Anna Botsford Comstock is the best-selling author of The Handbook of Nature Study (1911) now in its 24th edition. Comstock was an early American artist and trained wood engraver known for illustrating her husband, John Henry Comstock, entomological textbooks including their first joint effort, The Manual for the Study of Insects (1885). Comstock worked with Liberty Hyde Bailey, John Walton Spencer, Alice McCloskey, Julia Rogers, and Ada Georgia as part of the department of Nature Study at Cornell University. Together they wrote nature study curricula to develop a curiosity for, and education of, the surrounding natural world. Comstock also was a proponent for conservationism by instilling a love and appreciation of the natural world around us.
Anna Botsford Comstock was born in a log house in Otto, New York, to Marvin and Phebe Irish Botsford. At the age of three, the family moved to frame house on a farm with both a horse and cattle barn.
In 1871, as there was no high school in Otto, Comstock attended the Chamberlain Institute and Female College, one of two seminaries under the direction of the Methodist Church in Randolph, New York. It was here where Comstock first met the acquaintance of Martha Van Rensselaer, "...never dreaming how closely she would be associated with me in later life."
The young Anna Botsford's first year at Cornell (1874) was tempestuous. Upon arriving at Cornell, Comstock found that she had to take several examinations in order to enter, and particularly needed tutoring in German. She also lived at a boarding house with several other students, and maintained an active social life. Botsford's course work included both botany and zoology with corresponding laboratory periods in both. When she returned to Cornell in 1875, she was part of the first group of thirty-three young women to move into the newly built Sage College on campus It was during the winter semester of 1875 in which the young Miss Botsford first took an entomology class with her future husband, John Henry Comstock, just two years into his career as a university lecturer.
Throughout her life, Comstock illustrated her husband's lectures and publications on insects. She had no formal training in this illustration; she would study an insect under a microscope then draw it. While her husband was chief entomologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1879 to 1881, she prepared the drawings for his 1880 Report of the Entomologist on citrus scale insects. She then reentered Cornell and received a degree in natural history in 1885. She studied wood engraving at Cooper Union, New York City, so she could prepare illustrations for her husband's book Introduction to Entomology in 1888. Also in 1888, she was one of the first four women admitted to Sigma Xi, a national honor society for the sciences.
Comstock is most famous for being one of the first to bring her students and other teachers out-of-doors to study nature. In 1895, she was appointed to the New York State Committee for the Promotion of Agriculture. In this position, she planned and implemented an experimental course of nature study for the public schools. The program was approved for statewide use through the extension service of Cornell. She then wrote and spoke on behalf of the program, helped train teachers, and prepared classroom materials. Starting in 1897, she taught nature study at Cornell. Comstock was the first female professor at Cornell. However, she was denied full professorship for twenty years until 1920. (In 1911, Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose became the first women with full professorship at Cornell.)
Comstock edited Nature-Study Review from 1917 to 1923, and she was on the staff of Country Life in America.
In 1922, Comstock retired from Cornell as professor emerita but continued to teach in the summer session. In 1923, the League of Women Voters chose Anna Botsford Comstock and her Cornell colleague, Martha Van Rensselaer, as two of the twelve greatest living American women to have "'contributed most in their respective fields for the betterment of the world.'" In 1930, she received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Hobart College.
Comstock died in Ithaca, New York in 1930. In 1988, she was inducted into the National Wildlife Federation Conservation Hall of Fame.
Books by Anna Comstock
Handbook of Nature-Study was written by Anna Botsford Comstock during an era of growing societal concern for man's treatment of the natural world. Out of this concern grew the nature study movement which sought to teach science to school children (an...