Happy Birthday Anna Botsford Comstock, Mother of Nature Education and a Kappa Alpha Theta


Anna Botsford (Comstock), 1874

Anna Botsford was born on September 1, 1854 in a small upstate New York town. Cornell University had just started admitting women when she enrolled as a student. She joined a group of 36 women who were outnumbered 13:1 by the men.

In 1874, prior to becoming a student, she was told by a Cornell male student, “You won’t have a gay time, for the boys won’t pay any attention to the college girls.” Her retort to this message was “Cornell must be a good place for a girl to get an education; it has all the advantages of a university and a convent combined.”

Kappa Alpha Theta’s Alpha chapter at Indiana Asbury (now known as DePauw University) had previously written the registrar of Cornell University asking for the names of women who might be interested in Kappa Alpha Theta.

While the registrar did not provide names, he did send the Alpha Chapter a catalog and Alpha selected from the catalog the names of three women whose names must have seemed promising. The New York Alpha chapter at Cornell University was installed on January 29, 1881. The ritual and charter were sent registered mail and the chapter members initiated themselves. The chapter later became known as the Iota Chapter.  Kappa Alpha Theta was the first women’s fraternity on the Cornell campus. Anna Botsford was among the chapter’s early initiates.

At Cornell, she took a zoology course taught by John Comstock. A few years later became his wife. In 1888, she became one of the first four women to be a member of Sigma Xi, the scientific honor society.

Without formal training, she illustrated the books her husband wrote. She studied insects under microscopes and drew what she saw. She wrote botany books and learned wood engravering. The Comstocks formed their own publishing company.

She spent a large part of her life at Cornell University as a student, the wife of a professor and a professor herself.  She was the Cornell’s first female assistant professor.

She also helped establish the Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter at Cornell. In 1883, five Cornell University coeds discussed applying for a charter of a national women’s fraternity.  Comstock wrote a letter of recommendation to accompany the group’s letter to Kappa Kappa Gamma. Shortly thereafter, two members of the Syracuse chapter arrived in Ithaca to initiate the charter members.

In 1917, an unnamed Cornell University Kappa Alpha Theta wrote, “To know Mrs. Comstock is one of the rare privileges of being a Cornell student, a privilege always guaranteed Thetas, for whom she keeps a special place in her chimney corner.”

It is said she was a conservationist before the term was even coined. In 1988, 58 years after her death, the National Wildlife Federation named her to its Conservation Hall of Fame and calls her the “Mother of Nature Education.”

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