The Mothers of Entomological History: Reflecting on Who We Honor and How We Do It
By Joanie King, Morgan Thompson, and Jaclyn Martin
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series organized by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.
Entomology Games participants spend countless hours memorizing information on a wide variety of topics, ranging from pesticide modes of action to taxonomic nomenclature to entomological history and more. Entomological history includes prominent entomologists and their contributions to particular fields of study. Often, such noteworthy individuals are dubbed “the Father of (insert entomological field here).” For example, William Kirby is “the Father of Entomology,” Thomas Say is “the Father of American Entomology,” and Thaddeus William Harris is “the Father of Economic Entomology,” to name just a few.
Undoubtedly, these men made significant contributions to our understanding of entomology and are an integral part of entomological history. However, after numerous years of participation in the Entomology Games, we began to wonder how these individuals were chosen as the “father” of a particular entomological field and what merited such a distinction. Understanding why we honor these historical figures is important, as such titles can help us remember their contributions to entomology. But why do we elevate these men, paying special attention to some and not others?
To answer this question, we examined historical literature and also surveyed numerous individuals affiliated with Entomology Games and its host, the Entomological Society of America, including long-time players, judges, gamemasters, and coaches. We aimed to determine what criteria were used to promote an entomologist to the status of “father” of a particular field.
Astoundingly—or maybe not—we found little information in the literature on clearly defined standards for advancement to “father” status, with vague references to some criteria. For example, the “History of Entomology” chapter in Encyclopedia of Insects (pp. 452) states that Thaddeus William Harris authored a major publication that “summarized the knowledge of insect control in Europe and North America, earning him the title ‘Father of Economic Entomology.'” This excerpt implies that publishing a major work resulted in the title of “father” for Harris. Moreover, Sheppard & Smith (1997) implied Say received his title as “Father of American Entomology” because he “produced a corpus of scientific work on par with that of European luminaries such as J.C. Fabricius and C. DeGeer, and so did much to elevate the status of American taxonomic entomology.” Aside from these disparate references, we found no clear evidence of overarching criteria or a unifying framework for the distinction of “father.”
In addition to our search of the literature, we surveyed Entomology Games experts on what criteria might have earned “father” status for historical entomologists. These experts provided variable responses, ranging from “no idea” to some suggestions on how or why certain “fathers” were selected, but none cited any firm knowledge of unifying criteria. For instance, a few experts pointed toward being the first to publish a book in a particular field as justification for “father” status; however, many experts simultaneously noted that while many “fathers” likely published more comprehensive or well-regarded texts, they were likely not the first ever in history to publish a book on a particular entomological topic.
Further, we also noted that there were few, if any, “mothers” of entomological fields despite the significant contributions of women to insect sciences. The only woman with such a title in the literature is Maria Sybilla Merian, dubbed “the Mother of Entomology.” Although this may at first appear to be a minor discrepancy, we argue that the ambiguity around what earns entomologists “parent” status within the field—and, among them, the noticeable preponderance of “fathers” compared to “mothers”—sheds light on a larger issue within our entomological community, namely how we honor and recognize individuals in our field.
Therefore, to rectify this discrepancy and start a dialogue, we suggest the following criteria for recognition as the founder or major contributor to a field of study:
- significance of research;
- novelty of ideas proposed;
- impact on society.
Below, we highlight women in entomology and propose new titles for them as the “mothers” of their particular research fields. Our goal is to draw attention to who we honor and how we honor them within the entomological profession and through ESA and to propel future conversations on the inclusivity of our awards and distinctions.
Four Mothers of Entomology
Margaret James Strickland Collins: Mother of Termite Ecology
Margaret James Strickland Collins, Ph.D. (1922–1996), was the first African American woman to obtain a Ph.D. in entomology from a research-intensive university. Her accomplishments are impressive in their own right, and even more so when considering the unique challenges she faced as a Black woman during the time period in which she lived.
Her research and legacy still stand today, and her work is frequently cited, particularly on the differences in tolerance and resistance to drying among different termite species. Due to her extensive research on termites, Collins was nicknamed the “Termite Lady.” We propose a separate title, “Mother of Termite Ecology,” to further honor Collins as a field scientist and ecologist who traveled extensively to conduct studies and made significant contributions to our understanding of the biogeography, chemical defenses, physiology, and taxonomy of termites.
Clara Southmayd Ludlow: Mother of Medical Entomology
Clara Southmayd Ludlow, Ph.D. (1852–1924), was an accomplished medical entomologist with dozens of published articles about mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases. Notably, Ludlow identified 72 mosquito species and also attempted to link mosquito species to disease transmission cycles, which was a particularly novel idea at the time.
Additionally, she holds the distinct title of the first woman and first non-physician member of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and even now she has a prestigious medal named after her to recognize honorees “for their inspirational and pioneering spirit, whose work represents success despite obstacles and advances the field of tropical medicine.”
Ludlow earned her Ph.D. from George Washington University, with her dissertation titled, “The Mosquitoes of the Philippine Islands: The Distribution of Certain Species and Their Occurrence in Relation to the Incidence of Certain Diseases,” which was no doubt inspired by her visit to her brother in the Philippines when he was stationed there with the U.S. Army. This visit, along with her undergraduate studies of mosquitoes at Mississippi State University, introduced Ludlow to her lifelong involvement in the field of medical entomology, thus giving her the title of “Mother of Medical Entomology.”
Eleanor Anne Ormerod: Mother of Agricultural Entomology
Eleanor Anne Ormerod, LLD (1828–1901), introduced the importance of insect pest identification and control to the study of entomology. Although she never had the opportunity to formally study insects at a university, she wrote several guides and reports for farmers detailing identification, behavior, and ecology of injurious insects in various cropping systems in her home country of Great Britain. She even sent out questionnaires to farmers in other areas to gain knowledge of important agricultural insect pests in places she could not travel to.
Eventually, Ormerod was invited to give entomological lectures at several universities. She even helped identify agriculturally important insects in New Zealand, the West Indies, and South Africa. By the end of her career, she acted as an unofficial government entomologist and was the first woman recipient of an honorary law doctorate (LLD) from the University of Edinburgh.
Her work brought the importance of economic and agricultural entomology to the forefront in an age when formal entomologists were mostly ignoring these concepts, thus giving her the title of “Mother of Agricultural Entomology.”
Mary Talbot: Mother of Myrmecology
Mary Talbot, Ph.D. (1903–1990), was an American entomologist who studied the ecology and behavior of ants for more than 50 years. She contributed immensely to foundational research in myrmecology (i.e., the study of ants) during a time when few women were trained in entomology or obtained graduate degrees. During her career, she identified 90 species of ants in Chicago, Illinois, and published articles on social insects, particularly on slave-making ants.
Talbot was also tenacious and adventurous, braving the elements during fieldwork in habitats such as swamps, marshes, barren dunes, and blackberry brambles. She was determined to identify each species that occurred in Edwin S. George Reserve, and she studied all the habitats there each year with great patience. For example, she would often observe ants and their individual behaviors for hours on end. In addition to her impressive research and fieldwork accomplishments, she even earned her Ph.D. during The Great Depression, further denoting her resilience and perseverance.
The important contributions of Talbot are reflected in two ant species named after her—Formica talbotae and Monomorium talbotae—and we therefore propose the title of “Mother of Myrmecology” to honor this incredible woman.
Other Notable Women in Entomology
We also recognize other incredible women in entomology and propose possible titles for them:
- Alice Gray, “Mother of Insect Outreach;”
- Mary Ball, “Mother of Aquatic Entomology;”
- Sophie Luttlough, “Mother of Arthropod Collections;”
- Ayla Kalkandelen, Ph.D., “Mother of Leafhoppers;”
- Cynthia Longfield, “Mother of Dragonflies;”
- Leonila Vazquez Garcia, Ph.D., “Mother of Mexican Butterflies.”
Recognizing significant contributions to entomological research is important. Each year at the ESA Annual Meeting, we induct ESA Fellows and present many other awards to students, early career researchers, and others for their outstanding research efforts and service to the Society. Who we honor is a reflection of what we value in our academic community. As a community, we have recently made meaningful strides to increase the inclusion of ESA awards, including the new Alate and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion awards.
In addition to these formal awards, informal titles and recognitions, such as the “father” of a particular field, are equally if not arguably more important to examine when we think about our values as a scientific profession. Are these paternalistic titles representative of the society we want to be? Do they really include the magnificent diversity of entomologists including, but certainly not limited to, women or “mothers” of entomology?
We hope to spark consideration and conversation on how we view entomological history as well as how we want to shape ESA moving forward. We also acknowledge many of the “mothers” highlighted here were privileged in terms of class and race, affording them the benefit to explore entomology as a hobby, and that other aspiring entomologists at the time were not granted the same privileges. Relatedly, there are likely many women and non-binary people who also made significant contributions to entomology but whose research efforts are either lost to a retelling of history through a male-biased lens (much like Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to the work of Watson and Crick in the field of DNA) or simply not told at all.
We encourage readers to research and learn more about the women highlighted here and perhaps come up with their own “mothers” or “parents” of entomology, or maybe even put forth their own titles for folks that made significant contributions to our science.
Joanie King, Morgan Thompson, and Jaclyn Martin are Ph.D. students in entomology at Texas A&M University. All authors contributed equally to this post. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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