December 12, 1998, Saturday
NYTIMES NATIONAL DESK
Kenneth C. Brugger, 80, Dies; Unlocked a Butterfly Mystery
By ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr. ( Obituary ; Biography )
Kenneth C. Brugger, a self-effacing amateur naturalist who made an unforgettable discovery, died on Nov. 25 at his home in Austin, Tex. He was 80.
If the Purepecha Indians of central Mexico had been a shade less sophisticated, they might have regarded him as a god, and not because the man from Kenosha, Wis., who appeared in their remote mountaintop villages in 1975 was a brilliant textile engineer whose proudest achievement was his work in perfecting the unshrinkable undershirt.
It was because he solved an ancient mystery.
Mr. Brugger had long been lionized by lepidopterists in the United States and Canada as the discoverer of the wooded mountain slopes in Mexico where hundreds of millions of North American monarch butterflies spend the winter.
But to the Indians, who already knew that, Mr. Brugger was the man who brought the news of where their beloved monarchs fly off to in the spring: virtually the entire eastern United States and the eastern regions of southern Canada.
From either perspective, Mr. Brugger's was a transforming discovery, one that settled an issue that had been puzzling scientists for generations, that touched off a stampede of butterfly lovers and that transformed the Indian culture. Their mountain homeland, 80 miles southwest of Mexico City, was turned into a tourist attraction. And this created a campaign to protect the monarchs' sanctuaries from loggers and other modern encroachments.
For Mr. Brugger, a modest man who talked little about his achievements, the discovery of the monarch butterfly's winter home was a satisfying twist to a life of intellectual adventure.
A man whose mechanical aptitude and mathematical brilliance surfaced early in his life, Mr. Brugger, who never obtained a college degree, worked as a mechanic in his father's garage until World War II. Then the Army saw his test scores and assigned him to the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N.J., where he worked in cryptology and developed a lifelong interest in homing pigeons; at his death he had 13 birds.
Returning to Kenosha after the war, Mr. Brugger went to work as a junior supervisor for Jockey International. By the time a divorce led him to pull up stakes in 1965 and start a new life as a textile consultant in Mexico City, he had risen to chief engineer for Jockey's worldwide knitting operations, designing, installing and tinkering with innovative textile machines. Among them was the compactor, which compresses cotton fibers so much that when they spring back in the wash it compensates for the inevitable shrinkage.
Mr. Brugger's achievements may have been limited to underwear if he had not picked up a Mexican newspaper one day in 1973 and seen an advertisement placed by Fred A. Urquhart, a University of Toronto scientist who was seeking volunteers to help him track the annual migration of monarchs.
Since 1940, when he began the project, Dr. Urquhart had enlisted 3,000 volunteers who had systematically tagged thousands of butterflies, faithfully reported sightings of their annual flights south, and learned much about the world's only insect migration -- one that is especially remarkable since the monarchs that swarm out of Mexico in the spring are not the ones who return in the fall.
Because of a sustained and unparalleled sexual frenzy, monarchs mate themselves into oblivion in a matter of weeks, and it is generally their great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren, hatched out on milkweed leaves from Texas to Canada, that make the return trip for what turns out to be a lazy, celibate winter, an abstinence that allows them to live long enough to begin the flight back north the next spring.
The one thing Dr. Urquhart had not learned is exactly where the monarchs spend the winter.
Recalling that he had once driven through a sudden storm of monarch butterflies during a trip through the volcanic mountains west of Mexico City, Mr. Brugger wrote to Dr. Urquhart and was persuaded to return to the area to search for them.
And that is how it happened that on Jan. 2, 1975, a date that lepidopterists hold dear, Mr. Brugger and his wife, Catalina, made their way through a forest of Oyamel firs until they reached the 10,000-foot level and suddenly realized that the trees were covered with monarchs, as many as four million an acre, according to later estimates.
As thousands of ecstatic tourists have since discovered, the massed orange and black monarchs make a breathtakingly beautiful sight.
It was a beauty that was largely lost on Mr. Brugger, who is survived by three children, Carl, of Racine, Wis., Katharine Carroll of Kenosha, and Kenneth Jr., of Austin; a brother, Robert, of Kenosha; three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
A man who once came home with a new sports jacket with an orange stripe he thought was green, Mr. Brugger was totally colorblind -- he saw the monarchs as shades of gray.