Meet Ed Tillinghast, UNH's Spider Man

Meet Ed Tillinghast, UNH's Spider Man

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ed Tillinghast

One night when Ed Tillinghast and his wife were settling into a motel room, he discovered that one of his spiders had escaped. And this was no ordinary spider.

The Tillinghasts were on one of innumerable trips they've taken over the years to collect specimens of Argiope aurantia, the striking black and yellow garden spider with an elbow-length black glove on each of its eight legs. They grow them big down South, and this one may well have measured 3 inches across, from tip to tip. Tillinghast wasn't concerned about the loss of the spider—nor was he worried that it would hurt anyone. Garden spiders rarely bite, and even if one did, its venom wouldn't be harmful, he says. He just didn't want to scare the hotel housekeeper to death.

After searching the room, Tillinghast finally gave up and went to bed. Then in the middle of the night, he awoke with a start. He could feel the light, tickling touch of the spider's feet as it crawled across his forehead. "Margaret!" he cried out in joy and relief. "I found it!"

Tillinghast, a professor emeritus of zoology who has studied spiders for more than 35 years, is full of similar tales, but he insists that he's really no different from you or me. "It's not any special quality I have," he says. "I often pick up Argiope with my bare hands because I know its behavior. I wouldn't think of picking up a tarantula."

He acknowledges that he had no fear of garden spiders—"candy spiders," his older brother Howie called them—when he first noticed them at age 8 on a Rhode Island farm. Their parents had separated before Ed turned 2, and he spent his childhood moving from foster home to foster home. No one could have imagined he would ever become a scientist, let alone one who would make significant contributions to the understanding of spiders and the industrial-strength fibers and glues they produce. Spiders ultimately became one of the joys of his life, nonetheless, and although he has studied black widows, brown recluses, barn spiders (of Charlotte's Web fame) and more, the garden spider remains his favorite.

A Breed Apart

"All my life, I've been interested in the damnedest things," says Tillinghast. Chicken blood. Earthworms. Spider saliva, silk and glue. The field of arachnology is a relatively small one, with no more than a thousand researchers worldwide—and, as a group, they're a rather odd species. Required for the job, it seems, is a certain quirkiness, a taste for black humor and a commitment to reason in the face of a subject that courts hysteria. For some, the quest leads to unorthodox, even masochistic, scientific methods.

Arachnologists, for example, have a long history of convincing spiders to bite them, often in an effort to prove the creatures harmless. In 1923, to determine if black widows were poisonous, zoologist W.J. Baerg was able to induce one to bite his finger and inject its venom for a full five seconds. Then he documented the widespread pain, hallucinations and respiratory effects that ensued. He was hospitalized for three days and took a week to recover. In his classes at the University of Arkansas, he would pass a tarantula around the room from hand to hand, to acquaint students with the hairy giant—and to build character. In 30 years, he noted, only one student was bitten. (A North American tarantula bite, experts say, is comparable to a bee sting.)

Tillinghast, a gentle white-haired man with an almost courtly manner, is hardly the type to force students to handle a tarantula. Still, his methods do sound like something out of a campy horror movie. He's been known to mechanically extract a spider's silk by winding it on a drill bit; he's coaxed spiders to drink radioactive cocktails and then fed the resulting webs to other spiders. Some scientists go so far as to "milk" the venom from tranquilized spiders while administering an electric shock. For brown recluse research, Tillinghast prefers a simpler approach—killing the spider, removing its fangs and extracting the venom. "I could show you how to do it easily," he says. READ MORE >>

Originally published by: 

UNH Magazine

Written by Virginia Stuart '75, '80G, Associate Editor. Photo by Perry Smith, UNH Photographic Services.