The invention of the microscope in the seventeenth century opened new realms for scientific investigation. As entomological knowledge advanced, it generated, and was sustained by, an outpouring of publications with increasingly more accurate and sophisticated illustrations. The mechanical arts of illustration and printing were the midwives of scientific progress, and left a legacy of books of both scientific significance and great aesthetic beauty. This collection was, in large part, made possible by the generosity of Dr Ronald B. Madge of Calgary.
Humanity's interest in insects has been evident through many forms of representation, including in artistic, religious, and early scientific publications. In pre-historic times, artisans depicted insects through bone carvings or rock-face drawings. In early Egyptian culture, scarab beetles were an important component of the religion of the time, and are prominent in paintings from that period. And lists of names of particular insects (mainly pest grasshoppers, but also mantids and dragonflies) appear on cuneiform tablets in the Sumerian language, dating to nearly 2000 BCE. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) provided a hierarchical classification of insects and much accurate information about them in his general treatment of animals (Morge 1973). The Bible contains numerous references to insects of one kind or another. The Roman author, Pliny (23-79 CE), in the eleventh book of his Historia naturalis, treats insects, but his observations were chiefly copies of the works of Aristotle, derived from intermediary sources.
The principal characteristic of biological publication, from the fall of Rome to medieval times, was the absence of reporting original observation. A major source used by subsequent authors was the Physiologus, a compilation made in the second century CE, from which were derived over the following fourteen centuries various volumes about plants ("herbals"), and about animals ("bestiaries"). These books were illustrated with hand-copied figures, and included treatments of various insect species. With the advent of printing, illustrations were produced by woodcuts. For the most part, the images seem to have been produced from memory by the artist, rather than from close observation of actual specimens.
Iconography is for biology what mathematical formulae and equations are for the physical sciences-a method of abstracting and summarizing precisely-made observations. But to make the images accessible they must be reproduced, which involves printing. The improvement of printing techniques during the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries made possible reproduction of the fine details of form and tone that are essential to accurate representation of the images produced by skilled illustrators.
Complementing the development of excellent iconography was microscopy. With a good compound microscope, one could see and illustrate small insects, as well as the intricate inner workings of larger ones. Without microscopes, the reach of entomology would have been limited to what could be observed with the unaided eye.
How did excellent iconography relate to the development of entomology? Demonstrating the wonderful variety in form and colour of the insect world may have induced others to take up study of insects. Certainly, the figures of insects portrayed by gifted illustrators induced wealthy patrons of learning to finance entomological books, which ultimately led to availability to the public of information about insects. More directly, figures of insects published with associated verbal descriptions by one entomologist could act as the common foundation on which others could begin to construct the body of entomological knowledge.
The first disciplines of entomology to develop were those for which iconography was vital, namely systematics and morphology (the latter with its handmaiden, anatomy). In the fullness of time, systematics led to discovery and classification of nearly a million insect species. Morphology blossomed as the study of structure extended in the latter part of the nineteenth century from the level of organs, to that of tissues making up the organs, to the cells that collectively form the tissues, and to the pathways of development that extend from egg to adult.
Isaac Newton, when asked the source of his genius, replied that if he had seen further than others, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. This essay has been a celebration of the works of some of the entomological “giants”—those rare individuals with exceptional talent and drive for perfection, whose collective pioneering efforts in the course of three centuries pushed forward the frontiers of learning. They shared an economic status that permitted devoting time to pursuits that were without immediate material benefit, as well as a deep passion with unrelenting zeal. Collectively, through their observations, illustrations, and writing, they laid a firm foundation for development of entomology. We may be thankful for their exemplary contributions. Floreat Entomologia!
Abridged from source: George Ball. The Art of Insect Illustration and Threads of Entomological History. Edmonton: University of Alberta Libraries, 2004. Foreword by Merrill Distad.