In honor of Walter W. Kempf on the centenary of his birth in 1920
The year 2020 marked the centenary of the birth of the German-Brazilian myrmecologist, Dr. Frei Walter Wolfgang Franz Kempf, O.F.M., (1920-1976), whose remarkable research contributed greatly to the advancement of the taxonomy of Neotropical ants, especially in Brazil. This post is a tribute to mark his centenary and to recognize the relevance of his legacy.
Walter Wolfgang Kempf, widely known as “Frei Kempf”, was a Franciscan friar, scientist, and professor. On the occasion of the centenary of his birth, we here present a brief account of the life and work of this exceptional myrmecologist.
Frei Kempf was born in Speyer, Germany, on March 26, 1920, and at the age of 15, moved to Brazil with his family, where he later naturalized as a Brazilian citizen. One year after he arrived in Brazil, in 1936, he followed his religious vocation and joined the Franciscan Seminary at Rio Negro, Paraná state. His interest in myrmecology started in the middle of 1944, under the encouragement of another German-Brazilian entomologist, Father Thomas Borgmeier (1892-1975). From then on, Frei Kempf started to dedicate himself equally between science and the priesthood. In 1947, Frei Kempf enrolled at Siena College (USA), where he studied biology, chemistry, and physics, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences. Still in the USA, he started his Ph.D. in Entomology at Cornell University, obtaining the title of Doctor of Philosophy of Science in 1951 with a thesis on the taxonomy of Cephalotini ants, under the supervision of V. S. L. Pate. In the same year, he returned to Brazil and started teaching biology, chemistry, and anthropology in the Seminário Menor Franciscano de Agudos (São Paulo), in the Faculdade de Filosofia, Ciências e Letras do Sagrado Coração de Jesus (Bauru, São Paulo), and at the Universidade de Brasília (Distrito Federal).
In addition to his research on ants, Frei Kempf also held prestigious religious positions as Executive Secretary of the Franciscan Province and Provincial Superior, and scientific administrative positions as co-founder and editor of the International Journal of Entomology Studia Entomologica, deputy director of Departamento de Biologia Animal at Universidade de Brasília, and 1st secretary and vice president of Sociedade Brasileira de Entomologia. He also became a member of several scientific organizations, including the Society of Systematic Zoology, Union International pour l’Étude des Insectes Sociaux, Sociedade Brasileira de Entomologia, Academia Brasileira de Ciências, and the Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência.
With an extraordinary work capacity and impressive social skills, Frei Kempf was a calm and outgoing person. After the meetings of the Sociedade Brasileira de Entomologia, he used to spend time with his entomologist colleagues Oswaldo Paulo Forattini (1924-2007), Ubirajara Ribeiro Martins (1932-2015), and Sérgio Antonio Vanin (1948-2020) to drink draft beer and talk about insects. When he traveled to fulfill religious obligations, while his Franciscan colleagues rested, he used his free time to collect ants. Frei Kempf died early, on August 20, 1976, at the age of 56, in Washington (USA), while preparing to represent Brazil at the International Entomology Congress, scheduled to talk about his last 20 years of myrmecological studies at the conference “A Preliminary Zoogeographical Analysis of a Regional Ant Fauna in Latin America”. As his colleague, Friar Clarêncio Neotti (1978) stated, “Death itself respected both the religious and the scientist: he died in a Franciscan convent while participating in an International Congress of Entomologists in the USA, where he received his Ph.D. in 1951”.
Career in Myrmecology
Around 1944 and under the influence of Father Januarius Bauer, Frei Kempf intended to pursue a career in cultural anthropology, aiming to study indigenous peoples of South America. Indeed, during this period, he published five ethnographic papers on indigenous peoples from different regions of Brazil. Upon learning of his interest in a scientific career, Father Borgmeier tried to convince Kempf to study ants. At the time, Father Borgmeier already had an impressive collection and library on ants and was looking for a successor, so that he could dedicate himself to other groups of insects, especially the Phoridae (Diptera). Observing the difficulties and limitations of working in the field of anthropology, Frei Kempf gave in to the pressure from Father Borgmeier and began to study ants. Frei Kempf then became Father Borgmeier’s disciple and after finishing his Ph.D. in the late 1940s, Father Borgmeier donated his personal collection and library to Kempf, which were gradually increased through the own collections of Frei Kempf and by specimens sent by colleagues. Until his death in 1975, Father Borgmeier kept an intense and productive partnership with Frei Kempf. Together they promoted the study of insects in the Neotropical region and greatly contributed to the development of entomology and natural history collections in Brazil.
One of Frei Kempf’s first scientific contributions in myrmecology was within the ant tribe Cephalotini (junior synonym of current valid tribe Attini), with the description of Procryptocerus gibbosus, in 1949. This was followed by the publication of his Ph.D. research, “A taxonomic study on the ant tribe Cephalotini (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)”. Later, De Andrade and Baroni Urbani (1999), referred to Frei Kempf’s efforts as “The taxonomic knowledge of the Cephalotini is quite good and reliable. This fact, relatively rare for a group of tropical ants, is due practically to the efforts of a single man, the late Walter W. Kempf, who in an important series of very accurate papers (1949 – 1974) contributed in a significant way to most of what we know and we understand about these ants today”.
During his nearly 30-year journey in myrmecology, Frei Kempf described approximately 200 taxa of ants and published over 100 papers, mainly studies on taxonomy, ecology, natural history, and checklists. His contributions include the study and description of species belonging to diverse subfamilies of Formicidae and regions of the world. In fact, Frei Kempf’s synoptic catalog of the ants of the Neotropical region (1972) was the very foundation of most of the taxonomic papers published in the New World myrmecology until 1995, when Barry Bolton published his Catalogue of Ants of the World.
Frei Kempf’s legacy
In addition to the relevance of his scientific work, one of Frei Kempf’s main legacies is his collection of ants and a library built in collaboration with Father Borgmeier. After his death, the ant collection, library, and optical equipment were acquired by the Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de São Paulo (MZSP) in 1977, thanks to funds made available by Brazilian research agencies, such as the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq) and the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP). The incorporation of the Kempf-Borgmeier Collection was crucial both to place the MZSP collection among the most representative in the world and to stimulate the creation of a research group on ants, which has been led by Dr. Carlos Roberto Ferreira Brandão for the last thirty years.
With his premature death, Frei Kempf’s plans were interrupted, and he left several unfinished manuscripts, new species to be described, and insights about the identity of species. Upon noticing this, Brandão maintained the logical structure of the collection’s organization so that he, his students, and colleagues who studied ants in the collection were able to recognize and describe several new species previously observed and delimited by Kempf. This was the case, for example, of Megalomyrmex ayri Brandão, 1990 and the genus Mycetagroicus Brandão & Mayhé-Nunes, 2001. Even today, it is possible to find potential taxonomic novelties recognized by Frei Kempf in the collection and library of the MZSP. It is also noteworthy that most ant taxa described by Kempf are still valid, even with the application of modern techniques and concepts, indicating his skills in recognizing species.
When Frei Kempf’s collection arrived in the MZSP, it came along with the correspondence he exchanged with colleagues from all over the world. This enabled Brandão to return specimens, especially those loaned for Frei Kempf’s projected revision of the fungus-growing ant genus Trachymyrmex, which he never completed. This apparently simple move opened doors of museums and labs to Brazilian researches and still resonates today.
Throughout his extraordinary journey, Frei Kempf received several awards. A Neotropical ant genus, Kempfidris Fernández, Feitosa & Lattke, 2014, and several insect species were described in his honor. Upon his death, his colleagues from the academy and the church published touching messages in volume XX of Studia Entomologica (1978), including one by Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who studied with him in the seminar. Another legendary myrmecologist, a contemporary of Frei Kempf, Dr. William (Bill) L. Brown Jr. (1922-1997), dedicated an Anochetus taxonomic revision (Brown, 1978) to him saying “This section is dedicated to the memory of Rev. Fr. Walter W. Kempf, O.F.M., whose death at the peak of his scientific labors has deprived the entomological world – particularly the New World – of one of its key figures. For formicid systematists, the loss is probably the most important one since the death of Carlo Emery in 1925, even though Frei Walter limited his research almost entirely to the neotropical fauna. For myself, the departure of a brilliant colleague and warm friend is a calamity. As I wind up this section of the reclassification, I realise how important to me was Frei Walter’s role as a critic and an appreciator, and I keenly regret that this time, there will arrive no more the wise and friendly reaction from Brazil to which I have so looked forward”. Even almost 50 years after his death, he is still considered a model of personal and professional development, inspiring many generations of ant taxonomists. All myrmecologists working in Brazil are heirs of Frei Kempf’s efforts, to different extents.
Arns, C.P.E. 1978. Frei Walter visto por colega de seminário. Studia Entomologica 20: 19-20.
Bolton, B. 1995. A new general catalogue of the ants of the world. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 504 pp.
Brandão, C.R.F. 1990. Systematic revision of the Neotropical ant genus Megalomyrmex Forel (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Myrmicinae), with the description of thirteen new species. Arquivos de Zoologia 31: 411-481.
Brandão, C.R.F. & Mayhé-Nunes, A.J. 2001. A new fungus-growing ant genus, Mycetagroicus gen. n., with the description of three new species and comments on the monophyly of the Attini (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Sociobiology 38(3B): 639-665.
De Andrade, M.L. & Baroni Urbani, C. 1999. Diversity and adaptation in the ant genus Cephalotes, past and present. Stuttg. Beitr. Naturk. Ser. B (Geol. Paläontol.) 271: 1-889.
Fernández, F., Feitosa, R.M. & Lattke, J. 2014. Kempfidris, a new genus of myrmicine ants from the Neotropical region (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). European Journal of Taxonomy 85: 1-10.
Kempf, W.W. 1949. A new species and subspecies of Procryptocerus from Espírito Santo, Brazil (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Revista de Entomologia 20: 423-426.
Kempf, W.W. 1951. A taxonomic study on the ant tribe Cephalotini. Revista de Entomologia 22: 1-244.
Kempf, W.W. 1972. Catálogo abreviado das formigas da região Neotropical. Studia Entomologica 15:3-344.
Kempf, W.W. 1976. Father Thomas Borgmeier, O.F.M. (1892–1975) in memoriam. Studia Entomologica 19: 1-37.
Klingenberg, C. & Brandão, C.R.F. 2005. The type specimen of fungus growing ants, Attini (Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Myrmicinae) deposited in the Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil. Papeis Avulsos do Departamento de Zoologia 45: 41-50.
Lane, F. 1978. Frei Walter etnólogo. Studia Entomologica 20: 17-18.
Lopes, H.S. 1978. Frei Walter entomólogo. Studia Entomologica 20: 3-15.
Neotti, C. 1978. Frei Walter Visto por confrade na missa dos funerais. Studia Entomologica 20: 27-30.
Travassos Filho, L. 1978. Frei Walter visto por amigo em tempo de pesquisa. Studia Entomologica 20: 23-26.
Willink, A. 1978. Frei Walter Visto por colega de Universidade. Studia Entomologica 20: 21-22.