Fitch, Asa

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Fitch, Asa

(b. Salem, New York, 24 February 1809 d, Salem, 8 April 1879)

economic entomology, medcine.

Born into a prominent old Connecticut family that had resettled in eastern New York, Fitch was named for his father, a distinguished physician and farmer. Despite a professional family background, young Asa had an erratic and disconnected education—due in part to the limited facilities that Salem afforded—and spent some time in search of a suitable career. In 1826, almost by chance, he came upon an announcement for the Rensselaer School in nearby Troy, headed by Amos Eaton. The school had an all-science curriculum and was the only one of its kind in the country.

Fitch was drawn to this new venture in scientific education and enrolled in its second class. Indeed, he came just in time to be admitted as a participant in another of Eaton’s experiments in scientific education—a traveling school of science, set up on a barge on the newly opened Erie Canal, for the observation of geological formations and the collection of specimens. Fitch became the youngest member of a group of twenty men of all ages and conditions, including Joseph Henry and a son of Governor DeWitt Clinton. On this tour, which is recorded vividly in Fitch’s diary, the young man already displayed an interest in and inclination toward the study of insects, which was to be his major occupation. There followed a year at the Rensseler School, spent in the poursuit of a of a somewhat haphazard course that was at once all-embracing yet limited in scope and content.

Still in search of a career, Fitch next devoted himself to the study of medicine, attending lectures at medical schools in New York City, Albany, and Castleton, Vermont, and capping it with an apprenticeship to a practicing physician. He served briefly as an assistant professor of natural history at the Rensselaer School, then traveled to the Illinois frontier. Here, at Greenville, he spent an unhappy winter in 1830–1831, seeking to establish himself in the joint pursuit of medicine and science. Unsuccessful, he returned to his home state, where he remained for the rest of his life. Fitch’s interest in medicine apparently was secondary to his zeal for natural history acquired under Eaton’s inspiration. He retired to the family farm, giving up medicine for agriculture. With it, however, he combined the assiduous collection and study of insects, especially in respect to their injurious or beneficial effects upon crops.

Fitch, who became known as the “Bug Catcher of Salem,” began publishing reports about insects in 1845. Between 1854 and 1870 he received modest financial grants from New York State for his work and thus he was, perhaps informally, the first entomologist in the service of a state. His numerous reports, published regularly in the Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society, were widely circulated and acknowledged for their combination of sound scientific knowledge of insect life cycles with the conditions and problems of agriculture. From his obscure rural home in upstate New York, Fitch carried on a wide correspondence. His achievement, stemming from Eaton’s zeal for applied science, laid the foundation of economic entomology as an American science. Entomology subsequently acquired a more professional character; but Fitch’s role in it was perhaps the epitome of early American science, primitive but practical and dedicated.


I. Original Works, Asa Fitch’s lifelong diary, begun at the age of twelve, is preserved in MS form in the Yale University Library. Many of his notebooks are in the United States National Museum. His writings on entomology began to appear in 1845 in the American Quarterly Journal of Agriculture and subsequently in the Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society Particularly to be mentioned is a series of fourteen “Reports on the Noxious, Beneifeifcial and Other Insects of the State of New York,” in Transactions,14–30 (1855–1872). Fitch also prepared “An Historical, Topographical, and Agricultural Survey of Washington Country, “in Transactions, 8–9 (1849–1850). A full bibliography of his entomological work is in J. A. Linter, First Annual Report on the Injurious and Other Insects of the State of New York (Albany, 1882), pp. 289–325

II. Secondary Literature. Aside from brief biographical sketches, especially in Dictionary of American Biography, III, 424, there is no full-length study of Fitch, and very little published about him. Fitch’s diary is the basis of Samuel Rezneck, “A Traveling School of Science on the Erie Canal in 1826,” in New York History, 40 (July 1959) 255 ff.; Diary of a New York Doctor in Illinois, 1830–31,” in Journal of the Illinois Historical Society, 50 (1961) 25 ff.; see also D. L. Collin, “The Bug Cather of Salem, “in New York State Bulletin (March 1954)

Samuel Rezneck