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Anna Comstock: Trailblazer in Nature Education (2018): Home

The life and legacy of Anna Comstock as displayed in the rare book room window exhibit in March 2018 - June 2018

Anna Botsford Comstock: Trailblazer in Nature Education

Anna Botsford (1854 - 1930) grew up in Cattaraugua County in western New York State. Her parents encouraged her fascination with nature from a very young age. Anna excelled in her natural history courses and in 1874 enrolled at Cornell University in nearby Ithaca to pursue further studies in this field. Cornell had been founded only nine years earlier, in 1865.

Anna was particularly inspired by a young professor named John Henry Comstock (1849 - 1931), who studied insects. John was encouraging of Anna's nature studies and recruited her to assist him with his research. Anna was a skilled artist and illustrated John's findings. As the two worked closely, a spark of romance developed; by 1878 they were married. Anna continued her studies and graduated from Cornell with a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural History in 1885. In 1888 she was one of the first four women inducted into the science honor society Sigma Xi.

Anna's pen-and-ink illustrations of insects were detailed and accurate, making them some of the most authoritative images for insect identification at the time. She later studied wood engraving at the Cooper Union in New York City, developing her artistic and technical skills. Anna's engravings and pen work can be found in The Manual for the Study of Insects by John Henry Comstock as well as How to Know the Butterflies (1904), Trees at Leisure (1916), and many other titles. Anna created her meticulously accurate illustrations by closely examining insect specimens. Her attention to detail when drawing and printing insects awarded her recognition from American Society of Wood Engravers. She was only the third woman to be inducted into the society.

 

Nature Study Anna Botsford Comstock (1854- 1930)
John Henry Comstock and Anna Botsford Comstock in their garden, date unknown.

Agricultural Depression and the Nature Study Movement

The 1890s were a tumultuous time in the United States. Rural areas experienced an exodus of young people seeking stable employment as cities boomed with industrial development. Agricultural communities sought to raise awareness of their growing concerns. The Nature Study Movement began in New York and later expanded nationwide. In 1895 Anna Botsford Comstock was commissioned by the New York State Committee for Promotion of Agriculture to advocate for nature study in public schools.

Cornell University received state funding to develop a nature study program in 1894. Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954), American horticulturalist and botanist, invited Comstock to join the newly established Nature Study department as an assistant professor. Comstock advocated for nature education in the classroom by lecturing on its importance, demonstrating lessons, and writing a series of pamphlets with sample lessons plans. The first female professor in Cornell's history, Comstock was granted full professorship.

Through their Home Nature-Study leaflets, Comstock and Bailey were able to reach distant classrooms and home across the country with their ideas. Each publication included abbreviated lesson plans on various subjects. The content was quick to read, easy to learn, and provided teachers with activities to follow in their classrooms.

Dean Liberty Hyde Bailey  examines a sandwich at the first Tompkins County School Picnic with Anna Comstock on May 26, 1905

The Handbook of Nature Study

Comstock compiled all of the Nature -Study leaflets, along with new lessons, into publication. First published in 1911, Handbook of Nature-Study has been reissued many times since and remains in popular use in homes and schools. In nature study, children are encouraged to learn by observing tangible objects. Tools might include a microscope or a simple hand lens. Comstock's book has educated children about everything from bees to weeds for more than a century.

Comstock summarized her philosophy in the first page of her book:

"Nature-study is, despite all discussions and perversions, a study of nature; it consists of simple, truthful observations that may, like beads on a string, finally be threaded upon the understanding and thus held together as a logical and harmonious whole. Therefore, the object of the nature-study teacher should be to cultivate in the children powers of accurate observation and to build within them understanding."

Nature Study Group with Bird Houses date unknown

Legacy

Comstock's contributions have equipped generations of educators and students with an understanding of the environment around them. Handbook of Nature Study remains an integral reference for educators throughout the United States. Comstock's illustrations and wood engravings are admired and studied by students and scholars, and her teachings have inspired generations of young naturalists.

In keeping with the principles of Nature Study, The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) has welcomed teachers and school groups to experience and explore nature since its founding in 1891. NYBG's Children's Education Department offers experience-based programs intended to encourage play and close observation of nature, as well as professional development programs for teachers, field trips, and summer camp opportunities.

Teenagers in the High School Explainer Program in NYBG's Everett Children's Adventure Garden are trained as volunteer science educators. In these field notebooks, Explainers-in-training practice using their senses to learn from nature. Explainers go on to lead children and families through hands-on experiences and exploration of the Garden. 

The collections at The LuEsther T. Mertz Library provide resource materials for developing lessons plans, demonstration props and curriculum support. A recent children's book by Suzanne Slade introduces Comstock to today's young readers. Slade's narrative of Comstock's life and work and earthy watercolor illustrations by Jessica Lanan encourage readers to explore the natural world and follow Comstock's footsteps.

Demonstration to school children by Dr. Robinson at the New York Botanical Garden on October 1906

Display documentation

Photograph of library rare book room

Rare Book Room Window

Photograph of library rare book room

Rare Book Room Window: Panel 1

Photograph of library rare book room

Rare Book Room Window: Panel 2

Photograph of library rare book room

Rare Book Room Window: Panel 3

Photograph of library rare book room

Rare Book Room Window: Panel 4

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Readings Related to Anna and her Work

Acknowledgements

This exhibit was created by Samantha D'Acunto with editorial contributions from  Victoria Lewis, Joanna Groarke and Susan Fraser. Kelsey Miller worked to design and install the physical component of this display in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library.

Images courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.