Biography of Bertha and John Carr
by Dave Larson
John Carr - early life

John Carr was born in Edmonton, June 15, 1922, but within a year his family moved to Medicine Hat where his father, Fredrick S. Carr, was school inspector. Frederick Carr was an enthusiastic collector of beetles and John grew up in an environment of insect collecting, visits from entomologists and family camping and collecting trips. John received considerable basic training and encouragement in entomology from his father but at his father's death, when John was only 12, his entomological studies more or less ceased and John donated his father's collection of about 100,000 specimens of beetles to the University of Alberta in 1939. Although not continuing to collect beetles, John had a well instilled interest in natural history and while living in Medicine Hat spent his summers at his sister's ranch at Tilley.

John's profession was geology. He entered University of Alberta in 1939 and graduated with an M.Sc. in 1946. As a student he was employed during summers by the Research Council of Canada mapping stratigraphy for coal deposits. This summer work took him into some of the most remote parts of the Alberta Rocky Mountains and their northern foothills as well into the Canol Road area of the Mackenzie Mountains, NWT.

On graduation, John worked at a gold mine in Québec for about a year but was recruited back to Calgary by British North American Oil and Gas which later became Home Oil, the petroleum company with which John spent most of his career. It was through this job that John met Bert.

Bertha Carr (nee. Bertha Batty) - early life

Bert was born November 26, 1918, on her family's homestead, Section 27, Tp 7 Rge 2 W 3, the second child of 10. She attended a local one room school to grade 10 then boarded in Assiniboia for grades 11 and 12. Bert attended normal school in Regina for one year to acquire a teaching certificate (all of her sisters also became teachers, as was her father until he quit to become a full-time farmer). Bert had several teaching postings: one year at Buffalo Horn south of Ponteix, three years at Twelve Mile Lake School which was near the family farm were she stayed and commuted by horse-back, and two years at Mazenod (east of Gravelbourg).

In 1944, Bert enlisted in the Air Force. She had wireless training in Montreal then was posted to Linton, Yorkshire, England, where she served as a radio telephone operator and on a team controlling air traffic until the end of the war. She was discharged in Saskatoon and from there enrolled at the University of Alberta in an accelerated B.Sc. Program for returned service people. During this program she developed an interest in geology and graduated in 1948 with a geology major.

Bert took a job with the Alberta Oil and Gas Conservation Board, working in the Calgary office. Petroleum geologists would often visit the office to examine drilling cores and logs and it was during such visits that Bert met John Carr. Courtship was rapid and they were married Sept. 3, 1949. As Bert remarked, "little time was spent looking for a wedding dress".

Bert and John Carr - married life

Bert and John's entomological interests really blossomed after they were married.

In the fall of 1949, they bought an acreage away to the northwest of the then city of Calgary. They started building a house moving into the basement in 1951 and occupying the entire house in 1953. Two sons were born, Richard (1957) and Douglas (1960). The acreage served as a focus for their natural history and gardening interests. They built a magnificent rock garden from huge pieces of local sandstone which they wrestled home. The focus of the garden was primarily irises and flowering onions, of which they had a diverse collection.

As a boy, John had collected beetles with his father but during his senior education years, early career as a geologist, and first years of marriage, he did not collect. With moving to the acreage and on a trip to the Yukon in 1955 he took up his boyhood hobby again. Bert growing up in a rural environment had a strong interest in natural history although never took formal training. However, on being introduced to beetle collecting by John she was immediately willing to collect and learn from him and while she modestly claims she never caught up with him in knowledge, she attained a mastery of several families, such as Carabidae, that she concentrated on. Bert tended to keep her feet dry, concentrating on sweeping, sifting and general soil collecting while allowing John to plunge into the swamps. They acquired a dog, a boxer named Chimp (succeeded by another boxer, Squirt), that needed regular walks again giving Bert ample opportunity for collecting in their rural neighbourhood. As the boys were growing, holidays and weekends were taken as camping and collecting trips, often to the mountains west of Calgary but also onto the prairies and further west in B.C. and the northwestern United States.

During this period, the city of Calgary grew rapidly and finally caught up with them, engulfing the acreage in a subdivision and forcing a move into the suburbs in the early 1980's. This corresponded approximately with the boys leaving home, John's retirement and the death of the dog thus the opportunity arose for longer and further trips and for the next ten years, as John's health permitted, they wandered and collected widely, from the southern Yukon to the Gulf of Mexico and from Vancouver Island to Ottawa, collecting as they went and spending the winters curating and identifying the catches from the summer collections. On several of these trips they were accompanied by other collectors, especially Chris and Anne Van Nidik from Holland, and Dave Larson and family (a summer-long trip to the Yukon in 1987). Detailed accounts of these collections were made on note cards which were deposited with their collection in the Canadian National Collection. This life style continued until the early 1990's when John's developing health problems curtailed his collecting and rendered it impossible for him to do microscope work. As they could not work on the collection further nor could they maintain it adequately, Bert and John donated their collection to the Canadian National Collection, Ottawa, with the collection being delivered to Ottawa in August 2000 with the aid of the CanaCol Foundation.

The Canadian National Collection evaluation of this donation (Anthony Davis, Curator of Coleoptera, CNC, in lit., Nov. 2003) shows just what a remarkable achievement the Bert and John Carr collection was:

  Identification level  
Type of specimen species genus family Total
papered 45,893 7,850 5,542 59,285
pinned 37,795 4,510 1,783 44,088
pointed 92,531 12,192 4,364 109,087
alcohol 130 0 90 220
Total 176,349 24,552 11,779 212,680

Of these specimens, 232 were paratypes. A. Davis also noted that he "could not estimate the number of species because the specimens are broken down into several categories, but ... there are at least four or five thousand, from all over temperate North America. The most impressive feature of this collection is that the Carrs have added so many species which were not previously represented in the CNC, and many more new provincial records to be added to the Checklist of Coleoptera of Canada and Alaska."

Both of the Carr homes, the acreage and the subsequent suburban home, featured a beetle bedroom. This was the room given over to storing the collection and literature and contained the desk space and microscopes for preparation and study of specimens. This room was a Mecca for Coleopterists. Those who lived locally or who were passing through were welcomed in to study specimens, refer to the collecting notes and generally discuss beetle lore. Those who could not physically make it to the beetle bedroom still had access to the material for the Carrs generously loaned specimens to people wishing to study them. This open door policy meant that much of their collection was examined and identified, or had identifications confirmed, by specialists. Primary types based on their specimens, as well as particularly valuable specimens were deposited in public collections. Bert and John were not particularly interested in trading or obtaining exotic specimens. They were grateful for the opportunity to see an example of a new taxon but generally accepted donated specimens with reluctance. The personal involvement of collecting the specimen and learning of the species in the field was the focus of the collecting, the collection served as the reference and filing system for experiences, memories and field notes. Much of this material is intangible but through discussions with various Coleopterists and maintenance and deposition of field notes with the collection, a wealth of their ecological knowledge is preserved.

Some Personal Reflections

My wife, Margaret and I have been fortunate to have had a long, close professional and personal relationship with Bert and John. Through my own childhood naturalizing, I had developed a fascination with the diversity of water beetles in prairie ponds. When studying at the University of Calgary, the opportunity came to study these insects and I jumped at it. I did not know the Carrs at the time but the grand old man of water beetle systematics, Hugh Leech of the California Academy of Sciences, suggested that since we lived in the same city I seek him out. I did and an unrealized world was revealed to me. Our first collecting trip together was to Winchell Coulee, northwest of Calgary. Here John showed me how to find the then little known Neoscutopterus hornii, black legged Colymbetes and a host of other bog inhabiting species. These species live at the interface of land and water, amongst vegetation too dense for a regular aquatic net and too wet for conventional terrestrial collection. John had built his own stout, metal sieves and developed treading and sweeping techniques that allowed him to access this reclusive fauna. Sharing these techniques opened a new world to me.

This trip was followed by many day trips. Highlights of the trips were Bert's healthy cookies and endless vacuums of strong coffee. Even the travel was a celebration for landmarks, such as the conveniently spaced (about half hour apart) microwave towers, signalled opening picnic hampers and pouring coffee. At the collecting site, each person went their own way, regrouping for lunch and comparing notes on who had found the most unusual thing. There was low-key competition for the best finds which served well to increase the thoroughness of collection. For when one person found a good thing, quickly the rest of the party could focus their collecting efforts on the same beetle. Many of the sites so visited still form the baselines for me as to what taxa to expect in such habitats.

Our longest joint trip was a summer trip to northwestern British Columbia and the Yukon in the summer of 1987. Bert and John travelled in their van while Margaret and I and our two children travelled in our camper. We camped together each night but during the day we tended to go our own ways. This often resulted in one party finding things not found by the other and thereby alerting each other as to what to look for. The children (aged 8 and 12) adored the Carrs who tolerated - even encouraged - behaviour not always considered quite proper by the parents. For example, the "pygmies" would appear out of the woods early each morning to watch John's cold-water shaving. Bert spoilt them with treats and of course they always wanted to travel in the Carr's car. The trip was in part a nostalgia trip for John who was able to revisit parts of the Mackenzie and Nahani Mountains he had known from his student summer work, and for a chance for me to revisit Watson Lake, where I had grown up. A highlight was spending time at Mayo with Bert's sister, Dorrie Ewing, who treated us to a magical summer night on Minto Lake with the kids running free in the bright light, water skiing, canoeing and picnicking.

Another highlight of travelling with Carrs was their knowledge of geology. They were able to interpret the landscape and relate it to the biota in insightful ways. They both read widely and had opinions and observations on many topics and our evening discussions ranged widely. I remember one evening in the early 1970's especially clearly when John introduced me to what he considered one of the most thought provoking papers he had read - entitled "The significance of the rare event in geology".

It wasn't until quite a few years later that the major idea of the paper became more widely included in the biology literature. At an early stage of his illness, John was mobile but somewhat unstable on his feet. When visiting us, he wished to look at our dam as it was a good site for beetle collection. However it involved a fairly long walk over rough and sloping ground. While negotiating a narrow hillside trail, one of our dogs came tearing down the trail, collided with John and sent him sprawling. I ran to him in alarm while yelling dire things at the dog. However, John propped himself up and smiling said "don't blame the dog. She had important things to do and I was just standing in her way". This showed John's generosity of spirit for he had time and respect for others points of view. Not that he didn't have his own opinions, it was just that he would hear you out fully before giving a carefully thought out and enunciated position. I always felt he was the best critic of any of my beetle publications for I knew he would study it in detail, digest it and give a very considered review incitefully picking up the key points and weaknesses.

What we associate most with John is his sense of humour. At almost any time a smile could cross his face, his eyes sparkle and you knew a pun was coming. Bert is an appreciative audience and while not given to such puns herself, is a fountain of optimism and good nature. She has long had a stiff back. During collection, especially when bending over to search the ground or low level sweeping, it would lock so she would spend the day looking down, a good collecting position she would observe. At the end of the day she would give herself a good whack on the lower back which would straighten her out and snap her out of collecting mode. In recent years with John's illness the only negative comment I heard make was "This is not what we had planned". But having said that she continues as John's constant companion and support, continuing to enrich his life and enjoy the puns.

Updated: February 6, 2006