The Dead Entomologists Society

The late and the great: who are the most influential dead entomologists?

In the run-up to the Christmas holidays an ex-student of mine, Andy Salisbury, now at RHS Wisley, and I were discussing who were the most influential dead entomologists ever.  We had begun our discussion discussing Harold Maxwell-LeFroy,, who among other claims to fame, was the first editor of Annals of Applied Biology , the founder of Rentokil and former Professor of Entomology at Imperial College.  He was also famous for having killed himself accidentally whilst trying out a pesticide.

Lefroy conversation

Dead entomologists

Up until the early part of this century he was commemorated in the Biology Department at Imperial College’s Silwood Park Campus with a laboratory named after him; sadly with the move into the new Hamilton Building this no longer exists.

We agreed that the great Alfred Russel Wallace was the most influential entomologist of all time; we felt that claiming Darwin as an entomologist, although famous for his beetle collecting, and despite being a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, might be a step too far.  So after Wallace, who was the most influential dead entomologist?

I think that this depends on how you define influential – for entomologists of my generation and the one before us, i.e. those born between 1930 and 1960; Imms and Wigglesworth are probably the two who most influenced us mainly because they were our recommended undergraduate texts  (those were the days when you could do entomology  in the UK as an undergraduate);

Wigglesowrth & Imms compresed

today I guess these have been replaced by Chapman’s The Insects: Structure and Function and Gullan & Cranston’s Outline of Entomology.  But of course outside the field of entomology who remembers Imms and Wigglesworth?  So we should, I think, be looking for entomologists whose influence has extended more widely;  a slightly tongue in cheek contender would be Thomas Moufet, who is possibly apocryphally, remembered for the nursery rhyme about his daughter Little Miss Muffett and more substantiated, for his compilation of the Theatre of Insects, but he was mainly a man of

Moufet book

medicine and more interested in spiders than insects in general.  A contender widely known outside the entomological world would be H W Bates, who is today remembered in the term Batesian

Henry Walter Bates

mimicry ; as a former President of the Royal Entomological Society (1868-1869) I think that we can safely claim him as an entomologist.

Other entomologists that have had an influence  on the rest of the non-entomological world, albeit not widely known outside the biological or medical sciences are Fabre and his Lives of  various insects , Karl von Frisch for his work on honeybees, especially in deciphering the waggle-dance,  E B Ford for his work on ecological genetics and for inspiring Kettlewell’s work on Biston betularia,  and more recently Richard Southwood   (Methods in Ecology) but initially a Hemipteran specialist and Miriam Rothschild for her work on a range of entomological subjects but very famously for her work on fleas.

The acid test of course, is how many living entomologists the man or woman in the pub can bring to mind when asked, let alone those that have joined the Dead Entomologist’s Society. Perhaps it is the fate of entomologists to be largely overlooked, much like the small but highly important organisms we work on 😉

I would dearly love to hear your thoughts on which the most influential dead entomologists are.  I am well aware, that my list is very Euro- and UK-centric.  So let’s see some nominations from the rest of the world, suitably justified of course!

Post script

Getting my vote as a contender for an American entomologist of great influence, albeit British-born, would be Charles Riley, sometimes known as the Father of Biological Control , but then again, who outside the world of entomology has heard of him?



Filed under EntoNotes

14 responses to “The Dead Entomologists Society

  1. Ramiro

    Willi Hennig is mostly renown by its Phylogenetic Systematics, Cladistics, but he also was a Dipterist. See this post by Morgan D. Jackson:


  2. Vladimir Nabokov would qualify I think. The world knows him as an author, but he was an equally famous lepidopterist:


    • Aan excellent suggestion but although we all know him as an entomologist does the rest of the world think about entomology when they hear or see his name?


      • Probably not. I think the set of individuals famous with the general public for being an entomologist might be limited to a very few people. I can think of only three: E.O. Wilson and (in Canada), John Acorn and Georges Brossard. However (thankfully) none of them are dead!


  3. It probably depends somewhat on where you were born. For me Carl Lindroth was extremely influential, and for carabid researchers on this side of the pond he would have to rank up there.But how well known is he outside of carabidology and entomology? Quite well known among baby boomers in Sweden because of a popular science TV program, but probably not so much elsewhere.


  4. Matt Prince

    Whichever side of the line you are on.. its Wallace.


  5. Simon,
    This is a really interesting thread. Well done for setting it running! But I don’t think that you and others posting messages here are going back far enough in time, nor looking sufficiently at non-English speaking entomologists. Marcello Malpighi (Italian, 1628-1694) showed that insects have respectably complex internal anatomy including brains etc (not enough people have learned that lesson even now!). Jan Swammerdam (Dutch,1637 – 1680) and Maria Sybilla Merian (German/Dutch,1647-1717) were both outstanding in that they made great strides in explaining insect development and metamorphosis. This was important at the time since at that time many thought that the appearance of insects, apparently from nowhere, was evidence for spontaneous generation, while metamorphosis was thought to contradict the idea of fixed species. Swammerdam also showed that a lepidopteran pupa does not contain “soup” (again loads of people who should know better still haven’t figured this out…) Additionally, Merian’s interest in illustrating insects in naturalistic settings including their food plants set an important trend and arguably paved the way for scientific ecology.
    Neither Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (Dutch, 1632-1723) nor John Ray (British, 1627-1705) were primarily entomologists, but both made major contributions by discovering the existence of parasitoids. Ray also made major contributions to the theory of classification that were later capitalised upon by Carl LInne (Swedish, 1707-1778). Linneaus didn’t think that he was primarily an entomologist either, but since most organisms turn out to be insects, maybe one could argue that he was an entomologist even if he didn’t know it 🙂
    Your mention of Thomas Moffet (1553-1604) as an entomologist is a good try, but actually, Moffet stole most of his ideas on insects from another British entomologist, Thomas Penny (1532-1589), and even then managed to get a lot of them wrong in the process. On that basis I reckon that Moffet should be removed from, and Penny should be promoted to your list, but then I would have to admit that hardly anyone has heard of Penny [I intend to try to put this right with an article for Antenna next year].
    Going back further, Aristotle (Greek, 384-322 BC) was a pretty good entomologist, although I suppose that I have to admit that this couldn’t be argued to be his primary interest even by the dubious arguments employed above.
    As for other important entomologists already mentioned in this correspondence, I agree that AR Wallace must be close to the top of the list (see my forthcoming article in Antenna!) and that both CV Riley (American) and HW Bates (British) must also be mentioned, but Jean-Henri Fabre (French) would be my personal favourite. I think that your mention (you refer to Fabre’s “lives of various insects”) doesn’t really do him justice. In fact, Fabre’s careful observational studies of insect behaviour introduced the idea of innate behaviour patterns and set the scene for pretty much the whole of the 20th century ethology movement. Interestingly Charles Darwin was a great Fabre fan, calling him “that incomparable observer”.
    All the best, keep up the good work! Stuart


    • again some very good nominations but with the proviso that not that famous outside the entomological world – perhaps I should rework this post and the responses as an article for Antenna too?


  6. Well, I’m no entomologist but I think Eugene Marais deserves a mention for his ‘Soul of the White Ant’, which I read decades ago as a complete layperson, and Alfred Emerson, for research especially on termites.


  7. Dafydd

    J.W. Tutt was an extraordinary chap, author of a number of entomology books and founder of the Entomologist’s Record


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