Ernst John Dornfeld was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 6, 1911. After demonstrating an early interest in insects, he attended Concordia University and Marquette University, graduating in 1933 with a degree in zoology. He continued his education at the University of Wisconsin where he earned his M.A. in 1935 and Ph.D in 1937. After a short stint as an instructor of histology and embryology at the University of Oklahoma, he accepted a position as Instructor in Zoology at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University). At OSC, Dornfeld focused predominately on cell biology research and instruction, specializing in cell division and differentiation. In 1950, Dornfeld was made a full professor and in 1952 he was appointed Chairman of the Department of Zoology, a position he held until his retirement in 1976.
In the 1950s, Dornfeld returned to his childhood hobby of butterfly collecting with renewed vigor. Ultimately, he amassed an impressive private collection of over 25,000 specimens. A scientist at heart, Dornfeld maintained careful records of his collecting and developed an intricate model of butterfly species across the state of Oregon. After retiring from Oregon State University, Dornfeld began compiling his knowledge of Oregon lepidoptera, a project which culminated in the publication of the encyclopedic Butterflies of Oregon in 1980. Ernst Dornfeld remained an active member of the Lepidopterists' Society and continued to volunteer at the Systematic Entomology Laboratory until his death in May 1983.
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