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Chico State

Sterling O. Mattoon to be Honored with Honorary Doctorate

Sterling Mattoon poses with a yellow butterfly, with a magnifying glass in his other hand.
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Sterling O. Mattoon talks about his extensive butterfly collection in his home on Tuesday, December 18, 2018 in Chico, Calif. Mattoon has been nominated to receive and honorary doctorate from CSU Chico. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU Chico)

Sterling O. Mattoon’s fascination with winged wonders began when he was just 7 years old, and for more than 75 years, he has been devoted to the research of butterflies and their diminishing habitats within the Northern California region.

In recognition of his extraordinary curiosity, dedication, and scientific research that have contributed so significantly to the greater knowledge of butterflies and moths within California and beyond, the Board of Trustees of the California State University and Chico State will award Mattoon (Biological Sciences, ’60) with an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) degree during Commencement on Saturday, May 18.

“As a lifelong learner, with an insatiable curiosity and unrelenting passion for discovery, Mr. Mattoon exemplifies the qualities we value in our students, faculty, staff, and alumni,” said President Gayle Hutchinson. “And through his personal and professional achievements, his contributions to his field leave a legacy that is both admirable and inspirational.”

A book chronicling The Butterflies of California, authored by Mattoon (Northern California Region), Thomas C. Emmel (Central California region), and John F. Emmel (Southern California Region) is currently in development and will be published in 2019.

Mattoon eyes hundreds of butterfly specimens in tidy rows in a wooden box.
Sterling O. Mattoon talks about his extensive butterfly collection, which boasts more than 50,000 specimens.

In addition, Mattoon has contributed to the research, documentation, and writing of 20 articles in a comprehensive text titled Systematics of Western North American Butterflies, published by Mariposa Press. He’s a recognized expert in the fields of butterfly extinction, the effects of climate change on butterflies, and nuances between different species. His contributions to his discipline not only provide a greater understanding of moths and butterflies within a greater global context, but surely will help inspire future scientists for decades to come.

Mattoon was born in a tent in Los Molinos and grew up in the small, rural town during the Great Depression. He began collecting butterflies in grammar school, pinning them into empty cigar boxes. After graduating from Los Molinos High School, Mattoon sought a degree at Chico State College in industrial arts. However, after one year of studies, the Korean War drew him away. For the following four years, he served in the US Air Force, performing airplane maintenance and collecting butterflies when he could while off duty. 

Colorful yellow and orange butterflies lay in rows.
Mattoon has been collecting butterflies since he was 7 years old.

After his military service, Mattoon returned to Chico State College under the G.I. Bill and changed his major to biological sciences.

During college, Mattoon held summer jobs in agricultural pest control and detection with the State of California and the US Department of Agriculture. After graduating from Chico State in 1960, he was hired in 1962 as an agricultural biologist with the Butte County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, where he worked for the next 32 years.

Mattoon met his wife, Eileen Early of Los Molinos, in 1955 and they married four years later. From the start, Eileen was captivated by his collection and study of butterflies and often accompanied him on field trips, cultivating a shared passion. Soon after marriage, the couple moved from Los Molinos to Chico, where they raised five children. The Mattoons enjoyed 58 years of marriage until Eileen’s passing in January of 2017.

During their decades together, the couple spent numerous weekends and summers traveling the countryside collecting butterflies. Over the years, the Mattoons would discover numerous butterflies that had no prior scientific record. This resulted in butterflies being named after them by fellow members of the Entomological Society of America, of which Sterling Mattoon is a member. Two butterflies of note are euphydryus editha mattooni, a type of checkerspot butterfly, and speyeria cybele eileenae, a type of fritillary butterfly.

In addition to the countless butterflies Mattoon has contributed to various entomology collections over the years, he still holds an extensive private collection that boasts more than 50,000 butterflies, including numerous rare species. He plans to eventually gift the collection to the McGuire Center for Biodiversity at the University of Florida, which houses the largest Lepidoptera collection in the world.

Sterling Mattoon squints through a magnifying glass at a yellow and black butterfly in his hand
Sterling O. Mattoon will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Science, just one of 21 honorary degrees awarded in Chico State’s history.

Matoon joins an elite list of just over 500 honorary degree recipients across the CSU, as the system recognizes those who have demonstrated excellence in areas that benefit CSU campuses, the state, nation, world, or humanity. The CSU awarded its first honorary degree to then-President John F. Kennedy in June 1963 at San Diego State University.

Mattoon is Chico State’s 21st honorary degree recipient in the University’s 130-year history. Chico’s other influential awardees are:

  • Debra A. Cannon, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2019
  • Dennis Murphy, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2018
  • Doug Guerrero, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2017
  • Wendell J. Lundberg, Doctor of Science, 2013   
  • Sandra Lerner, Doctor of Science, 2012
  • Edward Rollins, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2012
  • David C. Favor, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2010
  • Sheikha Lubna Bint Khalid Al Qasimi, Doctor of Science, 2009
  • Ken Grossman, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2008
  • Marilyn Wade Warrens, Doctor of Fine Arts, 2008
  • Jack L. Rawlins, Doctor of Science, 2007
  • Rafael Sanchez, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2007
  • Floyd English, Doctor of Science, 2005
  • Marshall Lloyd Ginter, Doctor of Science, 2004
  • Glen Toney, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2004
  • Steve G. Nettleton, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2003
  • Judy Lynn Sitton, Doctor of Humane Letters, 2003
  • Savio L.Y. Woo, Doctor of Science, 1998
  • Ernest L. Boyer, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1988
  • John F. O’Connell, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1985