The Dermestarium

The Dermestid Colony

The Museum has a separate facility to house its dermestid beetle colony, two blocks away from collections storage. A former federal magnetic observatory (see History below), the space is ideal for housing dermestids. Four to six large stainless steel tanks house dermestids for cleaning osteological material. A few days or weeks after a skeleton is placed in the tanks, the larvae of these beetles render itso clean that only minor preparation is needed before the specimen can be cataloged into the Museum’s research collections. Constant vigilance is necessary to maintain the proper temperature, humidity, cleanliness, and food availability for the beetles to work at peak capacity. The dermestarium is not open for public tours or use.


In 1868, John E. Davies was appointed as an Instructor of Agronomy and Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Several of his publications contributed to the annals of the (now defunct) U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Inspired by Davies’ research and enthusiasm, the federal agency approached the University regents with a request to build a magnetic observatory on campus with Davies as its supervisor. In 1877 the observatory was constructed with masonry and hydraulic cement to make it waterproof. No iron, which might affect magnetic equipment, was used in the construction, and a 3-foot dead air space with an outer wall was created to maintain a constant temperature. Federally-supplied equipment was installed and experiments were up and running by 1878. As such, it was the first building constructed on the University campus for a federal science project. The stated scientific purpose of the observatory (and others like it in Greenwich, Paris, and Toronto) was to provide “A continuous and reliable record of the variations in the direction and intensity of the earth’s magnetic force, by means of photographic self registration.” In 1888 the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey was dismantled by an act of Congress and the lab was emptied of equipment.

After termination of the scientific experiments for which it was designed, the “Old Met Lab,” as it was referred to, served a variety of purposes on campus. These include a laboratory for testing methods of curing cheeses, a storage shed for oils, and a potato cellar. The facility is of historical significance to the professional chemistry fraternity Alpha Chi Sigma because its first new members, Brothers Lee and Wheelwright, were initiated here in April of 1903. The cool, secretive, and echo-ey atmosphere of the Lab gave rise to fraternity lore that persists to the present day. One of the founding Brothers involved in obtaining permission from the Biology Department to use the Lab for the initiation rites, J. H. Mathews, later became Chair of the U.W. Chemistry Department.

In 1950 the university renovated the Old Met Lab for use by the Department of Zoology, and it was consequently turned over to the Zoological Museum for the purpose of housing its dermestid colony, for which is it still used today.


Feldman, Jim. The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin. University Archives Memorial Library: Madison. 1997. pp.45-46, 120, 490.
Curti, Merle E. and Vernon Carstensen. The University of Wisconsin: A History. 1848-1925. Volume 1. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison. 1949. p.355.
Alpha Chi Sigma National Chemistry Fraternity, Alpha chapter website, accessed 2 July 2002.
D. Mitch Levings, Grand Historian, Alpha Chi Sigma Fraternity. Personal correspondence via email, July 2002.