Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Insects and a Short History of the People Who Study Them

Entomology is defined in most dictionaries as that aspect of zoology that deals with the study of insects -- in other words, living creatures popularly known as bugs.

Historically, the study of insects was not a separate field of study. Insects were studied along with plants and other animals as one aspect of biology. One of the first and, to this day, one of the greatest biologists was Aristotle. Aristotle was a great observer, and he included some insects in his writings. However, in the time that Aristotle lived (384 - 322 B.C.), there were no magnification instruments. This meant that it was more difficult to observe the small insects than it was larger creatures, such as fish, birds and whales!

Some 1,800 years after Aristotle, individuals known as naturalists began to study living things. None of the early naturalists specialized in insects, but several were very interested in these six-legged arthropods. For instance, Aldrovandi, while working at a university in Bologna, produced an elaborately illustrated treatise on insects.  Shortly thereafter in 1634, Thomas Moufet published his "Theatre of Insects" in Latin. The book was published in English in 1658 and still exists. It was the first book devoted entirely to insects.

Karl Linnaeus is well known as the developer of the system of classification of living things that we use today. Linnaeus named a number of insects during the course of his work. Charles Darwin was a keen observer of insects throughout his career. The amazing diversity of insects in form and function certainly influenced the thinking of Darwin, leading to his landmark book "The Origin of the Species."

It is not clear when a scientist first focused his energies entirely on insects. By the late 18th century, a number of European naturalists were active and some are today called entomologists. In the United States, F. V. Melsheimer, a Lutheran clergyman, made the first important collection of insects and wrote the first entomological work. His publication was the only one available in the United States for 25 years. Melsheimer has been called the father of American entomology.

Another early entomologist was Thomas Say who began his career in the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. He served as a naturalist on the Long expedition to the Rocky Mountains. Eventually, he moved to the socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana, and in 1824 published the first volume of his "American Entomology."

Up until the mid-1800s, most entomologists were not trained in that field. Entomologists were many times working in other fields. Physicians and ministers were common occupations of people known today as early entomologists in this country. That began to change with the introduction of entomology courses at major universities.

One of the first teachers of entomology was H. A. Hagen at Harvard. He trained a number of graduate students who developed the first university courses in entomology in the United States. One of his students was John Henry Comstock. Comstock started teaching entomology at Cornell and is considered the first teacher of entomology in the United States. The syllabus of his lectures was first published in 1876 and was the prototype of his textbook, "An Introduction to Entomology."

Comstock trained a number of entomologists who themselves went out to teach entomology at other universities. Today, most colleges and universities have entomology courses taught by entomologists. After all, entomology is the study of insects.



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox