The Early Years

John Henry Comstock writing at his desk in the McGraw Tower roomThe Cornell University Insect Collection traces its beginnings to the early years of Cornell. Professor Burton Green Wilder donated the first specimens in 1870. When John Henry Comstock began teaching entomology as a sophomore in 1871, he started the Cornell Insect Collection in his McGraw Tower room, where he worked as chimesmaster. In 1872, H.H. Smith donated specimens from Manlius New York, dutifully recorded by Comstock as Cornell University Collection Lot No. 1. The early years saw the Collection grow by addition of insects from the Cayuga Lake Basin, chiefly through the activities of Comstock and his students.

In addition, Comstock and Professor Mark Slingerland conducted experiments on insects injurious to agriculture. Voucher specimens associated with these studies were deposited in the collection. These specimens and their associated notes are still used today by scientists studying the biology of these species.

A.D. Mac Gillivray at a desk in White Hall

The CUIC has moved from building to building as it and the Department of Entomology grew in association with an Entomology Library. A.D. Mac Gillivray served as the first curator after Comstock when the collection and library were housed in White Hall, one of the three original Cornell University buildings.

Early specimens were recorded in hand-written lot books. As an example, this page shows information associated with specimens collected by A. G. Hammar near Sao Paulo, Brazil, from 1900-1903. The caterpillar is the larval stage of Sibine barbara Dyar, and the adult specimen is preserved in the CUIC.

A page of notes from a hand-written lot book showing information associated with specimens collected by A. G. Hammar near Sao Paulo, Brazil, from 1900-1903

By the beginning of the 1900’s, Cornell University had established the preeminent Department of Entomology in the world. Recognizing that teaching about insect biology and evolution required access to a diversity of physical specimens, Professors J.C. Bradley and W.T.M. Forbes mounted expeditions to a variety of exotic locales.

An early 1900's car on a trailer, being pulled by a team of horses cross the Gila River in Florence, Arizona

One of the earliest of such trips involved Bradley, Professor William Morton Wheeler of Harvard University, Dr. Joseph Bequaert of the American Museum of Natural History, Dr. Anne Morgan of Mount Holyoke College, Dr. Philip Munz (later to write The Flora of California), and student Harry H. Knight. They drove in three cars: the Ezra Cornell, a Buick; and the John Harvard and the Simon Henry, both Fords, leaving Ithaca on May 24, 1917, and arriving in Berkeley, CA on August 30 (Bradley, J.C. 1919. An Entomological Cross-Section of the United States. The Scientific Monthly, April, May June 1919: 1-54). Undescribed species are still being discovered among this expedition’s specimens.

A map showing the 1917 Biological Expidition's route, which heads south from Ithaca, New York and travels west across the southern border of the United States before heading north again to end in Berkeley, California.

Professor J.C. Bradley sitting on a stone wall and taking notes while smilingA headshot of Professor W.T.M. ForbesBradley and Forbes continued their collecting efforts with trips to northern South America, Chile, Puerto Rico and Africa. Entomologists have always been a resourceful lot, and Cornellians are the rule rather than the exception. When sent to the Pacific to survey mosquitoes for the U.S. Army, Capt. J. G. Franclemont also found time to make extensive collections of Lepidoptera in the Solomon and Philippine Islands. These are among the 350,000 moths he donated to Cornell in 1994 after having achieved the rank of Professor Emeritus.


Professor John Franclemont and his dog Cho Cho in front of the original Comstock HallProf. John Franclemont and Cho Cho in front of the original Comstock Hall.


1969 Systematists posed for a group photo at a table in front of a curtainSystematists in residence, spring 1969: back l to r, Ross Crozier, Robert Poole, Billy Redmond; front l to r, Ring Carde, George Eickwort, Teresa Feng, Robert Beard.

Other Cornell professors have also made major contributions to the Collection: James G. Needham (dragonflies and mayflies), O. A. Johannsen (fungus gnats and other primitive flies), Henry Dietrich (various beetle families), Clifford O. Berg (sciomyzid snail killing flies), Laverne L. Pechuman (horse flies), George C. Eickwort (bees). Looking back, the Cornell University Insect Collection can be viewed as an archive housing the entomological research interests of 125 years of Cornellians. Looking forward to the challenges of preserving biodiversity given the conflicting pressures of the modern world, our broad commitment to collection development makes the CUIC a world treasure for taxonomic research.

The CUIC Today

The Cornell University Insect Collection serves many roles for the Cornell community, New York State, and the world. Today’s collection, with over 200,000 species represented, provides a worldwide view of insect diversity essential for comparative studies in phylogenetics and taxonomy. The Collection continues to serve as an identification resource for New York State agriculture, in cooperation with the Insect Diagnostic Laboratory of the Cooperative Extension Service. Our extensive worldwide holdings allow us to identify any insect brought to our attention, and thereby provide the means to learn about their biology and control. As such we serve as a repository for U.S.D.A.-A.P.H.I.S. first records of invasive species. Undergraduate and graduate students conduct research on insect systematics using specimens in the CUIC. Moreover, we cooperate with scientists worldwide by sending specimens on loan for their research. When such research is finished, the specimens are returned with accurate identifications, thereby improving our ability to determine future samples.

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