Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Portfolio of Historical Insects

I had some extra time after work today, which I used to visit Marietta College's Special Collections. They keep scores of old documents, many dating back to when the Ohio Company of Associates first established Marietta in 1788 as the first settlement in the Northwest Territory. What I was after today, however, had an Entomological bent to it.

A young Hildreth, via Wikipedia.
Samuel Prescott Hildreth, a doctor who lived in Marietta during the early to mid-1800s did some of the first work in Ohio studying insects. He was a naturalist and published the first observations of the periodical cicada's 17 year life cycle, which is what I was after. I didn't find any of his cicada papers, but the librarian did bring me a book he wrote and illustrated, entitled "Portfolio of Insects."

This book includes paintings by Hildreth of various insects from Marietta and elsewhere in Ohio. When I first opened the book, I was greeted with beautiful illustrations of the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) during all of its life stages. I had an immediate visceral reaction to that page--the tobacco hornworm is one of the first insects I raised when I became interested in Entomology, and it was emotional for me to be confronted by this right after opening the book. It was a direct connection to a naturalist who had written this Portfolio 150 years ago.

That caught me by surprise. I was excited, but sheesh, that almost brought tears to my eyes.

I soldiered on, invigorated by each page and by the connection I felt with Hildreth. His book was a veritable menagerie of the most charismatic insects you can find around Marietta, and which are still around today--one of the perks of having a lot of woods and natural areas in the county.

The book is only about 40 pages long, and each page showcases a colorful new creature: a brilliant Luna moth, a royal walnut moth, a smattering of other large moths and butterflies, a giant water bug...even a red eft (Notophthalmus viridescens) and a sketch of what Marietta College looked like during his time! As for his handwriting, it was difficult to read. I could make out some descriptions and names of plants and insects, but that was about it. Fortunately, his labels for each illustration were neater. I recognized the scientific names for each species and even noted some that had changed during the previous 150 years. Imagine that, eh?

Hildreth was truly a Renaissance man: in addition to being a naturalist, he was a doctor, geologist, and historian. He was active in the community as well, and today has a street in Marietta named after him.

Sadly, I only had an hour to look at the book before I had to leave, but I'll definitely return soon. I have some more research to do vis–à–vis Hildreth's cicada research, which I hope will also feature some of his illustrations.

Hildreth's Portfolio of Insects is an achingly beautiful direct connection to the past. It means a lot to me, being a native to Marietta, and for me, it inspires a timeless feeling of camaraderie with Dr. Hildreth. I recognize these insects drawn so long ago and I can still go out and find them. Had we lived at the same time, I think he and I would be good friends.

I wish I had at least one picture from the book, but I'll have to speak with the librarian about any effects taking pictures would have on it. Who knows, maybe we can get it digitized. In lieu of any pictures, I will leave you with a quotation Hildreth used to begin a paper on cicadas he published in 1830:
"No part of natural history more abounds in wonderful and extraordinary productions, than that portion of it embraced in the study of Entomology."


  1. Sounds beautiful, Derek! Did Hildreth publish a printed version of the Portfolio? (I gather you were looking at an original manuscript). I hope the librarian will let you take a few photos for your blog.

  2. I'm not sure that he ever did publish the portfolio. It's more like a notebook than an actual book really. There are unfinished sketches of caterpillars, random other sketches (such as Marietta College and a lizard or two), and smaller papers inserted into it. I can ask if the librarian knows, but I would be surprised if it was published. I do hope I can get a few pictures, the illustrations are just marvelous.