Comstock, Anna Botsford

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COMSTOCK, Anna Botsford

Born 1 September 1854, Otto, Cattaraugus County, New York; died 24 August 1930, Ithaca, New York

Also wrote under: Marion Lee

Daughter of Marvin and Phebe Irish Botsford; married John H.Comstock, 1878

While attending Cornell University from 1874 to 1876 Anna Botsford studied zoology under John Henry Comstock, whom she married. In 1885 she completed a B.S. degree in natural history and about that time began systematic study of wood engraving with John P. Davis of Cooper Union in New York City. Childless, Comstock had several overlapping careers which were unplanned, the apparent result of her patient application to tasks which provided income or personal potential. Both her autobiographical account, The Comstocks of Cornell (posthumously published in 1953), and reminiscences of Cornell students reflect a determinedly cheerful woman who once observed, "our usual way has ever been to pretend that we like whatever happens."

Comstock's early work in science writing was as collaborator with her husband, a faculty member at Cornell. She began as his assistant and clerk but later turned to drawing and wood engraving, for which she won exposition prizes and was elected a member of the American Association of Wood Engravers. Working steadily, she illustrated John Comstock's college textbooks, An Introduction to Entomology (1888) and A Manual for the Study of Insects (1894); in the latter she was presented as the "junior author" and credited with some written work as well. Her contribution was even more evident in Insect Life (1897), a simplified textbook on entomology.

In the 1890s Comstock became involved in the nature study movement, lecturing and writing leaflets on special natural history topics for classroom use. State support for the Cornell extension programs permitted her unprecedented appointment as assistant professor for the summer session in 1898. After protest by some trustees her rank was changed to lecturer, but in 1913 she was again named assistant professor, and in 1920, professor.

Like other leaders in the nature study movement, Comstock insisted that her goal was not to teach scaled-down species hunting or microscopical work but rather "to give pupils an outlook regarding all forms of life and their relationship one to another." Nonetheless, her work was accurate, unlike much natural history writing of the period, and Comstock often included taxonomic terms. How to Know the Butterflies (1904), for example, begins with an elementary account of butterfly characteristics, outlines methods for collecting, and then discusses 12 families in detail. Such manuals as How to Keep Bees (1905), The Pet Book (1914), and Trees at Leisure (1916) contained anecdotal and literary materials as well as practical advice.

Much of Comstock's own energy went into popular lectures and essays which were romantic without being sentimental and suggested her belief in moral education. Ways of the Six-footed (1903) contained 10 stories illustrating the social organization of insects, their communication by sound, their use of mimicry as a defense strategy, and other adaptive features. The chapter on ants, bees, and wasps is entitled "The Perfect Socialism." Comstock did not belabor the analogy here nor ascribe human characteristics to the insects; she did, however, use human experience to describe animal behavior as an educational device.

Many of Comstock's essays appeared in The Chautauquan and Country Life in America. She briefly edited Boys and Girls (1903-07), a nature study magazine, before turning it over to her Cornell colleague Martha Van Rensselaer. For years she contributed to the educational Nature Study Review (1906-23), serving as its editor from 1917 until its merger with Nature Magazine. Typically, her contributions underscored the value of all life, the importance of understanding nature, and the interrelationship among creatures. Personal anecdote was a prominent feature.

Comstock's single most important volume was a compendium of her earlier work consolidated into the 900-page Handbook of Nature Study (1911). Not discouraged by the skepticism of her husband and her coworker Liberty Hyde Bailey about the need for such a text, Comstock provided a teaching guide for elementary teachers dealing with animal life, plant life, and the "earth and sky." The Handbook outlined programs for nature study in the classroom and outside, provided review questions, and suggested additional references. Vindication of her initiative came in 24 editions and translation into eight languages of the Handbook. Comstock's text became known as the "nature Bible" because of her sensitive counseling on such topics as children's attitude toward death when dealing with predatory behavior, and because of her concern that living creatures be returned to their natural habitat after study.

Only once did Comstock attempt to write fiction. Confessions to a Heathen Idol (1906), written under the pseudonym Marion Lee, is a romantic fantasy without any reference to Comstock's daily work of science. The "heathen idol" was a teakwood Japanese figure to whom a forty-year-old widow mused in her evening diary. It is a book in the sentimental tradition of the 19th century, high-minded in its morality and without any surprises in its development. It is, however, suggestive of Comstock's own marriage, describing as it does, continuity and satisfaction, but also a fundamental loneliness. More strictly autobiographical is The Comstocks of Cornell, edited and published two decades after Comstock's death; the narrative centers on family life and indicates Comstock accepted her role as homemaker and helpmate without much question. She remained detached from suffrage and other feminist activity.

In 1923 the League of Women Voters named Comstock one of the 12 greatest women in the United States. Popular yet scholarly in her science writing, she was a key figure in the nature study movement, and a moving force on the Cornell campus.

Other Works:

Nature Notebook Series (1920).

The papers of Anna Botsford Comstock are at the Cornell Collection of Regional History and University Archives, Cornell University.


Herriar, G. W., and R. G. Smith, eds., The Comstocks of Cornell (1953). Needham, J. C., "The Length and Shadow of a Man and His Wife," in ScM (1946). Smith, E. J., "The Comstocks of Cornell: In the People's Service," in Annual Review of Entomology (1975).

Reference Works:

NCAB (1892 et seq.). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971).