now, but regardless, I am more than happy to pick up where he left off, and I am thankful that we have his papers to guide us in our research. Dessart was the one who discovered that male genitalia characters were the key to distinguishing between species, a principle that still guides our research today. Work on Ceraphronoidea would be much more difficult if not for Paul Dessart.
Dessart, P. (1997a). Les Megaspilinae ni europeens, ni americains. 1. Le genre Conostigmus Dahlbom, 1858 (Hym. Ceraphronoidea Megaspilidae). Memoires de La Société Royale Belge d’Entomologie 37, 3–144.
Dessart, P. (1997b). Trois Conostigmus roux-noir nord-americains (Hymenoptera Ceraphronoidea Megaspilidae). Bulletin et Annales de La Société Royale Belge d’Entomologie 133, 23–44.
Dessart, P. (2001). Les Megaspilinae ni européens, ni américains 2. Les Dendrocerus Ratzeburg, 1852, à mâles non flabellicornés (Hymenoptera Ceraphronoidea Megaspilidae). Belgian Journal of Entomology 3, 3–124.
A special thanks to Lubomír Masner for his help and his stories.