Jeffrey Glassberg, A69, helped usher in the age of CSI-style criminal investigation by inventing genetic fingerprinting. Then he set out to save the butterfly, and with it the world
Mission, Texas, is about as far south as a person can get in the Lone Star State, directly atop the Mexican border and just seventy miles west of the Gulf. The streets here are wide and straight, the buildings bleached to pastels. On Sundays, Father Roy, the cowboy priest of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, holds mass with his dogs, and usually some country music, too.
Mission was the unlikely landing spot, twenty-four years ago, for a molecular geneticist from New Jersey who, having already pioneered the science of genetic fingerprinting, had made himself into one of the country’s leading experts on, of all things, butterflies. Jeffrey Glassberg, A69, had come to believe that the delicate butterfly, so susceptible to the slightest disturbances in its ecosystem, was a kind of flying early warning system that offered crucial insight into how human activity was negatively impacting the environment. If we could find a way to protect and preserve the butterfly, Glassberg was fond of saying, then we could save ourselves in the bargain.
For these reasons, and the simple fact that he found butterflies to be beautiful and endlessly fascinating, Glassberg had founded the North American Butterfly Association, or NABA, in 1992. He also had a side business of sorts, taking clients on butterfly-watching expeditions around the US and Mexico. And it was one of those trips that brought Glassberg to Mission in 1994. The part of Texas where the town is located, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, is particularly fertile butterfly ground, sitting at the territorial intersection of the roughly six hundred species in the US and Mexico’s eighteen hundred.
Glassberg showed up in Mission outfitted in a manner befitting the founder of NABA—bucket hat, pants tucked in his socks, cameras, binoculars, all of it. He led his tiny group to the outskirts of town, where the sunflowers grew wild on the side of the road, and farmers planted fields of sorghum and sugarcane. At a bend in the Rio Grande that separates the US from Mexico, the visitors neared the ruined beauty of an old Oblate monastery, once the province of local missionaries. It was quiet that day, no one else was around. There were wildflowers and grass, sunshine and butterflies. And suddenly, Glassberg had a thought: “This could be a butterfly park.”
Over the next quarter century, Glassberg would go on to become one of the country’s most respected butterfly experts. And right there in Mission, he would open that park—the National Butterfly Center—partly to preserve and celebrate the creatures he loves so much, and partly to, in his own small way, help save the world. Along the way, he would change how we observe and talk about butterflies, and even how we think about them. But there would be difficulties, too, some of them more painful than he could have imagined.
There has never been a time in Jeffrey Glassberg’s life that he didn’t love butterflies. He chased them as a five-year-old on Long Island with a butterfly net. On summer breaks while at Tufts, he and his childhood friend Bob Robbins, AG78, now curator of lepidoptera—moths and butterflies—at the Smithsonian Institution, braved cargo planes of live chickens during flights to Colombia just to catch a glimpse of new butterflies.
But for all Glassberg’s love of butterflies, they were only a hobby. After earning his PhD at Rice University in Texas, he and two friends cofounded a small genetics company in 1982. Five years later, the company’s technology and courtroom testimony helped win the first-ever conviction based on forensic DNA evidence in a US criminal trial, ushering in the modern CSI era.
“It was a game-changer for people worldwide,” said Michael Baird, who was then a vice president at the company, known as Lifecodes. “The reality is, Glassberg’s insights, his thoughts, they really have changed the world.”
In its first year, NABA grew to approximately three hundred members. Glassberg published a butterfly field guide, and sent out the first issue of the quarterly magazine American Butterflies. He even formed a committee to standardize the hodgepodge of common names that had plagued American butterfly classifiers. In his organization, Vanessa cardui would no longer be known as a painted lady, thistle butterfly, painted beauty, cosmopolite, cosmopolitan, thistle cynthy, and Cynthia of the thistle. Henceforth, it would just be a painted lady.
Butterflies have long fascinated humans. Their likenesses have been found in cave paintings and Pompeii ruins. In literature and local lore, they’ve represented freedom and purity, sin and vanity, divine art, resurrection, and messengers of death. But these insects have as much to tell us about the future as the past. Butterflies are an indicator species—they are exquisitely attuned to the environment, often requiring a balanced native ecosystem in order to thrive. This means specific plants, the right soils, healthy populations of other native fauna. When a land becomes deranged, butterflies are among the first things to disappear. And today, as human development encroaches further into the natural world, and climate change and pesticides wreak their havoc, global butterfly populations are plummeting to the point where even the most common species now are seen “in scores rather than hundreds,” as one noted conservationist wrote in 2016. Several have already disappeared forever. “If a species is going extinct, that tells you that the habitat has changed,” said Ernest Williams, a lepidopterist at Hamilton College in New York. “It’s a canary in a coal mine that’s telling you things are changing on the earth’s surface in a way that could not support a living organism that was there.”
To Glassberg, this means that if most of the butterflies of the world still survive, then there is hope for us. There is enough clean water and balanced, healthy land left in the world to support our needs. “But if all the butterflies are gone,” he said, “then I don’t see how humans are going to survive as a species.”
The NABA mission is to save the world by making people care about butterflies. The organization wants to get people to want to help butterflies—to lobby for them, to protect their habitat, to plant butterfly-friendly flowers, and to spend time outdoors around them. It’s butterflies as a kind of gateway drug to conservation.
He has also given common names to nearly all of Mexico and Central America’s twenty-four hundred butterflies, inspiring Mexico to do the same in that country’s scores of native languages and dialects. Here in the States, meanwhile, media outlets from the New York Times to Fox News regularly offer butterfly garden tips, and a 2013 study found that Americans were willing to spend more than $4 billion to save the monarchs. “It’s not been very long, and the popularity of butterflies has grown so much,” said Jonathan Pelham, another renowned butterfly expert. “And if you’re going to put a finger on someone responsible, it’s Jeffrey Glassberg.”
For all its growth and accomplishments, however, NABA has remained a cozy organization, run out of Glassberg’s home in New Jersey. It’s had a tightknit board comprised mostly of Glassberg’s close friends, a tiny staff for administrative tasks, and, of course, Jane. She had her own career, at Lederle Laboratories, part of the Fortune 100 company American Cyanamid, where she was director of business development. But in her spare time, she was NABA’s treasurer, secretary, and, in a sense, COO. They were a team, Jeffrey with his wild, big ideas, and Jane with her eye for details.
That didn’t always go over well. Take, for instance, his comments to me about the once-popular practice of catching and killing butterflies for collections instead of just observing them. Glassberg used to collect, but swore off the practice in the mid-1980s. Collecting, he told me, may have had its use before cameras, but was now “completely pointless” and “pathetic,” the sort of thing done by “failed human beings.”
“Glassberg is not a shrinking violet,” the University of California, Davis lepidopterist Art Shapiro told me. “And as you’ve probably noticed, he has enemies.” When I asked the celebrated author Robert Michael Pyle about Glassberg, he responded: “I admire Jeff very much and I like him. Sometimes I’m at pains to like him, but I do. But a lot of people of substance have written him off altogether and formed some pretty big schisms where there should be cooperation.”
He was not, Glassberg himself admitted, warm and fuzzy. “I end up making people feel bad about themselves,” he told me. “It’s never my intention. I’m just interested in the idea, as opposed to the people.” Jane, on the other hand, was a natural with people. She had that easy Southern charm. “She can talk to people and move the goal forward, making them feel good about themselves,” Glassberg said. So it was Jane who answered the phones at NABA, and who accompanied Glassberg on many of his fundraising trips, smoothing his way.
It took eight years of planning, fundraising, and schmoozing (with a lot of help from Jane), but in 2002 NABA finally acquired the title to one hundred acres of former onion field in Mission, Texas, that would become the National Butterfly Center. For years, Glassberg has spent one week each month in the town. A director for the day-to-day operations was soon hired, and work began on the plantings that would attract and sustain the butterflies.
The NBC officially opened in 2004. When I visited last summer, nearly two hundred species of native plants had been restored, drawing two hundred thirty-five species of butterflies—up from the thirty that had been counted before the revegetation. The center had also become a haven to wildlife of all kinds. Armadillos, bobcats, and javelina have all been seen strolling through the center, and the region is home to some five hundred different kinds of birds. The back seventy acres of the center are kept wilder to form a link in a chain of protected lands and wildlife refuges along the Rio Grande and up the Gulf Coast. This corridor is the only home left for the fewer than one hundred ocelots that are estimated to remain in the country.
What it becomes, however, may depend in good part on the fate of President Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico. Not long after I visited the NBC, a story appeared in the Texas Observer. “For at least six months,” it began, “private contractors and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have been quietly preparing to build the first piece of President Trump’s border wall through the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in South Texas.” Located about twenty miles east of the NBC, Santa Ana is one of the several national parks in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The information in the article came from an anonymous federal official involved in the planning of the wall. “This should be public information,” the official told the Observer. “There shouldn’t be government officials meeting in secret just so they don’t have to deal with the backlash.”
The next day, Jane died.
Jane Vicroy Scott had first been diagnosed with cancer in late 2014. She’d undergone treatment, but the cancer reappeared twice, most recently last fall. Rounds of chemotherapy followed. After a lifetime as a scientist, she was frustrated by the mental fog from the treatment, and she was looking forward to regaining her former sharpness. “They said it comes back,” she told me. “Your neurons start to function again.” She and Glassberg spent most of their time in New Jersey while she recovered. The hope had been that, this time, the cancer would be finished off and life would return to normal.
The weeks that followed Jane’s death were chaotic. Glassberg was inconsolable. Friends and family, including his son from North Carolina, stopped in to check on him, but for an entire week he was essentially out of commission. “Incapacitated is the best word,” said NABA vice president Jim Springer, who temporarily took over running the organization. I spoke to Glassberg not long after Jane’s death. “I had no idea such emotional pain was possible,” he told me. “It was so much worse than anything I could imagine.”
It’s too early to know what will actually happen with the wall, but if a project like that comes to pass, it would likely have a devastating effect on the Rio Grande Valley ecosystem. A 2011 study led by a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin found that in places where a previous border wall already stands, some wildlife had seen more than 75 percent of their range divided by the barrier, increasing the risk of extinction. A wall would likely also exacerbate flooding from the river. As for the butterflies, they would suffer from a loss of the plants they depend on. Some low-flying species might also be deterred by the wall. Then there’re the floodlights, the noise, and the steady construction activity, all of it disrupting the natural environment. And don’t forget the potential effect on tourism, Glassberg told me. “The entire butterfly center might be jeopardized if there’s a drop in visitors,” he said. “It couldn’t economically survive.”
Last August, hundreds of people gathered in Mission to march in protest of the wall. Father Roy, in a white cassock and cowboy hat, led the procession. Glassberg spoke at the event, his first real outing since Jane had passed. Wearing a white NABA polo shirt and his bucket cap, he told the audience about founding the NBC, the ties he’d made in the valley, and how Jane had been there with him throughout its history. “And just, the butterfly center means an awful lot to me and her,” he said, his voice cracking. “I have a stake in it in all kinds of ways.”
In December, four months after the march, I called up Glassberg. He said he was doing better. Watching sports on television was one of the few things that didn’t trigger his emotions, he said. He told me that he was suing a number of government agencies to fight the wall project, with the pro bono legal services of the New York firm Debevoise & Plimpton. His lawyers had told him it would likely be this spring before there were any real developments.
At the NBC, too, life was beginning to return to normal. Even with the threat of the wall looming, the center was installing a native wetland feature, and starting a project with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to plant acres of milkweed for migrating monarchs.
For his part, Glassberg was trying to be more like Jane. He was tipping his cab drivers a little more, and being more patient with the public. He told me about the time he’d answered the NABA phone, and someone had asked him about a certain kind of caterpillar—not his area, he didn’t raise them like some NABA members did, but he didn’t just shut the conversation down with that. “I told her to join NABA and join NABA-chat. But I did it in a nice way. And then she had some other questions and I let her know what I knew and didn’t,” he said. “I gave her my opinion about this or that, and talked about wasps.”
Shannon Fischer is a science writer based in Boston. Her work has appeared in New Scientist, Boston magazine, IEEE Pulse, and other publications.