This is the first of a five-part series on Famous Female Entomologists, in honor of the 32nd Annual Insect Fear Film Festival (February 28, 2015), the theme of which is Female Entomologists. (Part 2, Part 3, Part Four, Part Five)
By Emilie Bess
Dame Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) assumed her position as a woman of great scientific aptitude with humor, warmth, and authority. She was brilliant, passionate, and unapologetic. She was in the extraordinary position of having a self-funded lab and a family name that was synonymous with wealth, power, and scientific authority, and she took full advantage. Miriam did science for more than 70 years — really did science — and invested in collaborations with both well-established and rising scientists.
For a glimpse, just watch this video. She has a butterfly specimen pinned to the arm of her tattered sofa!
It’s clear that she adored her study organisms and the questions that they stimulated. I love that by all accounts, she was eccentric, cantankerous, and forceful in her support of political causes. She was proud of being Jewish, even in the face of World War II. She was an outspoken conservationist and animal rights activist. Her work towards gay rights in the 1950’s means a lot to me as a queer woman, and I believe those efforts put legal protections for gay men in the UK decades ahead of the US. I love Miriam Rothschild because she led with both her mind and her heart. Her accomplishments were both brilliant and loving.
Miriam was an entomologist and parasitologist, an outspoken humanitarian, and a passionate conservationist who made groundbreaking contributions in many fields. Fleas were the focus of her earliest entomological pursuits; she studied their diversity, biomechanics, and the nature of flea-borne disease. Later, she became a pioneer in the field of chemical ecology by showing that the oleander aphid and monarch butterfly, among other insects, defend themselves by sequestering chemicals from the toxic plants on which they feed. During the 70+ years of her scientific career, she published 369 scientific papers and 11 books, raised six children, and became one of the most decorated scientists in British history.
Miriam was born to the richest family in the world, the Rothschild banking family of England. The second of four children, she grew up in her family’s secluded country estate at Tring Park near Ashton, Northamptonshire. Miriam’s father Charles and uncle Walter were avid naturalists and encouraged her interest in the natural world. Walter was a zealous collector and kept a menagerie of animals at Tring Park, including cassowaries, kangaroos, and zebras, and he had a private natural history museum with more than 3,000,000 specimens. Charles was an expert on fleas and described more than 500 flea species, including Xenopsylla cheopis Rothschild, the primary vector of the bubonic plague. He also established Britain’s first nature preserves.
Miriam’s parents believed that a formal education was stifling to the intellectual development of bright girls, so she was educated at home. She was encouraged to pursue her interests as they arose. The family’s wealth ensured that their children could pursue any interest they chose. Miriam and her older brother Victor delved into biology, while their younger sisters studied music and arts. As a working scientist, Miriam was proud of her informal education and her lack of an academic degree. She insisted that her status as an amateur biologist afforded her freedom to think broadly and explore disparate topics, avoiding the pitfalls of narrow specialization that was required of professional scientists.
During World War II, Miriam worked under Alan Turing at Bletchley Park on the top-secret project to break the German Enigma code. She pushed the British government to aid refugee Jewish scientists during the war, and housed refugees and wounded soldiers at her family estate. In 1953, she contributed to the Wolfenden report, which led to the decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales. In 1962, in honor of her sister Liberty who developed schizophrenia as a teen, Miriam founded the Schizophrenia Research Fund.
Continuing her father’s conservation efforts, Miriam recruited Prince Charles to the cause of preserving natural landscapes in Britain and planting native wildflowers to restore natural habitat.
These scientific and humanitarian achievements did not go unnoticed. For her work in nature conservation and biochemical research, Miriam was awarded the title of Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2000. She was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Entomological Society of America, and an Honorary Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She received eight honorary doctorates and a Defense Medal from the British government.
She was also the subject of the Founders’ Memorial Award presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America in 2013:
Gryn, N. “Dame Miriam Rothschild.” Jewish Women’s Archive. Accessed July 2014.
Rothschild, M.L. & T. Clay. 1957. Fleas, Flukes & Cuckoos; A Study of Bird Parasites. Macmillan, New York.
Rothschild M., Ford B. 1964 Breeding of the rabbit flea (Spilopsyllus cuniculi Dale)) controlled by the reproductive hormones of the host. Nature 201:103–104.
Rothschild, M., J. von Euw, and T. Reichstem. 1970. “Cardiac glycosides in the oleander aphid, Aphis nerii.” J. Insect Physiol 16: 1141–1145.
Rothschild, M., J. Schlein, K. Parker, and C. Neville. 1975. “The jumping mechanism of Xenopsylla Cheopis III. Execution of the jump and activity.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 271 (914): 499–515.
Emilie Bess, PhD, lives in Seattle, WA, and teaches at the Evergreen State College and in community education programs in Seattle. She earned a doctorate in entomology from the University of Illinois and is interested in insect evolution, sustainable food systems, and the intersections between entomology and graphic arts. She recently published a fanzine titled “The Nature of Fleas, Starring Dame Miriam Rothschild.” If you’d like a copy, please contact Emilie at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilieBess, or read her blog at http://drbess.blogspot.com.