Comstock, Anna Botsford (1854–1930)

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Comstock, Anna Botsford (1854–1930)

First woman professor at Cornell University, leader of the nature-study movement, and author or illustrator of many natural science books. Name variations: Anna Botsford. Born Anna Botsford on September 1, 1854, on the family farm near Otto, in Cattaraugus County, New York; died on August 24, 1930, at her home in Ithaca, New York; only child of Marvin and Phebe (Irish) Botsford (a farm couple); attended a rural elementary schoolhouse, a "select" high school in Otto, and two years at the Chamberlin Institute and Female College in Randolph; enrolled in CornellUniversity in 1875, left to marry her zoology instructor John Henry Comstock in 1878, returned in 1882, graduated in 1885.

Along with husband, spent entire career at Cornell, except for three years at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. (1879–81); appointed first woman assistant professor at Cornell, in nature study (1899), full professor (1920). Awards: Sigma Xi, national honor society of the sciences, one of the first four women (1888); Phi Kappa Phi honor society (1922); named one of the 12 greatest women in America by the League of Women Voters (1923); honorary Ph.D. from Hobart College (1930).

Anna Comstock's illustrations and wood engravings appeared in John Henry Comstock's An Introduction to Entomology (1888) and A Manual for the Study of Insects (1895). Her engravings were also exhibited at the New Orleans (1885), Chicago (1893), Paris (1900) and Buffalo (1901) expositions and won her election to the American Society of Wood-Engravers. She and her husband collaborated on Insect Life (1897) and How To Know the Butterflies (1904). She also wrote The Handbook of Nature-Study (1911), as well as Ways of the Six-Footed (1903), How To Keep Bees (1905), Dreams of a Heathen Idol (1906), The Pet Book (1914), and Trees at Leisure (1916).

In 1899, a visitor passing through White Hall at Cornell University might have seen two desks side by side, positioned in front of two east windows overlooking the green of the main quadrangle. One was the plain, orderly desk of John Henry Comstock, professor of entomology. The other belonged to Anna Botsford Com-stock, professor of nature study, the first woman named as a professor to the faculty of the young university where science was given a place of honor equal to that accorded the classics in older institutions of learning. Her roll-top desk was equipped with many irregular pigeon-holes, identified by neat titles in white ink: "Entomology Department," "Extension," "Handbook." A special gas-light illuminated the workspace where she did her wood-engraving, and her tools were laid out ready for use. On an adjoining table were prints and proofs, as well as an early typewriter. A hand-cranked telephone hung from the wall nearby, something of a luxury in a time when there was no mail delivery and she had to walk to Ithaca for her letters. The telephone enabled the couple to communicate with each other whenever one was working unusually early or late, which was often the case for the Comstocks of Cornell who, during a half-century of collaboration, published a shelf-full of books, authored jointly and separately.

Anna Comstock was widely esteemed not only for the seven science books and the novel she wrote, but for her work in popularizing the study of nature among schoolchildren and their teachers. In 1923, she was named one of the 12 greatest women in America, along with social worker Jane Addams and author Edith Wharton . Her success was due to her ability to integrate the study of animal, plant, and insect life and to make the subject understandable as no other professional scientist had done.

Anna Botsford Comstock always traced her feeling for the natural world to the influence of her mother, Phebe Irish Botsford , a Hicksite Quaker who, because of her religious beliefs, did not sing her daughter to sleep but instead lulled her by reciting poetry. Phebe and her husband Marvin moved when their only child was three to a frame house on the edge of what Anna in her memoir called "a primeval forest." Until after the Civil War, the farm was self-sufficient: they raised wheat and corn for bread, as well as vegetables and fruit, cattle, pigs, and sheep; Phebe made maple sugar and cheese, spun wool and made their clothes. She was "an exquisite needlewoman" claimed Anna. In spite of her busy life, Phebe always had time to read to the child and to impart her passionate love of beauty in nature, teaching Anna to recognize dozens of flowers, to cure wild herbs, to observe wild creatures and the constellations. Phebe was an advanced thinker who adopted the costume of bloomers for herself and her daughter. She also instilled the habit of work: Anna learned to sew when she was four and knit at six; thereafter, she had to make her own stockings.

Anna was close friends with the neighbor boy and felt that a girl was fortunate "who learns early in life that men are good." She attended a rural schoolhouse taught by a man for three months in the winter, and by a woman for three months in the summer, as was common for rural children of the time. Since the school had been built on their property, teachers often boarded with the Botsfords, and Anna had the advantage of their company. She was a talkative girl, with a good memory, who became fractious in school as she grew older, probably because of the lack of challenge.

When Anna was 13, the family moved to a large new house nearer the town of Otto. There was no public high school, but her father, a progressive farmer who was among the first to buy

farm machinery, could afford to send her to a "select school" with superior teachers where she began to study drawing. A wealthy woman friend in town encouraged Comstock to go to college. After graduation from preparatory school, she taught for a year in Otto, then applied to Cornell University, which had just begun to admit women. In high school, she had had some romantic liaisons, but her ambition had prevented any "sentimental entanglements;" one of her reasons for attending Cornell was the rumor that men there ignored the women, and Anna thought it would be good to have the "combined advantages of a university and a convent."

Cornell had been established for eight years. There were a few women students, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in women's colleges. During her first term in the winter of 1875–76, Anna was instructed in zoology by a young man who had himself just graduated from Cornell the year before, John Henry Comstock. Young Henry's childhood had been far more difficult than Anna's. His father had gone west in 1849 with the gold rush, soon after the boy's birth, but had died in a cholera epidemic on the way. His mother, Susan Allen Comstock , of the family of the Revolutionary patriot Ethan Allen, had worked her way back east. She suffered a long illness, and then turned to nursing to support her son, who lived with a variety of foster families. While working on a schooner that sailed the Great Lakes, the teenaged boy had encountered a Treatise on Some of the Insects Injurious to Vegetation, which captured his interest. He entered Cornell in 1869, the year after it opened, drawn by the status given to the study of science there, and by the opportunity its founder guaranteed to boys who wanted to work their way through. By the end of his sophomore year, he was instructing other students in entomology, as there was no qualified lecturer in the field. Immediately after graduation, he joined the faculty.

I've heard her give a lesson in cross-fertilization in flowers that had all the wonder and poetry of the creation itself.

—Unidentified student of Anna Comstock

Anna Botsford was interested in English and history, but took a course in invertebrate zoology to balance her curriculum. At the time of their meeting, Anna and Henry Comstock were each engaged to others. Anna's relationship ended by mutual consent; Henry's fiancée developed tuberculosis and decided against marriage. When Anna took a second course from Henry, in field and laboratory entomology, he made her a present of a drafting board, a T-square, and sticks of India ink, and encouraged her to begin to draw insects. Their mutual interest developed into an interest in each other, and they were married on October 7, 1878. Anna, who did all her own housework, had to interrupt her studies, but then as later they worked as a team: Henry helping with the dishes, and Anna helping in the lab.

The following spring, Henry was appointed chief entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they moved to Washington, D.C. There the couple was able to afford a housekeeper, and Anna worked in the Department with her husband. Despite a rule against two in the same family being employed in one governmental office, the Commissioner of Agriculture insisted on paying Anna for doing research, answering queries for agricultural papers, and running the office when her husband was in the field. When he returned, Anna, using a microscope, made detailed drawings of the scale insects (coccidae) that preyed on the citrus groves. Her drawings illustrated differences upon which Henry Comstock was later able to base classifications of the insects. In his annual report, published in 1881, her drawings were highly praised.

A change of administration brought a new commissioner, and the Comstocks returned to Cornell. A boarder did the housework, so Anna could work in the lab on drawings for the coccid report. The following year, 1882, she returned to the university to pursue a degree in science, taking the minimum number of courses so she could continue to work in the lab. Henry was writing An Introduction to Entomology, and to illustrate it Anna began to study wood engraving from the instructions that came with her tools. Her work was interrupted by a nine-week illness, during which her hair fell out. When it grew back, she continued to wear it short for two or three years, until her husband gently remarked that "One member of the family must have long hair—shall it be you or I?" They also took their meals in the dormitory to free her from domestic chores. In 1885, Comstock received her degree. Her engravings won the first honorable mention at the New Orleans Exposition that year, which encouraged her to go to New York to study wood engraving with John P. Davis; she became the third woman elected to the American Society of Wood Engravers. "My work was original," Anna Comstock explained. "I always worked with the insect before me."

In the 1890s, the Comstocks began to spend the winter term at Stanford, in Palo Alto, California, so they could collect insects throughout the year. Henry was working on two large books, the Introduction to Entomology and A Manual for the Study of Insects. He rose at 4 am to have three hours to write every day before his classes. She worked on the engravings from 8 am to 6 pm, and then indulged in the novel sport of bicycling for recreation and exercise. They published the Manual themselves, as the Comstock Publishing Company, so they could offer it at a low rate to students. It remained in print for nearly 50 years.

The Comstocks were disappointed to have no children, but their house was always full. Relatives attending Cornell often boarded with them. Anna entertained students and faculty, customarily reading poetry or essays after dinner; the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier and the naturalist Henry Thoreau were among her favorites. She also made time to care for the ill or bereaved among her family and friends. The two were described by their fellow faculty member James Needham in the Scientific Monthly as a "complemental pair": he was "short, quick-spoken, alert, even fidgety," while she was tall, slow-spoken, gracious and dignified. But their work and their goals were completely intertwined.

Cornell University was a land-grant college. Ezra Cornell believed in the importance of educated farm people for agricultural progress, and his university pioneered extension teaching, although its College of Agriculture was not established until 1904. As early as 1876, Henry Com-stock addressed farmers at a meeting of the New York State Horticulture Society on insects injurious to fruits. By 1879, Cornell had established an Agricultural Experiment Station. In 1886, the university held the first Farmers' Institute; invitations addressed laboriously in script by Anna Comstock were sent to all farmers whose addresses were known, and 85 attended the first meeting, at which Henry Comstock lectured.

An agricultural depression affecting the East in the early 1890s was causing farm children to migrate to New York City, and a conference was called by a group of charities there to seek solutions. Anna Comstock was the only person to attend from Cornell. The conference resolved on an educational program designed to attract rural children to farm life, and a course of nature study was proposed. In 1894, the state appropriated $8,000 for Cornell to conduct a pilot project. The faculty was overwhelmed by an unexpectedly large response, and Anna Comstock was drafted, at first on a volunteer basis, to begin the program together with Liberty Hyde Bailey, who headed the Department of Horticulture. Bailey relied on her not only to develop materials but also to negotiate the introduction of nature study into the public schools. Anna wrote leaflets for the teachers in rural schools and met with educators in the State Department of Education at Albany and with Teachers' Institutes. In 1897, the first annual report on the merits of the different university extension courses ranked the nature study program number one. The leaflets did more than instruct rural teachers, they also established the pattern whereby state colleges came to recognize their obligations to people in the state through the extension services.

In 1899, Anna Comstock was made assistant professor of nature study at the Cornell University Extension Division, the first time a woman had held the title of professor, but the following year her title lapsed because conservative trustees objected to a woman professor. Instead, she was named as lecturer with the same salary. During the summers of 1899 and 1900, she taught a Nature Study School at Cornell to 100 teachers, with lectures, field and lab work, but most of the teachers were from urban areas. Thereafter, she taught summer sessions at state normal schools attended by rural teachers, and at Chautauqua. During the school year, she lectured at Columbia Teachers' College, Stanford, and the University of Virginia. In 1903, she gave lectures to teachers from the black high school in Lynchburg, Virginia, and found them "better observers of nature than the white teachers." She also taught courses at Cornell for farm men and women, including a course on the farm library, where she cultivated an appreciation of natural history, U.S. history, and nature poetry. According to Ruby Bell Smith , Anna's many travels showed "a spirit of adventure and a burning desire for public service in her willingness to accept discomforts in the horse and buggy days."

After the Manual was finished, the Comstocks began to write Insect Life, designed for children's teachers, also published by Comstock Publishers in 1897 and still in use 30 years later. In 1903, Ginn and Co. published Anna Comstock's Ways of the Six-Footed, a collection of her writings in various publications. The following year, she and Henry collaborated once more to produce How to Know the Butterflies, published in 1904. In the fall, she was busy again on How to Keep Bees (1905) as well as with the monthly leaflets for the extension class in nature study.

During her illness in the 1880s, she had developed insomnia, so she began to keep a journal of philosophical reflections. A novel based on this journal, Confessions of a Heathen Idol, was published in 1906 under a pseudonym because she "thought it would be scandalous for a scientific woman to write a novel." Her husband was supportive but not effusive. The book was popular enough to have a second printing under her own name.

The Comstocks spent the winter of 1907–08 in Egypt, Greece, and Europe, on their first and only sabbatical leave. After their return, Anna thought that the leaflets and other material she had written should be compiled to form the basis for a comprehensive manual. In 1909, she began work on her Handbook of Nature Study, which would run to almost 1,000 pages. No commercial publisher would handle it, so her husband agreed to have Comstock Publishing produce it, prepared to lose money on what he called "a desk book with a thousand pictures." The Handbook, published in 1911, was translated into eight languages, became Comstock's biggest financial asset, and was still in print in the 1990s. In addition to her work lecturing and writing, Anna Comstock served as a trustee for the William Smith College for women, opened in 1908, and for its co-ordinate college, Hobart.

The Cornell Agricultural College created the Department of Rural Education in 1911, and in 1913 Anna Comstock was again made an assistant professor of the Cornell faculty, joining two other women professors who were in home economics. Comstock was made a full professor in 1920. She continued to publish, producing The Pet Book in 1914 and Trees at Leisure in 1916, as well as field notebooks for children on birds, flowers, trees, and common animals. In 1917, she became editor of the Nature Study Review, for which she had written since its founding in 1905. Junior Naturalist Clubs were also started under her guidance, which eventually evolved into the 4-H Clubs. Comstock, however, was never active in the fight for women's suffrage that challenged so many women of her generation. She did not believe women's votes would change national policy, and she felt all her efforts were necessary "to fight narrowness and injustice in the schools."

Henry Comstock retired in 1914, at age 65, and worked for the next ten years on his massive Introduction to Entomology, the climax of his work. When it was published with illustrations by Anna, he told her, "This is our book." Although they had not published jointly after the Manual for the Study of Insects and How to Know the Butterflies, there was "mutual help in every book by either," according to Needham. "He was as proud of her achievements as she was of his." Anna observed, "Our writing was the thread on which our days were hung." A portrait of both was painted by Olaf Brauner for the university library. Cornell recognized their partnership in naming Comstock Hall and the Comstock Graduate Fellowships. Needham remarked in 1946, "It has been said that many an institution is the lengthened shadow of a man. The Department of Entomology at Cornell is the lengthened shadow of a man and his wife."

In 1926, Henry Comstock suffered a brain hemorrhage that left him partially paralyzed and unable to talk. Although Anna continued to work, writing her memoir, The Comstocks of Cornell, which was published posthumously, and giving occasional lectures up until shortly before her death, she wrote on the last page of her last book that with his stroke, life had ended for them both; the rest was "mere existence."

For 30 years, Anna Comstock profoundly influenced the field of education. The nature-study movement, of which she was a pioneer, continued into the 1950s, and the American Nature Study Society attracted a new generation of naturalists like Roger Tory Peterson. During the 1970s, nature study merged with the burgeoning environmental movement; state and county nature centers were established to promote the close observation of nature, which was the trademark of the work of Anna Botsford Comstock.


Comstock, Anna Botsford. The Comstocks of Cornell. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1953.

Needham, James. G. "The Lengthened Shadow of a Man and His Wife," in Scientific Monthly. February–March 1946, p. 140–150; 219–229.

Sawyer, Ruth. "What Makes Mrs. Comstock Great?," in Woman Citizen. September 20, 1924, p. 8.

Smith, Ruby Bell. The People's Colleges: A History of the New York State Extension Service in Cornell University and the State, 1876–1948. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1949.

Wanamaker, John. "The Story of A Rolltop Desk," in Nature Magazine. October 1950, p. 429–430.


Anna Botsford and John Henry Comstock Collection, Rare Book and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York.

Kristie Miller , author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944 (University of New Mexico Press, 1992)