Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dr. Hildreth and his cicadas

I've always had an interest in history and still enjoy it, though my main focus has shifted to natural history. Over the past few years I've discovered the richness of southeast Ohio's history. There's a rock etched with George Washington's initials in my hometown, mounds built by Native Americans are scattered throughout the area, and the first towns established in the Northwest Territory are in southeast Ohio--the first was Marietta in 1788.

It was during this research that I came across a true Renaissance Man: Samuel Prescott Hildreth. He was a doctor that lived in Marietta during the 1800s, but he also dabbled in history, politics, geology, natural history, and more. I've previously written about Hildreth here after finding a notebook of insect notes he wrote (with illustrations), and it's his writings on natural history that interest me most.

Hildreth's natural history research was particularly helpful to researchers of North America's periodical cicadas, which are classified in the genus Magicicada. His observations of the 1812 and 1829 periodical cicada emergence events were the first detailed and accurate reports of the cicadas' 17 year life cycle. Those reports, along with his verification of the 1795 emergence, provided the documentation to confirm the periodical cicadas' unique habit of emerging en masse every 17 years.

A snapshot of a more recent emergence: a 4-year acceleration of Brood V in Marietta, OH; May 2012.

I first learned about Dr. Hildreth's work in Dr. Gene Kritsky's book: In Ohio's Backyard: Periodical Cicadas, published by the Ohio Biological Survey in 1999 and available for order here. The book is a great resource and has an extensive bibliography, which has aided my research on Hildreth considerably. The last time Dr. Hildreth published a scientific paper was during the 1800s, so his papers aren't exactly easy to find. Thankfully, today we have the Internet and libraries that digitize their collections.

As I conducted research over the past few weeks (by both searching online and visiting libraries), I came across four papers published by Dr. Hildreth about periodical cicadas. I could have missed a few, as I wasn't able to find those published in German or French publications, but the ones I found seem to be the main four which are referenced in other publications. In these, he writes about the life cycle of the cicadas and their effects on the area's wildlife (including humans). 

His first paper, Notes on certain parts of the state of Ohio, published in 1826, details the periodical cicada emergence of 1812 with the notes he wrote in his journal at the time. His journal notes describe the cicada emergence in late May until the cicadas are gone, by the end of June. He confirms the 1795 emergence in this paper.

Hildreth's next publication came out in 1830, entitled Notices and observations on the American  cicada, or locust. This was his first paper focused solely on the periodical cicada Magicicada septendecim, known then as Cicada septemdecim. This is the most eye-catching publication of the batch, as it opens with a plate of illustrated cicadas. 
Hildreth's cicada plate from Notices and observations on the American  cicada, or locust, published in the American Journal of Science and Arts, 1830. Notice the watermark--Google Books helped me out here.

Hildreth begins his five page paper with a bold (and very true!) statement:
"No part of natural history more abounds in wonderful and extraordinary productions, than that portion of it embraced in the study of Entomology."
The paper goes on to cover the 1829 emergence that occurred during the previous summer and gives an overview of the periodical cicada's natural history. Hildreth mentions a "smaller form" of cicada in this paper--the first account of the species Magicicada cassini, formally described by J.C. Fisher in 1851.

Hildreth regales the reader with stories of how the local wildlife responds to the sudden buffet: by taking advantage of it like there's no tomorrow. Hogs, birds, squirrels, etc. "fatten on them," and birds are so focused on the cicadas that they don't even bother to eat the cherries in Hildreth's garden! Interestingly enough, some people even used the cicadas to make soap, taking advantage of the fact that the cicadas are "plump and full of oily juices." Maybe that was a kind of revenge against the creatures, as the males could be heard singing from morning until night and be heard from a mile away. I personally love the sounds they make, but not everyone feels that way. If you've never heard them before, skip to 1:39 in the video embedded below and Sir David Attenborough will help you out.

In 1847, Hildreth published two more papers: one included topics other than cicadas, such as a meteorological journal he kept in Marietta during 1846. The second article was a shorter reprint of the first, including only the pages about the periodical cicada. These articles document the periodical cicada emergence of 1846, making it the fourth emergence Dr. Hildreth wrote about: not too shabby!

Adult Magicicada septendecim

After spending many hours looking for old references just to learn about a bug, I appreciate historians a bit more now. I also have even more love for libraries. The Marietta College Legacy Library's Special Collections department in particular was very helpful during my search, and is the reason I found Hildreth's A Portfolio of Insects that I wrote about previously. Washington County's Local History and Genealogy Archives was also a great resource. Since neither of those libraries had these papers by Hildreth, I sent them copies for their collections, just in case anyone else in the area wants to learn more about Hildreth's work. There's no sense in keeping them locked up in my computer, after all.

You can expect more posts about Dr. Hildreth in the future--he wrote about much more than just periodical cicadas. I'm finding out more and more about his life; he was a very interesting guy.

I encourage you to do some research into your local history as well! You never know what you'll find. Maybe there was a person similar to Dr. Hildreth in your town.

For those of you who don't live near Marietta, Ohio, I've uploaded all four documents to Google Drive and they can be downloaded at this link. They're a great look into the scientific writing of the past, and Hildreth's writing is surprisingly readable.

Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. 1826. Notes on certain parts of the state of Ohio. American Journal of Science and Arts. 10: 152-162; 319-331.
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. 1830. Notices and observations on the American cicada, or locust. American Journal of Science and Arts. 18: 46-50.
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. 1847. Abstract of a Meteorological Journal, for the year 1846, kept at Marietta, Ohio,  Lat. 39° 25' N., and Long. 4° 28' W. of Washington City. American Journal of Science and Arts. 3: 212-222.
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. 1847. On the habits of Cicada septendecim. Annals and Magazine of Natural History. 20: 136-141.
Kritsky, Gene. 1999. In Ohio's Backyard: Periodical Cicadas. Ohio Biological Survey Backyard Series No. 2. Columbus, Ohio. vi + 83 pp. [ISBN: 0-86727-132-9]


  1. Excellent, Derek! Cicadas have long fascinated me, especially the periodical broods. I can remember working at Kroger back in 2004 when my area of Ohio's en masse hatching happened, and after doing my shift of cart-wrangling walking back into the store covered in cicadas I had put on me. It didn't go over well with customers or management but still makes me chuckle to this day haha...

  2. Andrew, I'm not surprised that you did that. Though last summer a friend helped me stick about two dozen shells from the dog day cicadas on my shirt...definitely freaked some people out.

  3. Derek, where is this rock with GW's initials that you mention?

    1. The rock is at the mouth of the Little Hocking River, where it meets the Ohio River. Apparently the river covers more of the rock now, but it's still there as far as I know.


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