What’s the connection between massive, modern citizen scientist initiatives such as the Zooniverse, and the Victorian craze for observing bugs and beetles? All will be revealed at our People-powered science discussion at the Royal Society this Thursday.

The audience at the event – open to the public, so you’re welcome to attend – will be hearing from researchers working on the Constructing Scientific Communities (ConSciCom) project. This initiative, funded by the AHRC and with the Royal Society as one of the research partners, is looking at the origins and development of the citizen science movement, and our Library has been hosting one of Thursday’s speakers, Dr Berris Charnley, who is investigating networks of professional and amateur plant scientists in the nineteenth century.


Eleanor Ormerod, from the frontispiece of ‘Handbook of insects injurious to orchard and bush fruits’ (1898)


Berris has just posted this blog post on the ConSciCom website, showing how contemporary projects such as the Zooniverse work, and how such efforts to widen public participation originated in the Victorian era. One of the key figures highlighted by Berris is the entomologist Eleanor Ormerod (also mentioned in Keith’s earlier Repository blog post), who fits perfectly into this model of large-scale distributed scientific data-gathering, via her efforts in co-ordinating a network of correspondents to provide observations for her annual reports on ‘injurious insects’ in agriculture.




A set of four Eleanor Ormerod books recently popped up on the antiquarian book site AbeBooks, and so we spent some of our ‘Robson bequest’ funds (also used to purchase John Ray’s ‘English proverbs’, described in this post) to snap them up as a research aid for the ConSciCom scholars, and also as a useful addition to our collection of Victorian biology texts. The titles – including ‘A manual of injurious insects’, ‘A text-book of agricultural entomology; being a guide to … means of prevention of insect ravage’, and ‘Handbook of insects injurious to orchard and bush fruits’ – give an indication of Ormerod’s important role in the battle against pests, for which she was awarded an honorary degree by Edinburgh University, and hailed as ‘the protectress of agriculture and the fruits of the earth’.


The death’s head moth, from Eleanor Ormerod’s ‘A text-book of agricultural entomology’ (2nd ed., 1892), p.127


Ormerod’s books are illustrated throughout, to aid farmers and gardeners in the identification of hostile bugs. I particularly like this splendid illustration of the death’s head moth and its large caterpillar, which ‘does much harm to Potatoes by feeding on the leafage’, and is ‘best got rid of by hand-picking’.


The knapsack pump, from Eleanor Ormerod’s ‘A text-book of agricultural entomology’ (2nd ed., 1892), p.197


And when hand-picking proves insufficient, of course, there’s always chemical warfare, as shown in this picture of a farmer kitted out with a No. 1 Eclair, or Knapsack Pump, ‘serviceable for distribution of washes and sprays for destruction of Aphides, Scale insects, &c. … procurable from Messrs. C. Clark & Co., London, E.C.’ Greenfly beware!

You can see Ormerod’s books for yourself if you visit the Library. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to attending People-powered science, where we’ll also hear from ConSciCom investigators Professor Sally Shuttleworth (on Victorian meteorological surveys) and Professor Chris Lintott (on the Zooniverse), and learn how the enthusiasm for bug-spotting in nineteenth century fields has morphed into the ‘Galaxy zoo’ concept of volunteer engagement. I encourage any budding citizen scientists to come along.


  • Berris Charnley

    Thank you ever so much for this post, Rupert! We’ve been having a fantastic time working on the project. One thing that has come through very clearly, across the project, in my work on Ormerod, Geoffrey Belknap’s work on illustrations and Sally Frampton’s on popular health, is just how much people-powered science the Victorians were doing! We’re really looking forward to exploring this world and also learning more from our citizen science volunteers as they explore the roots of their own discipline in one of the latest Zooniverse projects: sciencegossip.org.