Anna Botsford Comstock

Anna Botsford Comstock

Comstock, Anna Botsford

First woman professor at Cornell University, leader of the nature-study movement, author and/or illustrator of many natural science books. 

Born Anna Botsford on September 1, 1854, on the family farm near Otto, in Cattaraugus County, New York; died on August 24, 1930, at her home in Ithaca, New York; attended a rural elementary schoolhouse, a “select” high school in Otto, and two years at the Chamberlin Institute and Female College in Randolph; enrolled in Cornell University in 1875, left to marry her zoology instructor John Henry Comstock in 1878, returned in 1882, graduated in 1885.

Along with husband, spent entire career at Cornell, except for three years at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. (1879–81); appointed first woman assistant professor at Cornell, in nature study (1899) and full professor (1920).

Awards: Sigma Xi, national honor society of the sciences, one of the first four women (1888); Phi Kappa Phi honor society (1922); named one of the 12 greatest women in America by the League of Women Voters (1923); honorary Ph.D. from Hobart College (1930). Her illustrations and wood engravings won her election to the American Society of Wood-Engravers.

Anna Comstock was widely esteemed not only for the science books and the novel she wrote and her hundreds of wood engravings and illustrations, but for her work in popularizing the study of nature among schoolchildren and their teachers. In 1923, she was named one of the 12 greatest women in America, along with social worker Jane Addams and author Edith Wharton . Her success was due to her ability to integrate the study of animal, plant, and insect life and to make the subject understandable as no other professional scientist had done.

In 1894, New York State appropriated $8,000 for Cornell to conduct a pilot project designed to attract rural children to farm life while incorporating a course of nature study. Anna Comstock was drafted, at first on a volunteer basis, to begin the program together with Liberty Hyde Bailey, who headed the Department of Horticulture. Bailey relied on her not only to develop materials but also to negotiate the introduction of nature study into the public schools.

The Cornell Agricultural College created the Department of Rural Education in 1911, and in 1913 Anna Comstock was again made an assistant professor of the Cornell faculty and a full professor in 1920. In 1917, she became editor of the Nature Study Review, for which she had written since its founding in 1905. Junior Naturalist Clubs were also started under her guidance, which eventually evolved into the 4-H Clubs

1909, she began work on her Handbook of Nature Study, which would run to almost 1,000 pages, published in 1911, translated into eight languages, became Comstock’s biggest financial asset, and was still in print in the 1990s. In addition to her work lecturing and writing, Anna Comstock served as a trustee for the William Smith College for women, opened in 1908, and for its co-ordinate college, Hobart.

For 30 years, Anna Comstock profoundly influenced the field of education. The nature-study movement, of which she was a pioneer, continued into the 1950s, and the American Nature Study Society attracted a new generation of naturalists like Roger Tory Peterson. During the 1970s, nature study merged with the burgeoning environmental movement; state and county nature centers were established to promote the close observation of nature, which was the trademark of the work of Anna Botsford Comstock.

“…I’ve heard her give a lesson in cross-fertilization in flowers that had all the wonder and poetry of the creation itself…”—Unidentified student of Anna Comstock

A B Comstock’s works include:


  • Anna Botsford and John Henry Comstock Collection, Rare Book and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York.
  • Kristie Miller, author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944 (University of New Mexico Press, 1992)
  • Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia