February is Black History Month. Historically, culturally, and institutionally, the contributions to the scientific world from scientists of color have been marginalized. Their stories are often missing in the narrative of history. To observe Black History Month and to promote scientists of color, we are highlighting Black scientists who contributed to our collective understanding of nature around the world and in our backyards. Today, we’re taking a closer look at Margaret S. Collins (1922 to 1996).
Known as a child prodigy, Dr. Margaret S. Collins is remembered as a scientist and civil rights advocate. A voracious reader and endlessly curious, Collins entered West Virginia State College at 14 years of age. She was met with institutional racism and sexism in her studies of biology, both in finding field work opportunities and mentors. Graduating with her bachelor’s degree in biology in 1943, she continued to pursue her education at the University of Chicago. She completed her PhD in zoology in 1949 with a thesis on termites, making her the first African American female entomologist and the third African American female zoologist in the U.S.
Dr. Collins continued her research with termites, conducting field work in the Cayman Islands, Guyana, and other locations, and through teaching positions with several universities. Her work and studies led her across the U.S. Between 1952-1957 she became active in the Florida A&M Student Council’s bus boycott and was monitored by the FBI for her civil rights work. In 1964, Dr. Collins moved to Washington D.C. where she accepted a professorship with Howard University and became a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution. Affectionately known in the field of entomology as “the Termite Lady,” Dr. Collins traveled the world and always saw herself as a field researcher. Her studies of insects across the world led her to discover a new species of termite and write numerous papers that are still cited today.
Bringing Science Home
Let’s explore the world of insects! Click here to download Bugs on the Run handout. Learn how to make an insect and explore how it might move!
Additional Resources & Sources
Lewis, Vernard R. Child Prodigy, Pioneer Scientist, and Women and Civil Rights Advocate: Dr. Margaret James Strickland Collins (1922-1996). Florida Entomologist, vol 99 no. 2, 2016.
Fthenakis, Lisa. “Margaret Collins: Scholar, Civil Rights Activist, and Mentor.” Blog post. Smithsonian Institution Archives. March 27, 2018. https://siarchives.si.edu/blog/margaret-collins-scholar-civil-rights-activist-and-mentor