Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2023


James G. Needham (1868-1958) was a professor of entomology at Cornell University from 1906 to 1936, and an active emeritus for about ten years thereafter. As a professor, mentored many women graduate students at Cornell, a group that included twenty-nine who took doctorates. As a scientist, he was a member of an extensive network that included many more women entomologists. These women were located throughout the United States and Canada. Some had been his students at Cornell, some were colleagues with whom he did fieldwork, and others were young women who, even though students at colleges other than Cornell, worked closely with Needham on their dissertations. This article is about the role that Needham, as mentor, played in supporting a vision that was both scientifically and socially unpopular. Through studying the Needham network, the complexity of issues faced by these women and their strategies for coping with them comes to life.

Some of Needham's students made major contributions to entomology. This group includes Edith Morgan, Ann H. Morgan, Emmeline Moore, and Elsie B. Klots. Despite the apparent success of these students and of the Needham school as a whole, it was not easy for Needham's female students to establish careers. One problem stemmed from Needham's emphasis on nature study, ecology and systematic entomology; this field simply was not popular in an era dominated by economic entomology, an era that culminated with the widespread misuse of pesticides such as DDT. Other problems reflect the general history of women in American science: professional barriers; conflicts between marriage and career; the onset of the Great Depression, when jobs were reserved for "family men"; competition between women connected by bonds of friendship; and World War II, which brought career opportunities that were often terminated after the war's end. To cope with such problems, "Needham's girls" depended on their mentor and group affiliation to aid them in building and maintaining connections and relationships within a complex network. Though "Needham's Girls" were victims of exclusionary male-gendered science, they also represented a distinct postmodern trend -- the emergence of ecology as a new science.


This paper was originally developed for Dr. Margaret Rossiter’s “Women in Science” seminar at Cornell University in 1988. It has been revised and expanded since that time. The author thanks Scott Juskiewicz, Kristi Carroll, and other Montana Tech Library administrators and staff for helping make this research and publication possible.