by Olivia Foster Rhoades
Termites are more than just pests. With over 2,800 species in the world, termites keep soils healthy, can communicate through vibrations, and termite queens can live upwards of 30 years. Equalling humans in their biomass, these six-legged wood-eaters are an integral part of our world. Much of our understanding of termites, also known as Isoptera, comes from the work of one scientist, Dr. Margaret S. Collins, also known lovingly as the “Termite Lady”.
Margaret Strickland Collins was born in 1922 in Institute, West Virginia, and was recognized as a child prodigy by the age of 6. A curious and enthusiastic young naturalist, she was often found in the Appalachian forests identifying local insects or reading biology books from the local college library. By age 14, she enrolled at West Virginia State College with an academic scholarship. However, once in college, she struggled to find a mentor, a far too common scenario for both Black and women scientists at the time. But persistence saw her through and she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology with minors in Physics and German in 1943.
From West Virginia, Margaret went on to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in entomology, the study of insects. There, she met her advisor Dr. Alfred E. Emerson, the leading scholar on termites who had the more extensive collection of species at the time. Margaret’s relationship with her mentor lasted decades, developing from mentee to collaborator to purported friend, but it was not without its trials. While Dr. Emerson worked to shield his student from racist attacks, he found women working in the field ‘troublesome’. As a result, throughout her graduate studies, Margaret worked exclusively within the lab, not accompanying her mentor on international trips to collect samples. Disappointed but undeterred, Dr. Collin became the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in entomology. Her thesis “Difference in Toleration of Drying among Species of Termites” was published in 1950 and to this day remains a highly cited and foundational text in the field of entomology.
Over the next thirty years, Dr. Collins would change the world of entomology and the study of termites forever. Co-author of over 40 publications, she described the biogeography (how species come to be where they are), physiology, chemical defense strategies, and taxonomy of termites. Dr. Collins became the world expert on termite diversity, discovering a new species of termite in Florida (Neotermes luykxi) and having a termite species in the Antilles named in her honor (Parvitermes collinsae). She would go on to hold three tenured professor positions at Howard University, Florida A&M, and Federal City College, serve as the President of the Entomological Society of Washington, and after retiring from her university positions in 1983, work as a senior researcher at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
However, as a Black woman in the twentieth century, Dr. Collins often felt the full effects of racism and misogyny, enduring racist epithets and having one of her lectures canceled due to a bomb threat. During her time as a professor at Florida A&M, Dr. Collin’s put her science career on hold to dedicate her focus to activism from 1952-1957. During the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, Dr. Collins drove people to work, which resulted in her being chased by police cars and being watched by the FBI. For many scientists, stepping away from the university would be unthinkable, as publishing is key to maintaining funding, but Dr. Collins stood up to be a part of positive change. Her investment in civil rights did not end when she returned to the lab, however, as Dr. Collin’s orchestrated a symposium in 1979 called “Science and the Question of Human Equality” for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Dr. Margaret S. Collins’ life was a testament to perseverance, genius, bravery, and leadership. Not only thriving professionally, she also leveraged her voice to call for equal rights and mentored a new generation of entomologists. Throughout her life, Dr. Collins demonstrated that advocacy for social change can be achieved in parallel with career goals. She was an intersectional trailblazer who serves as an inspiration to current and future scientists to engage with the broader context of their lives.
At the age of 74, Dr. Margaret Strickland Collins passed away in the Cayman Islands doing what she loved- being in the field collecting termites.
Olivia Foster Rhoades is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard & is pursuing a concentration in STS at the Harvard Kennedy School. You can find her on Twitter as @OKFoster.
Photograph of Margaret S. Collins, originally published in Jet Magazine, is copyrighted. However, we believe that it’s inclusion in “Margaret Strickland Collins: Civil rights activist and “termite lady” qualifies as fair use because no free-use photograph is available, and it supplements the educational information conveyed in the article by providing a visual reference to a historical figure.
Cover image by GimpWorkshop from Pixabay.
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