Her love of nature led Anna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930) to become a natural science artist and educator. During the 1890s, she was instrumental in bringing nature study to elementary education in the United States.
Anna Botsford Comstock is said to have been a conservationist before people knew what conservation was. Her love of nature began on her parents’ farm, where she and her Quaker mother spent many days examining the wildflowers, birds and trees in the countryside. These lessons helped instill in Comstock a love for nature that led her to a career as a natural science artist, writer and educator.
Anna Botsford was born on Sept. 1, 1854, in Otto, New York. Her parents, Marvin and Phebe Irish Botsford, were prosperous farmers. Botsford, an only child, was gracious, happy and loved to learn. After attending the Chamberlain Institute and Female College, a Methodist school in Randolph, New York, she returned to Otto and taught for a year.
Few women attended college in the 19th century, but Botsford chose to continue her education. In 1874, she enrolled at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, to study modern languages and literature. To round out her coursework, she enrolled in an invertebrate zoology class taught by John Henry Comstock, an up-and-coming entomologist. She took an interest in zoology and in Comstock. The two spent time studying the flora and fauna of the Finger Lakes region. Botsford studied at Cornell for two years before leaving without receiving her degree.
Botsford’s interest in natural science continued. She took up insect illustration and drew diagrams for Comstock’s lectures. Botsford and Comstock were married October 8, 1878 at her parents’ home in Otto. The young couple lived on property leased from the university where they were surrounded by lakes, trees, and plants which they used for field studies. The couple had no children.
In 1879, Comstock moved to Washington D.C., where her husband took a job as chief entomologist at the United States Department of Agriculture. He traveled extensively, investigating reports of insect pests and gaining knowledge of the nation’s insect problems. Comstock worked as his assistant in the office, typing and illustrating his field reports and doing clerical work. Her illustrations for her husband’s 1880 Report of the Entomologist drew praise from a French scientist. Her reputation as a natural science artist was established.
Anna Botsford Comstock Studied Wood Engraving
The Comstocks returned to Ithaca in 1882. Comstock re-enrolled at Cornell and completed her bachelor’s degree in natural history in 1885. She tried her hand at wood engraving, taking classes from John P. Davis of Cooper Union, New York, who praised her drawings for their “superlative accuracy.” In 1888, Comstock’s wood engravings were used to illustrate her husband’s textbook, An Introduction to Entomology. Her engravings were widely praised and, in 1888, she was initiated into Sigma Xi, the national honor society of the sciences. Comstock was among the first four women to be so honored.
The Comstock’s left for Europe, where they spent most of their time in Germany. When they returned, they resumed work on part two of John Comstock’s textbook. For the next few years, they divided their time between Cornell and Stanford, where her husband lectured during the winters.
Comstock produced more than 600 plates for her husband’s A Manual for the Study of Insects, which was published in 1895. Her work was exhibited at expositions in New Orleans in 1885; Chicago, 1893; Paris, 1900; and Buffalo, 1901, where she won a bronze medal. Her work earned her election to the American Society of Wood Engravers. She was the Society’s third woman inductee.
Although Comstock had defied convention by obtaining a college degree and establishing a career of her own, her work generally centered around her husband’s career. She had assisted him in the office and illustrated his books. She accepted this role as helpmate without question. She was socially active as a university professor’s wife, remaining uninvolved in suffrage or other feminist activity.
The couple graciously opened their home to students, who often spent evenings listening to Comstock read poetry and prose aloud. Comstock loved literature. Her favorite writers were Whittier, Thoreau, and Kipling. Many foreign scholars and visitors to the university were welcomed in the Comstocks’ home.
Anna Botsford Comstock a Nature Study Educator
In 1894, Comstock’s career turned in a different direction. No longer a helpmate to her husband, she established a reputation as a nature study educator. That year, Com-stock was elected to the New York Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, an organization established by New York City philanthropists who wanted to bring nature study to rural schools. The group believed that teaching rural children about nature would keep them interested in farming and slow the migration from farms to cities, that occurred during the agricultural depression of the 1890s.
Comstock helped establish the nature study curriculum in the Westchester County schools. The results were positive and, in 1896, the state legislature gave funds to the Cornell Extension Department to expand the program. Comstock took on the job of teaching the teachers about nature study. She wrote and illustrated leaflets and study guides; taught teachers how to teach nature classes, and persuaded the State Education Department the value of nature study. Despite resistance from people who believed nature study didn’t belong in schools, Comstock expanded her efforts nationwide. She taught nature education in several states, lecturing at Stanford, Columbia, the University of California, the University of Virginia and many lesser-known schools.
In 1897, Comstock was named assistant in nature study at Cornell. Two years later, she became Cornell’s first woman assistant professor. When conservative trustees objected to employing female professors, her title was changed to lecturer in 1900. Common sense prevailed and she regained the title of assistant professor the following year. She was named professor in 1920 and professor emeritus in 1922.
Prolific Writer and Illustrator
Comstock wrote and illustrated several books to train teachers in nature study. Insect Life, 1897, and How to Know the Butterflies, 1904, were written jointly with her husband. Comstock also wrote Ways of the Six-Footed, 1903; How to Keep Bees, 1905, The Pet Book, 1914, and Trees at Leisure, 1916. The autobiographical The Com-stocks of Cornell was published after her death.
The Comstocks published so many books, they formed their own company, Comstock Publishing Company, whose motto was “Nature Through Books.” Comstock also wrote one volume of fiction, Confessions of a Heathen Idol, written under the pseudonym Marian Lee in 1906. The book told the story of a “high-brow social life in the nineties with a university background” and was based on Comstock’s own diary, according to James G. Needham in The Scientific Monthly. Comstock used a pseudonym because she feared writing a “scandalous” novel would hurt her scientific reputation. It subsequently was reprinted under Comstock’s name.
Her most famous book was The Handbook of Nature-Study, published in 1911. A compendium of previous work, it served as a teaching guide for elementary school teachers around the world well into the 1940s. The 900-page book was translated into eight languages and was published in 24 editions.
Comstock’s writing is described as lively and accurate. She sometimes included anecdotal and literary materials and used human experience to describe animal behavior as a way to teach children. Comstock taught children to focus on their relationship with nature. Her approach was to “cultivate the child’s imagination, love of the beautiful and sense of companionship with life out-of-doors,” according to National Wildlife.
Comstock was sensitive to children’s reactions to nature and discussed their attitude toward death when dealing with predatory behavior. She taught the importance of observation and advocated returning living things to nature after study. Comstock contributed to many scientific and farming periodicals. Between 1903 and 1907, she edited Boys and Girls, a nature study magazine. She was contributing editor (1905-17) and editor (1917-23) of the Nature-Study Review until it merged with Nature magazine. Her love of literature led her to serve as poetry editor of Country Life in America.
Comstock retired from full-time teaching in 1922, but continued to lecture. She was very active in the American Nature Study Society and served as associate director of the American Nature Association. By 1923, Comstock was so well known that, in a poll by the League of Women voters, she was named one of America’s 12 greatest living women. She was a trustee of Hobart and William Smith colleges and received an honorary degree from Hobart in 1930.
Comstock’s husband suffered a stroke in 1926, which left him an invalid. She continued to nurse him, even after her own health failed. Comstock died of cancer on August 24, 1930, at her home in Ithaca, New York, seven months before the death of her husband.
Comstock’s contributions to nature study education were not recognized until years after her death. During her life, she was often viewed as a gifted assistant to her entomologist husband. Her work as a conservationist was largely unappreciated until the conservation movement gained attention in the 1970s. In 1988, she was named to the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Hall of Fame. The Federation called her the “Mother of Nature Education.”
Further Reading on Anna Botsford Comstock
American Women Writers, edited by Lina Mainiers, Frederick Ungar, 1979.
Biographical Dictionary of American Educators, Greenwood Press, 1978.
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, James T.White & Company, 1932.
Notable American Women 1607-1950; A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Edward T. James, Belknap Press, 1971.
National Wildlife, October/November 1988, p. 50.
The Scientific Monthly, February 1946, p. 140; March 1946, p. 219.
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