Anna Botsford Comstock surrounded by illustrations of nature

Remembering Anna Comstock, Cornell’s First Female Professor

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By Beth Saulnier

When pioneering naturalist Anna Botsford Comstock 1885 matriculated as an undergrad on the Hill in 1874, it was as one of 37 female students—in a class that had 484 men. With the Sage Hall women’s residence not yet completed, they lived off campus.

“The cold-shouldering of the females by the males existed from the first,” Morris Bishop 1914, PhD 1926, admits in a discussion of early coeducation in A History of Cornell—later going on to praise Comstock as “a very intelligent person, original, decided, and humorous.”

Comstock would eventually become Cornell’s first female professor, a leading scientific illustrator, and an early advocate of nature education.

A portrait of John and Anna Botsford Comstock
The Comstocks' portrait hangs in their namesake hall. (Provided)

Half of a now-legendary Cornellian couple, she has not one but two Big Red buildings named in her honor: a North Campus residence that houses the Latino Living Center, and Comstock Hall (named for her and her husband, famed entomologist John Henry Comstock 1874), home to several sciences.

“Nature study cultivates in the child a love of the beautiful; it brings to him early a perception of color, form, and music,” Anna writes in the intro to her pioneering book on the subject.

Nature study cultivates in the child a love of the beautiful; it brings to him early a perception of color, form, and music.

from Handbook of Nature Study

“He sees whatever there is in his environment, whether it be the thunder-head piled up in the western sky or the golden flash of the oriole in the elm; whether it be the purple of the shadows on the snow, or the azure glint on the wing of the little butterfly. … But, more than all, nature study gives the child a sense of companionship with life out of doors and an abiding love of nature.”

Anna Botsford at age 18
Anna Botsford at age 18.

Born in a small town in Western New York, Anna Botsford grew up on the family farm, with parents who supported her love of learning; aiming for a university education, she did college prep work at a nearby women’s school.

“An outstanding student,” notes her entry in The 100 Most Notable Cornellians, “Anna delivered the salutatorian address to her class in Latin, as was customary.”

While Anna stopped her undergrad studies after two years—moving home after breaking off an engagement to a classmate—she returned to the Hill in 1878.

She came back not as a student, but as the new wife of John Henry.

Six years her senior, he had taught a course she’d taken in zoology, and the two became close friends before their relationship turned romantic.

“The Comstock partnership, in science and life, vindicated Andrew D. White’s judgment of college attachments and their results,” Bishop notes—referring to the founding president’s belief that for young people, studying together was a far better way to find a compatible mate than conventional courtship.

A vintage image of a group of men and women in a Sage Hall dorm room
Anna is the second woman from the right in this gathering in the 1890s, possibly in Sage Hall.

Anna eventually completed a BS in natural history and—having a lifelong talent for painting and drawing—became a skilled illustrator of insects and plants, initially to help her husband with his lectures and publications.

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Her career as a nature educator began in earnest in the 1890s, when she joined a New York State committee aimed at encouraging rural youth to stay on their family farms by teaching them to appreciate the wonders of the natural world.

“The state legislature appropriated funds for Cornell’s College of Agriculture to implement a pilot project,” says Notable Cornellians. “Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cornell’s distinguished horticulturalist, was named head of the ‘nature study’ movement, but Anna Comstock did much of the work.”

A drawing of a spider web and flowers by Anna Botsford Comstock
An artwork inscribed from one Big Red pioneer to another.

She became the University’s first female assistant professor in 1899, though she held the title only briefly before some higher-ups reportedly objected, and she returned to instructor status (while retaining the increased salary).

Retiring from full-time teaching in 1920, Anna went on to accrue numerous accolades.

They include an honorary doctorate from Hobart College, inclusion on the League of Women Voters’ 1923 list of America’s dozen most outstanding women, and posthumous induction into the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Hall of Fame.

Anna passed away in 1930 at age 75; John Henry, severely debilitated by a series of strokes, followed just half a year later.

In 1953, a division of Cornell University Press (CUP) published The Comstocks of Cornellpartly based on her memoirs, but heavily edited by an heir who de-emphasized events and characters he considered irrelevant, removed any hint of controversy, and shifted the focus toward John Henry’s accomplishments.

Anna Botsford Comstock with boys holding birdhouses
Anna (back row right) with nature study students.

It wasn’t until 2020 that CUP published a new version restoring Anna’s original voice, crafted by Karen Penders St. Clair, PhD ’17, as her doctoral thesis in horticulture.

“She was sassy. She was a romantic. She had a fantastic vocabulary. She was opinionated,” St. Clair observed when the volume was published. “And you wouldn’t know any of that from reading the 1953 book.”

In 1911, two years before Anna finally regained a professorial title, she published her landmark Handbook of Nature Study. Released by the couple’s own company (now part of CUP), which they’d established to publish John Henry’s textbooks, it became a surprise hit.

The volume, running to nearly 900 pages, is still in print.

“Out-of-door life takes the child afield and keeps him in the open air, which not only helps him physically and occupies his mind with sane subjects, but keeps him out of mischief,” she writes. “It is not only during childhood that this is true, for love of nature counts much for sanity in later life.”

Top: Illustration by Seung Yeon Kim / Cornell University. All photos courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collections, unless indicated; book covers provided.

Published March 14, 2024


  1. Jake Pultorak, Class of 1993

    Very nice tribute. My mother is a Botsford, and Anna is my first cousin, fifth or sixth removed. My daughter Allie ’23 graduated from Cornell last year, keeping the family tradition alive.

  2. Lee Kass, Class of 1975

    20 Mar. 2024
    I treasure my copy of A Manual of the study of Insects, by John Henry Comstock and Anna Botsford Comstock, Seventh ed. 1907 (copyright,1895). It originally belonged to a Cornellian from the class of 1912. My studies of pollination biology required a knowledge of insect visitors and although the classification has changed the illustrations by Anna Comstock, especially Lepidoptera, were most advantageous. I found my book at The Friends of the Library Book Sale in Ithaca when I started my project in the early 1980s. I was pleased to know that a new version of A. B. Comstock’s the Comstocks of Cornell has been published.

  3. Christopher Dunn

    I am glad to see Anna Comstock get the attention and notice she deserves. Suzanne Slade, who has written scores of children’s books about notable Americans, has devoted a book to Comstock (“Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story”).

    Liberty Hyde Bailey, as important a figure as he was in outdoor education, gets too much of the credit. As the Cornellians story here states, “Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cornell’s distinguished horticulturalist, was named head of the ‘nature study’ movement, but Anna Comstock did much of the work.”

    This reminds me of how Rosalind Franklin has long been kept in the shadows of Watson and Crick.

    Long live Anna Comstock’s legacy.

  4. Meena Haribal

    Anna and John Comstock were one of the founding members of Cayuga Bird Club, a local birding club.

  5. Margaret Gallo, Class of 1981

    Well-deserved recognition!

  6. Kathleen Cook

    The Girl Scout camp I went to for several summers along Cayuga Lake is named after this extraordinary woman. Camp Comstock.
    We even had a sweet song that we would sing around the campfires honoring her.:
    “Anna Botsford Comstock to thy name we sing, as we sit ’round the campfire each night, and gladly, in chorus, our voices to sing as o’er head the heavens shine bright. And the work that you’ve done, we will still carry on, with hearts that are steady and true. ‘Neath the hills and the trees by the lake that you loved, we will always remember you!! ” ❤ Most certainly time spent outside in nature enriches our souls. ❤

  7. Deborah Fraioli

    So glad Kathleen Cook wrote about Camp Comstock which didn’t find its place in the article. It was a great part of Comstock’s legacy.

  8. John A. Gaines IV, Class of 1967

    And there is a marvelous stained glass window in Anna Botsford Comstock’s honor on the south facing wall of the First Unitarian Church in downtown Ithaca (Aurora and Buffalo). The window can be seen from the sidewalk, but is best viewed from inside the church on a sunny day.

  9. Janice Litwin, Class of 1973

    My grandmother, Rose Davidson Bernstein, graduated from Cornell in 1903 as the first woman to graduate with a degree in botany. I would love to think Anna Comstock was one of her instructors.

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