Anna Botsford Comstock

In order to appreciate truly his farm, the farmer must needs begin as a child with nature-study; in order to be successful and make the farm pay, he must needs continue in nature-study; and to make his declining years happy, content, full of wide sympathies and profitable thought, he must needs conclude with nature-study; for nature-study is the alphabet of agriculture and no word in that great vocation may be spelled without it.1

A serious agricultural depression in the north-eastern United States drove people from rural landscapes to burgeoning cities in the late nineteenth century. Such a migration took place in New York 1891 to 1893. Anna Botsford Comstock wrote in the Preface to her Handbook of Nature-Study:

the charities of New York City found it necessary to help many people who had come from the rural districts—a condition hitherto unknown. The philanthropists managing the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor asked 'What is the matter with the land of New York state that it cannot support its own population?'2

In response, a movement was created to interest 'the children of the country in farming as a remedial measure', being that 'the first step toward agriculture was nature-study'.3

From such a utilitarian concern for the future of rural life grew the American nature-study movement. The centre of the movement towards reiteration of the importance of agriculture and country values was Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which from its founding in 1865 had been committed to the problems of agricultural extension.

The leader of this movement was Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954), the great communicator of the idealistic, progressive, romantic beliefs of the Cornell school of thought. The practical purpose of this effort was 'making children sympathetic with nature-study so that they would truly enjoy rural life and be happy on the farm'.4

Working with Bailey at Cornell, and the spiritual leader of the nature-study movement, was the great proselytizer of happy, intimate contact with the earth, Anna Botsford Comstock. Born into a Quaker family in rural Cattaraugus County of upstate New York in 1854, she lived until she was 3 years old in a log cabin which she remembers well enough to describe in her autobiography, The Comstocks of Cornell. Farm life and a mother named Phoebe who loved nature made indelible impressions on the young Anna. She quotes her mother as saying one day at sunset: 'Anna, heaven may be a happier place than earth, but it cannot be more beautiful'.5 An educated female neighbour, Mrs Ann French Allen, was an important influence in directing Anna Botsford towards higher education. She chose new, nearby Cornell, which had opened its doors to women. Zoology study with Professor John Henry Comstock led to long walks and courtship. Marriage interrupted her formal education but led to a decades-long partnership in scientific research, teaching and entomology illustration.

Her path of inquiry seems to have been selected by both cultural limits and personal choices. Biographer Pamela Henson writes that she 'entered science through the "back door" as many female relatives of scientists did, and she always worked on the "peripheries" of science in art, popularization, and children's education.'6 Henson cites Evelyn Fox Keller and the gendered theory of masculinist objective science in explaining Comstock's choices.

Comstock found it more comfortable to incorporate her aesthetic appreciation of nature into scientific interpretation for children and a popular audience. This appreciation was part of her overall sense of subjective connectedness to the world around her. Anna Comstock experienced the natural world in emotional terms and felt a sense of personal relationship and responsibility to living things around her.7

Comstock also faced sexist societal barriers as a member of the first generation of American women with university educations. Often cited as the first woman professor at Cornell, appointed in 1898, it is less often noted that the Board of Trustees revoked the title and did not allow women professors until 1911, and only in home economics. Comstock was finally reappointed in 1915.

During her Cornell career Comstock worked with other founders of the nature-study movement. She called Wilbur Samuel Jackman of Chicago the father of nature-study. Jackman's belief that children derived intellectual benefit, as well as personal satisfaction, from the formal study of their immediate environments seems to have been one of the most influential ideas in the history of nature-study. Comstock carried this idea in the period from 1900 to 1920—the zenith of the nature-study movement and the era of Anna's leadership. She edited the Nature-Study Review and served as president of the American Nature Study Society, now more than a century old.

Nature-study was to a large extent a reform movement which rejected the methodologies of schools in the late nineteenth century. Although the movement was to become fractured at a later date by conflicting purposes, there was a common purpose at the outset. According to Richard Raymond Olmsted in his dissertation 'The Nature-Study Movement in American Education', 'like most curriculum movements, the nature study agitation developed into a complex phenomenon. The leaders of this movement found initial agreement, however, in the assumption that elementary school children should be taught about nature, defined usually as the immediate countryside, through field trips and other direct experiences.'8

The relationship of events in the nature-study movement to social conditions is vital to an understanding of the controversy which surrounded its introduction into the schools. The historical period from the mid-nineteenth century to 1880 was one of signal change. The Civil War, westward expansion, immigration of millions of new citizens and rapid industrial growth altered the nature of American society. Education was influenced by the introduction of universal schooling, the publication of

Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species and the growth of child psychology.

Comstock and her heroes Jackman and Bailey saw nature-study as a pedagogical ideal and social reform initiative with roots in the work of Johan Amos Comenius, Heinrich Pestalozzi, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Froebel.9 She was able to channel her own feeling for nature and her progressive social ideals into an educational and environmental philosophy much needed in her cultural period in America.

Her philosophy was that at the heart of a fully human existence is the cultivated imagination and insight for truth and beauty, as found in nature. In her seminal essay 'The Teaching of Nature-Study' she wrote:

nature-study cultivates.. .a perception and a regard for what is true, and the power to express it. All things seem possible in nature; yet this seeming is always guarded by the quest of what is true. Perhaps half the falsehood in the world is due to lack of power to detect the truth and to express it. Nature-study aids both in discernment and in expression of things as they are. Nature-study cultivates in the child a love of the beautiful; it brings to him early a perception of color, form, and music. He sees whatever there is in his environment, whether it be the thunder-head piled up in the western sky, or the golden flash of the oriole in the elm, whether it be the purple of the shadows on the snow, or the azure glint on the wing of the little butterfly. Also, what there is of sound, he hears; he reads the music score of the bird orchestra, separating each part and knowing which bird sings it. And the patter of the rain, the gurgle of the brook, the sighing of the wind in the pine he notes and love becomes enriched thereby.10

She also believed nature was a nurse for human health, an elixir of youth for the teacher, and a cure for problems of school discipline. Her reverence for the power of nature in strengthening human nature was reiterated throughout her writing.

A respected scientist, she published in 1911 what was to become the classic, Handbook of Nature-Study, since reprinted in many editions. She advocated direct observation and contact and made great, even extravagant, claims for the mental and physical wellbeing of students and teachers.

'Nature-study is nature love taught in the schools',11 she wrote. She advocated, without apology, love of the world through harmonious relationship with it. Nature-study is the vehicle for such love—for student and teacher, in school and out. In a speech in Philadelphia in 1914 she said:

If nature-study as taught does not make the child love nature and the out-of-doors, then it should cease. Let us not inflict permanent injury on the child by turning him away from nature instead of toward it. However, if the love of nature is in the teaching heart, there is no danger; such a teacher, no matter by what method takes the child gently by the hand and walks with him in paths that lead to the seeing and comprehending of what he may find beneath his feet or above his head. And these paths, whether they lead among the lowliest plants, or whether to the stars, finally converge and bring the wanderer to that serene peace and hopeful faith that is the sure inheritance of all those who realize fully that they are working units of this wonderful universe.12

In her retirement speech as president of the American Nature Study Society, she said:

the nature-study idea almost from the first overflowed the school boundaries to enrich and make happier the lives of those who loved the life of the woods and fields, and who would fain know something of the mysteries and wonders therein hidden.13

The advocacy of nature-study made her well read and well regarded. She lectured widely in the Chautauquan movement and published science writing for the public. According to Pamela Henson, 'Comstock's popularity was built on a melding of accurate science with popular sentimentality and her aesthetic talents.'14

Called the Dean of American Nature-Study and finally promoted to full professor in Entomology and Nature-Study, she was admitted to Phi Kappa Phi, the honorary society. In 1923 the League of Women Voters elected her one of the twelve greatest women in America. She remained energetic over a long productive career. She was not, however, tireless. When asked why she did not actively fight for women's suffrage, she said: 'I had been using all of my strength to fight narrowness, prejudice, and injustice, in the curriculum of the common schools, and I was weary with fighting'.15

She was at her best, as she humbly proclaimed herself, as an interpreter of science. Keller and others have said this was so that she need not assume the objectivist perspective of Western male science. She was an artist and a scientist. She educated about the complex power of nature in symbolic forms.

This style also enabled her to advocate for educational reform and nature conservation. She saw the power of the human spirit and of love of nature as the best motivator, putting aside the more typical American concern with practical benefit. In 1914, she said:

With a fatuity that our descendants of three centuries hence will characterize a criminal stupidity we have exterminated many species of birds, destroyed many interesting and harmless wild animals, hacked down our trees ruthlessly and cleared our streams of valuable fish. Men of science had remonstrated in vain. It was not until the nature-study movement permeated the people throughout the land that they came to resent this extermination; and not until then was there a sufficiently strong popular opinion created to establish and carry out protective laws...It should be remembered that in all history crusades have been born and led of the spirit.16

Her own leadership in science education and in environmental thinking was an inspiration to the American conservation movement. Also important was her gender. She helped make possible the later environmental leadership of many American women from Alice Rich Northrup to Edith M.Patch, from Rosalie Edge to Rachel Carson. And she made legitimate advocacy for nature on spiritual and emotional grounds by both women and men.


1 Handbook of Nature-Study, p. ix.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Leo E.Klopper and Audrey B .Champagne, 'Six Pioneers of Elementary School Science', University of Pittsburgh, Manuscript Draft, p. 299, 1975.

5 The Comstocks of Cornell, p. 57.

6 Pamela M.Henson, 'Through Books to Nature: Anna Botsford Comstock and the Nature Study Movement', in T.Gates and Ann B. Shteir, Natural Eloquence: Women Reinscribe Science, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 116, 1997.

8 Richard Raymond Olmsted, 'The Nature-Study Movement in American Education', Indiana University, Dissertation, p. 2, 1967.

9 Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Nature-Study Idea: Being an Interpretation of the New School-Movement to Put the Child in Sympathy with Nature, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, p. 7, 1903.

10 Handbook of Nature-Study, p. 4.

12 Speech delivered at Philadelphia, 30 December 1914, entitled 'The Growth and Influence of the Nature-Study Idea'.

13 Comstock, 'The Attitude of the Nature-Study Teacher toward Life and Death', Nature-Study Review, 5 (May), p. 121, 1909.

15 Marcia Myers Bonta, Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists, College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, p. 164, 1991.

16 Speech delivered at Philadelphia, 30 December 1914.

See also in this book

Darwin, Emerson, Rousseau

Comstock's major writings

Manual for the Study of Insects, Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Company, 1895.

Ways of the Six-Footed, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1903.

How to Know the Butterflies: A Manual of the Butterflies of the Eastern United States, with John Henry Comstock, New York: D.Appleton Publishing Company, 1904.

Confessions of a Heathen Idol, originally published under the pseudonym Marian Lee, New York: Doubleday, Page, & Company, 1906.

Handbook of Nature-Study, Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates, 1911.

The Comstocks of Cornell, with John Henry Comstock, Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates, 1953.

Comstock also wrote many essays for The Nature-Study Review, 1904-23.

Further reading

National Society for the Scientific Study of Education, The Third Yearbook, Part III, Nature Study, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1904.

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