Her love of nature led Anna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930) to become an artist and natural science educator. During the 1890s, she was instrumental in bringing the study of nature into 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 wild flowers, birds and trees of the countryside. These lessons helped infuse the Comstock with a love of nature that led her to pursue a career as an artist, writer and natural science educator.
Anna Botsford was born on 1 September 1854 in Otto, New York. Her parents, Marvin and Phebe Irish Botsford, were wealthy farmers. Botsford, an only child, was kind, happy and loved to learn. After attending 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, Ithaca, New York, to study modern languages and literature. To complete his studies, he enrolled in a course in invertebrate zoology taught by John Henry Comstock, an emerging entomologist. She became interested in zoology and Comstock. The two studied the flora and fauna of the Finger Lakes region. Botsford studied at Cornell for two years before leaving without a degree.
Botsford’s interest in the natural sciences continued. She worked on insect illustration and drew diagrams for the Comstock lessons. Botsford and Comstock were married on 8 October 1878 at her parents’ home in Otto. The young couple lived in a property rented by the university, where it was surrounded by lakes, trees and plants they used for field studies. The couple had no children.
In 1879, Comstock moved to Washington D.C., where her husband accepted a job as chief entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He traveled extensively, investigating reports of insect pests and gaining knowledge of the nation’s insect problems. Comstock worked as his office assistant, typing and illustrating his field reports and doing office work. Her illustrations for her husband’s 1880 Report of the entomologist received the praise of a French scientist. His reputation as an artist of the natural sciences has been established.
Engraving on wood studied
The Comstocks returned to Ithaca in 1882. The Comstock rejoined Cornell and completed her natural history degree in 1885. She tried her hand at wood carving, following the courses of John P. Davis of the Cooper Union in New York, who praised her drawings for their “superlative precision”. In 1888, the Comstock 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 at Sigma Xi, the national society of honour for science. Comstock was among the first four women to be so honored.
The Comstock left for Europe, where he spent most of his time in Germany. Upon their return, they resumed work on the second part of John Comstock’s textbook. For the following years, they split up between Cornell and Stanford, where her husband gave a lecture during the winter.
Comstock produced more than 600 plates for her husband’s A Manual for the Study of Insects, published in 1895. His works were exhibited at exhibitions in New Orleans in 1885, Chicago in 1893, Paris in 1900 and Buffalo in 1901, where he won a bronze medal. Her work earned her election to the American Society of Wood Engravers. She was the third woman in the Society inductee.
Although Comstock had defied convention by obtaining a university degree and establishing her own career, her work was generally focused on her husband’s career. She had assisted him in the office and illustrated his books. She had accepted this role as a helper, no doubt. She was socially active as the wife of a university professor and was not involved in suffrage or other feminist activities.
The couple kindly opened their home to students, who often spent their evenings listening to Comstock reading poetry and prose aloud. Comstock loved literature. His favorite writers were Whittier, Thoreau and Kipling. Many foreign scholars and visitors to the university were welcomed into the Comstock house.
Nature studies educator
In 1894, the Comstock’s career took another direction. No longer a helper to her husband, she earned her reputation as an educator of nature studies. 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 the study of nature to rural schools. The group believed that teaching rural children about nature would maintain their interest in agriculture and slow down the migration from farms to cities during the agricultural depression of 1890.
Comstock helped establish the nature curriculum in 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 it upon itself to teach teachers to study nature. He wrote and illustrated brochures and study guides, taught teachers how to teach nature lessons, and convinced the State Education Department of the value of nature study. Despite resistance from people who believed that the study of nature did not belong in schools, Comstock expanded his efforts nationwide. He 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 appointed assistant in the study of nature at Cornell. Two years later, she became Cornell’s first assistant professor. When the Conservatives opposed the hiring of female professors, her title was changed to professor in 1900. Common sense prevailed and the following year she regained the title of assistant professor. She was appointed professor in 1920 and professor emeritus in 1922.
Prolific writer and illustrator
Comstock has written and illustrated several books to train teachers to study nature. Insetto Vita, 1897, and Come conoscere le farfalle, 1904, were written together with her husband. Comstock also wrote Ways of the Six Feet, 1903; How to Keep Bees, 1905, The Pet Book, 1914, and Trees in Leisure, 1916. The autobiographical The Com-stocks of Cornell was published after his death.
The Comstocks published so many books that formed their company, the Comstock Publishing Company, whose motto was “Nature through books”. Comstock also wrote a volume of fiction, Confessions of a pagan idol, written under the pseudonym Marian Lee in 1906. The book told the story of a “high level social life in the 1990s with a university background” and was based on the diary of the Comstock, according to James G. Needham in The Scientific Monthly. Comstock used a pseudonym because he feared that writing a “scandalous” novel would damage his scientific reputation. It was later reprinted under the name of Comstock.
His most famous book was The Handbook of Nature-Study, published in 1911. A compendium of previous works, it served as a teaching guide for primary school teachers around the world until the 1940s. The 900-page book has been translated into eight languages and has been published in 24 editions.
The writing of Comstock is described as lively and precise. It sometimes included anecdotal and literary material and used human experience to describe animal behavior as a way to teach children. Comstock taught children to focus on their relationship with nature. His approach was to “cultivate the child’s imagination, love of beauty and sense of companionship with life outside the home”, according to National Wildlife.
Comstock was sensitive to children’s reactions to nature and discussed their attitude towards death when it came to predatory behaviour. He taught the importance of observation and recommended that living beings be returned to nature after study. Comstock contributed to many scientific and agricultural periodicals. Between 1903 and 1907, he published Boys and Girls, a journal of nature studies. She was a contributor (1905-17) and editor (1917-23) of the Nature-Study Review until its merger with the journal Nature. Her love of literature led her to work as an editor of Country Life poetry in America.
Comstock retired from full-time teaching in 1922, but continued to teach. He was very active in the American Nature Study Society and was associate director of the American Nature Association. In 1923, Comstock was so well known that, in a poll of the League of Women Voters, she was named one of the 12 greatest living women in America. She was a trustee of Hobart and William Smith colleges and received an honorary degree from Hobart in 1930.
Husband of the Comstock had a stroke in 1926, which left him disabled. She continued to care for him, even after his health failed. Comstock died of cancer on August 24, 1930, in her home in Ithaca, New York, seven months before her husband’s death.
The Comstock’s contributions to nature education were recognized only years after her death. During her lifetime, she was often seen as a talented assistant to her entomologist husband. Her work as a conservationist was not much appreciated until the nature 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 it “Education of the Mother of Nature”.
More readings on Anna Botsford Comstock
Women American 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.
Note 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.