This is Part Three 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 1, Part 2, Part Four, Part Five)
By Katie Todd
Edith Patch (1876-1954), the first female president of the Entomological Society of America, has a noteworthy record of entomological achievements. It’s clearly a prerequisite for any ESA President to first become an outstanding entomologist, and Edith was no different. She had:
– A PhD degree in entomology from Cornell University in 1911.
– A position of leadership as head of the Entomology Department at the University of Maine.
– A robust publication record, including seminal works like, Food-plant Catalogue of the Aphids of the World: Including the Phylloxeridae (1938).
– Economically/ecologically important discoveries, such as the melon aphid’s overwintering host: the orpine weed (Sedum purpureum).
– An extensive commitment to outreach, including numerous children’s literature publications focused on scientifically-accurate portrayals of insects.
However, although these accomplishments are outstanding and Edith deserves to be honored for her contributions to entomology, I really don’t care about these bulleted facts, or the bare-bones biographical account of what Edith achieved during her lifetime.
What interests me more, as a fellow female entomologist, is not what Edith Patch accomplished, but rather how she practically completed these feats while juggling her own personal needs and societal stigmas against women in science. Why did she decide to pursue a career in entomology? How did she cope with sexist viewpoints? Was she happy?
We know that the time period in which Edith came to prominence (1910-20s) was not supportive of women in science. Universities had institutional laws that retracted any funding awarded to female graduate students if they married men who were employed by the university. Why pursue an education after you had already achieved the “pinnacle of success” — marriage?
Similarly, one of Edith’s own graduate students who worked as an aphid entomologist for the Canadian Civil Service, was informed by the Canadian government that she would not be eligible for any further promotions after she was married.
How did Edith work within these confines? Did she never marry because she never met anyone she was interested in? Or did she perceive her work as too important to be jeopardized by a relationship?
Of course, these questions are a matter of conjecture now, but from what I can glean from biographical works on Ms. Patch, Edith simply loved insects. Her childhood passion was accentuated by further knowledge of insects’ inner workings, and Edith found herself not caring if she had to work a day job as a high school English teacher in order to prove to the University of Maine that she was committed enough — and intelligent enough — to be given a stipend. I don’t believe Edith looked back on this experience and others and regretted her life trajectory or felt confined by opinions of women; she had a passion which justified some sacrifices. In fact, I doubt she even viewed it as sacrificing.
When Edith was asked if she would recommend other women to study entomology, she responded, “After being employed for more than thirty interesting and pleasant years as a research entomologist, I shall never discourage any capable young woman, with a real desire for the work, from preparing for it.”
When and if Edith ran up against sexist perceptions, she simply used those interactions to spur more work instead of allowing negative interactions to detract from her love of insects. Edith regarded views of women’s “proper” roles in society as a “… challenge to be accepted in the light of a ‘dare’ rather than to be viewed with personal resentment or antagonism,” and she noted that “there is a somewhat tonic stimulation in such circumstances.”
Yes, Dr. Edith M. Patch had an exemplary career in entomology. But what I find more fascinating was her tenacity of spirit, which enabled her to ignore those who would impede her success and which allowed her to respond with quiet dignity.
To those who bragged about having species named after them, she would reply, “I have a genus named after me.”
Read more at:
– Gibbs, K. E. 2014. Without Benefit of Insects: The Story of Edith M. Patch of the University of Maine. Maine Ag. & Forest Exp. Sta., Misc. Publ. No 763.
Katherine Todd is an MS student in entomology at The Ohio State University’s Agriculture Landscape Ecology (ALE) Lab, where she is studying how urban green space design in Cleveland, OH impacts wasp communities and niche partitioning of arthropod predators. She is broadly interested in researching ways to restore or improve ecological communities in human-dominated environments — especially ones that are urban or agricultural.