An ambitious EC-funded research initiative on epigenetics advancing towards systems biology 71

Beetles, bugs and those bothersome house sparrows

Name: Eleanor Anne Ormerod
Nationality: English
Lived: 1828-1901
Fields: Entomology and agriculture
Claim to fame: Gave crop-saving advice to farmers; first woman to gain honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University

Eleanor Ormerod (1828-1901), one of the most outstanding entomologists of the latter half of the 19th century, was a consultant to England‘s Royal Agricultural Society, and a friend to farmers the world over, finding cheap and effective ways to defeat crop-damaging insects and sharing her knowledge freely. The respected journal Nature called her ”our best authority on farm and garden entomology”.

A glass of grubs

Eleanor Ormerod was one of ten children born to an upper-class family in West Gloucestershire, England. Like all of her siblings, she was educated at home by her mother, Sarah, an intelligent woman and artist who took the education of her children very seriously.
Eleanor helped her brothers in their scientific explorations, which gave her experience of using a microscope and introduced her to the basics of anatomy and classification. She spent a lot of time exploring both the family library and the grounds of their 800-acre estate.
She loved to look at flowers, study insects and write. However, her father did not approve and insisted that she keep her “hobby” to herself. Once, someone gave her six of the pond‘s grubs in a glass of water. She watched while fi ve of the grubs destroyed the sixth, and told her family about it. They did not understand her fascination, but the event marked the beginning of Eleanor‘s lifelong passion for entomology.

Collecting on the family farm

Eleanor began to study entomology seriously in 1852, and for 16 years collected and studied privately. But when the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) invited the public to contribute to its collection of insect pests in 1868, Eleanor responded immediately. She collected specimens from all over the estate, with the help of her family‘s farm labourers and the local children. Her contributions to the project were substantial and, in 1872, she was awarded the Society’s Flora medal.
During the same period that Eleanor was collecting for the RHS, she had also been given the responsibility of running the family‘s estate. This was an essential part of her education, as it gave her an opportunity to learn, not only about insects and agriculture, but about the needs of farmers and landowners.

The world’s first software guru

In the early 19th century, science was not yet a profession and was regarded largely as a “gentlemanly” pursuit. Although Ada Lovelace was not a “gentleman”, her access to elite London society served her well. One of her acquaintances was Mary Somerville, the noted researcher and scientific author who introduced her to Charles Babbage in 1833.
This marked the start of a long and valuable friendship and scientific partnership. In 1822, Babbage had proposed what he called the Difference Engine, a rudimentary, mechanical calculator. The British government initially financed the project, but withdrew funding when Babbage repeatedly asked for more money while making no apparent progress on building the machine. By 1837, Babbage’s thinking had evolved towards a more general purpose computer called the Analytical Engine which was also to become the victim of a lack of political will.

A new beginning

In 1873, Eleanor‘s father died, leaving the estate to one of his sons. The family went their separate ways and Eleanor settled at St Albans with her sister Georgiana. As soon as the two were established in their new home, Eleanor began to pursue her career openly, publishing her first article that year.
Eleanor became a popular lecturer. She welcomed scientists for evening ‘at home‘ lectures on entomology, and was a great supporter of formal agricultural education. On her way home from an interview at the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) in 1882, she was hit by a carriage and suffered permanent injuries.

The house sparrows must go

In 1885, Eleanor wrote to The Times calling for the extermination of the house sparrow, which devours seeds and drives off insect-eating birds. While agriculturalists appreciated her remarks, she became very unpopular among the more urban, sparrow-loving set.
Four years later she was devastated by the death of Georgiana. But she kept working and in 1900 the University of Edinburgh awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Laws. In 1901, she received the Victoria Medal of Honour in Horticulture from the RHS. She died that same year.

Publisher, lecturer, advisor

Eleanor Ormerod‘s 1877 publication Notes for observations on injurious insects inspired major reader response, and resulted in a series of annual reports that provided invaluable advice to agriculturalists. Her report on the warble fly (whose grubs burrow into the skin of cattle) included advice that saved an enormous number of English cows.
In 1881, when a plague of turnip fl y cost British farmers dearly, Eleanor published a report that provided a workable solution. She was then invited to be a special lecturer on economic entomology for the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester.
The following year, she became a consulting entomologist for the RAS, a post she held until 1892. Her position was unpaid on her own insistence – she wanted work on her own terms. She served as an advisor to the Board of Agriculture from 1885 to 1890, and over the years provided expert advice to entomologists and farmers in the US, too.

Examining in a subject she could not teach

Not having the right qualifications, Eleanor was not allowed to hold a permanent university teaching position but she served as an examiner in agricultural entomology for the University of Edinburgh from 1896 to 1898. In 1900, she was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from that university.
Over the course of her career, Eleanor was a member of many international scientific societies and was awarded several medals for her outstanding contributions to economic entomology. She published widely, often at her own expense, and responded freely to thousands of written requests for information and advice. She was widely respected for her expertise and generosity of spirit.

Scientific contributions

Eleanor Ormerod made substantial contributions to the science of economic entomology, and her expertise covered the British Isles, North America and South Africa. She is perhaps best known for her Annual Series of Reports on Injurious Insects and Farm Pests, but she also published countless handbooks, pamphlets, guides and textbooks. Her advice on controlling insect pests was widely sought, and she provided it freely. Her clear writing style made her knowledge widely accessible. She was a popular lecturer, and campaigned for the establishment of lectureships in agriculture at universities.


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