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Meet a Scientist Monday: Anna Botsford Comstock

Anna Botsford Comstock was a literal pioneer, born in a log cabin in western New York State in 1854. She was also a pioneer in many other ways. She was one of the first female students at Cornell University, starting in November of 1874. She was one of the first four women to be inducted by Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society founded in 1886. Eventually she became the first woman Professor at Cornell University, in Nature Studies.

Why did I choose Anna Botsford Comstock this week? Actually it is a personal story. I was introduced to Anna while I was a graduate student at Cornell University. The entomology building that I worked in was named after her and her husband, entomology professor John Henry Comstock. The fact her name was included on the building intrigued me and I wanted to find out more about her. Not many college campus buildings in that area are named after women. I later found out that a dorm at Hobart and William Smith Colleges is also named after her.

Anna had many talents. She was an artist. Early in her career she learned wood engraving and she illustrated many of her husband’s entomology textbooks. Her work was exhibited at the 1893 Exposition of U.S. Women Painters and is still cited by scientific illustrators today. She also was interested in literature and poetry, and wrote a novel that sold well. In addition to writing, and scientific illustration, she was an editor, a teacher and as well as arguably, a scientist. Her thesis for her Bachelor of Science degree was on “The Fine Anatomy of the Interior of the Larvae of Corydalus cornutus.” She eventually became part of the Nature Study Movement, and wrote and taught about natural history.

As I discovered more and more about Anna Botsford Comstock, I began to realize what a special person she was. She had a positive impact on many of the people who met her, and also on the generations that followed. For example, in her biography of Rachel Carson, author Linda Lear reveals Rachel Carson’s mother had read Anna Comstock’s nature writings. She then passed her interest to her daughter Rachel, who went on to write the highly influential book, Silent Spring.

Anna Botsford Comstock’s most monumental book, Handbook of Nature Study, was self-published in 1911 because no publisher was interested in a 938-page book on nature study. Ironically, the book no one would publish is still in press and still popular. It has gone through 24 editions and has been translated into 8 languages. Anna’s work led her to be called “the mother of the nature study movement” and to be inducted into the National Wildlife Federations’ Conservation Hall of Fame. Visit the Handbook of Nature Study Blog to see how people are still using and enjoying her work today.

Relevant Readings

Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock

Trees At Leisure (1916) by Anna Botsford Comstock
This one of Anna's personal favorites.

Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear

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