John Curtis (entomologist)

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For other people with the same name, see John Curtis.
John Curtis

John Curtis (3 September 1791 – 6 October 1862) was an English entomologist and illustrator.


Curtis was born in Norwich and learned his engraving skills in the workshop of his father, Charles Morgan Curtis. Charles Curtis died young and his widow, Frances, became a flower grower.She encouraged her son to study natural history with a local naturalist, Richard Walker (1791–1870). At the age of 16 he became an apprentice at a local lawyer's office in Norwich but devoted his spare time to studying and drawing insects and, with insect collecting becoming a growing craze, he found he could make a living selling the specimens he found. At this time he became a friend of Simon Wilkin (1790–1862), finally leaving his job and living with Wilkin at Costessey where he undertook systematic insect studies and learned engraving. Through Wilkin he met the entomologists William Kirby and William Spence and his illustrations were published in An Introduction to Entomology (1815–1826).

Sometime between 1817 and 1819 Curtis moved to London, meeting Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society. Banks introduced him to William Elford Leach a curator at the British Museum.He studied conchology with Leach. Through Leach he met James Charles Dale who became his patron.He also worked in Paris with Pierre André Latreille.

In 1824 he began his greatest achievement, British Entomology - being illustrations and descriptions of the genera of insects found in Great Britain and Ireland, widely considered one of the finest works on the subject of the nineteenth century. It was published monthly by subscription from 1824 to 1839, each instalment featuring four plates with 2 pages of text to accompany them. The finished work comprised 16 volumes covering 770 insect species. Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) described British Entomology as "the paragon of perfection".

A plate from British Entomology

By 1840 Curtis suffered with poor eyesight which worsened in later life and he had financial problems.These were partly solved by publishing a number of entomological articles in the Gardener's Chronicle, as "Ruricola", and in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society.This led to the profitable Farm Insects: being the natural history and economy of the insects injurious to the field crops of Great Britain and Ireland published in 1860.

By the end of 1856 Curtis was totally blind and receiving a civil list pension. Many years after his death, when the original illustrations for British Entomology were up for sale, there were fears that the precious collection would be split up. The whole collection was, however, purchased by Walter Rothschild and later bequeathed to the Natural History Museum, where they remain today.

He was a Fellow of the Linnean Society from 1822,in 1833. He lent support to the founding of what became the Royal Entomological Society of London and served as its president from 1855 to 1857. He was an honorary member of the Société Entomologique de France.


Curtis was a lifelong friend of the Irish entomologist Alexander Henry Haliday and of the London entomologist Francis Walker. Curtis met Haliday in December 1827, (following an exchange of letters and specimens) Curtis’s second child was named Henry Alexander and Haliday was his godfather.

" I was delighted to possess Ceraphron Halidayii first because I had named it after you.... it is very essential to possess those insects I figure: the female of Scatophaga also was a most valuable addition. Tipula dispar I only had the male of, I never could understand the female but thought it had been killed before the wings were fully expanded, never having taken it myself and I need scarcely say there was not an insect you sent me that was not fully acceptable ......I will put into the box some British Ichneumonidae hoping you will do me the favour at your leisure to append to them their Generic names and if you know them the specific also but not to take any trouble about it and whenever there are 2 alike I beg you will take one if desirable. Pray do me the favour to answer the different questions in this letter as I have no copy or memorandum.I shall hope to hear shortly from you and sincerely wishing you in a good old English Phrase a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.Yours most faithfully, John Curtis" Curtis to Haliday 22 December 1832.

"To Alexander Henry Haliday, Esq., M.A., &c, of Belfast, whose extensive knowledge and munificent contributions, have so greatly enriched this work and whose kindness and friendship in its progress have been an uninterrupted source of gratification, to the author, this volume (British Entomology VII Homoptera. Hemiptera. Aphaniptera) is dedicated as a token of sincere regard". London December 1, 1837.

"It has for several years been my wish to pay you the only public testimony in my power of my regard by dedicating a volumne of my work to you. The many and essential services you have rendered that work during its progress would entitle you to such a compliment were you only a correspondent and the numerous proofs I had of your kindness and friend-ship make me only regret that it will not be better with your acceptance. I assure you one of the greatest pleasures in the progress of my great undertaking has been the associating my name with those whom I esteem and who like myself fare devote to the study of our branch of Natural History I may have only two more opportunities of thus gratifying myself and I shall be truly happy if they afford me the same unmixed pleasures as the present one does…Curtis to Haliday 2 December 1837

Euclemensia woodiella, the extinct Manchester Tinea (1830)

Selected works[edit]


John Curtis’ insect collection is divided between the Natural History Museum,Dublin (via Trinity College,7,656 specimens purchased by Thomas Coulter) and Victoria Museum[1] in Melbourne, Australia, (originally in the collection of Alexander Macleay).


  1. ^ "A History of Museum Victoria: The John Curtis British Insects Collection". Retrieved 2015-11-06. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Ordish, G. (1974) John Curtis and the Pioneering of Pest Control. Reading: Osprey.
  • Hooper,J (2004) Curtis, John (1791–1862) in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
  • Gage,A and Stearn, W. (2008) A bicentenary history of the Linnean Society of London. London : Published for the Linnean Society of London by Academic Press.

External links[edit]