Science Heroes: Dr. Margaret S. Collins, the ‘Termite Lady’

West Virginia in the 1920s was known for the coal mining industry and the violent clashes between mine workers and coal operators, as operators oppressed miner’s abilities to unionize. Additional violence against Black communities in the “Mountain State” mirrored the nation as West Virginia hosted prominent chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP; founded in 1909) was in full force in the 20’s, advocating for civil rights by fighting voter suppression, segregation, and discrimination in the workplace. Despite continued sex and race discrimination during this era, West Virginia saw more and more women doing work outside the home, receiving education, and starting careers as well as boasted a few civil rights successes! During the 20’s the state passed an (early for the time) anti-lynching law in 1921, developed West Virginia branches of the NAACP, had the first Black woman become a member of a legislative body in 1927 (Minnie Buckingham Harper) and, in the small town of Institute, WV, a future scientist and civil rights advocate was born!

[Left Source; Right Source]

Margaret Collins was born in 1922 in West Virginia and grew up like a lot of us animal behaviorists, bopping around the woods of Appalachia, collecting and inspecting local critters. What set her apart from your average curious kid was her incredible enthusiasm for education and her advanced reading skills. Her parents, being lifetime academics and education-enthusiasts themselves, had already gathered a very extensive library and taught her to read at a young age. She was recognized as a prodigy, checking out college level books from her local library at the young age of 6! She relished using these books to identify the local flora and fauna with her dad. Her extremely inquisitive nature foreshadowed her overwhelming success as a scientist, but it was not always an admired attribute by friends and family. Margaret recalled a time that she ruined Christmas because she would not accept the fact that Santa’s reindeer could fly, denying its possibility wholeheartedly, unable to be fooled by the concept like most American youth.

Margaret skipped two grade levels and graduated from high school early (at the age of 14) with an academic scholarship for college and promptly received her Bachelor’s of Science from West Virginia State College in 1943. She then attended the University of Chicago to obtain her PhD in zoology under her mentor Professor Albert Emerson studying termites. Her thesis ‘Difference in Toleration of Drying among Species of Termites (Reticulitermes)’ published in 1950 [1] is so thorough that she is still revered in her field of Entomology, and remains heavily cited. In academia, being the original expert in a subject is one accomplishment, but being the original expert and still having one of the most comprehensive pieces of literature on your study species 70 years later is a spectacular accomplishment. Christened the ‘Termite Lady’ in later years, Margaret was the third Black woman to receive an advanced degree in Zoology and the first Black woman to receive her PhD in Entomology.

Dr. Margaret Strickland Collins spent her life studying, preserving, and discovering new species of termite! [Source]

Margaret Collins held not one, not two, but THREE tenured professorial titles at Howard University, Florida A&M, and Federal City College, three prominent HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). She began her career at Howard after she graduated with her PhD in 1950, left to teach at Florida A&M in the early 1950s, and returned to DC in 1964 to teach once again at Howard and Federal City College. While in DC, she also held the title of President of the Entomological Society. Margaret considered herself a field scientist and with the funding support from Howard and the Smithsonian Institution, she traveled to Mexico, the Caribbean, and Guyana to study termites throughout her career. She transitioned seamlessly from professor-life at Howard to a senior research position at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum in 1983. In this position, she continued to study termites and classify their diversification and even co-discovered a new species of termite Neotermes luykxi in Florida in 1989 [2].

Dr. Collins held a senior research position at the Smithsonian Institution where folks are still able to see her curated collection of termites! [Source]

Anyone inside or outside academia can comprehend how impressive Margaret’s achievements are on paper, but when one considers the historical context in which Margaret excelled in such achievements, she stands out even further. Margaret faced adversity throughout her life and career in academia for being Black and a woman during an era of extreme segregation and discrimination. For example, while she was a professor at Florida A&M in the 1950s, Margaret was supposed to give a lecture at a nearby, predominantly White university about biology and equality, but the lecture was thwarted due to a bomb threat. Despite the demanding research schedule, teaching obligations, and battling racism and sexism within the Entomology field, she also spent time and energy advocating for equal rights. Taking an active role in the civil rights movement, Margaret drove fellow Black colleagues and students to work during a bus boycott in Tallahassee that began in 1956. The bus boycott was initiated by two Black female students who refused to sit in the back of the bus where Black people were forced to sit in order to segregate from White people riding the bus. The two Black students were peaceful and even offered to disembark if their fare was reimbursed, but the bus driver pulled over and called police instead and the two women were arrested. Their arrest sparked the bus boycott by Black people who walked or organized carpools to work causing bus revenues to fall drastically. Bomb threats and societal obstacles could not prevent Margaret from highlighting the importance of racial equality! In 1981, she published a book called Science and the Question of Human Equality where she married biological and taxonomic diversity concepts with human culture and ideas about race and racial equality [3]. The book was the by-product of a symposium for the American Association for the Advancement of Science that Margaret orchestrated to discuss this idea of science and human equality [3].

Even into her 70s, Dr. Collins traveled into the field to collect termite specimens [Source].

Margaret was not only an extraordinary scientist, but she became such in a time where women and People of Color were often considered “less than” in science and in society. Her career highlights the importance of intersectionality in science, spending time outside of research to advocate for racial equality in a tumultuous time in civil rights history. Margaret is a fantastic example for not only scientists of color and underrepresented, intersectional communities within science, but especially for scientists who wish to take action and promote equity and inclusion in laboratories and beyond. Margaret shows us that advocacy for equal rights within and beyond academia can be achieved alongside career goals. Margaret Collins is an inspiration as a groundbreaking scientist who was discriminated against for being a woman and Black that had the gumption and strength to be an advocate for her and others’ rights while achieving her goals.

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WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SCIENCE HERO?

Check out Popular Science pieces by Liz Tracey and Nancy Miorelli’s ‘Ask an Entomologist’.

Tune into the podcast ‘STEM Fatale’ to Episode Midtermites for a fun reflection on the Termite lady!

Check Out the Smithsonian Institute bragging on their former senior research scientist and The Washington Post highlighting the field research of Dr. Collins.


WANT TO READ DR. COLLIN’S PUBLISHED RESEARCH?

[1] Strickland, M. (1950). Differences in toleration of drying between species of termites (Reticulitermes). Ecology31(3), 373-385.

[2] Nickle, D. A., & Collins, M. S. (1989). Key to the Kalotermitidae of eastern United States with a new Neotermes from Florida (Isoptera). Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington91(2), 269-285.

[3] Collins, M. S., Wainer, I. W., & Bremner, T. A. (1981). Science and the question of human equality. Routledge.

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Maggie Creamer is a PhD candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group in Dr. Kristina Horback’s lab. Maggie studies beef cattle grazing behavior exhibited on extensive California rangelands. She is excited about incorporating cattle behavior and grazing management into rangeland conservation goals!

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Additional References:

PBS. (n.d.). West Virginia Mining. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/minewars/

Lewis, R. L. (1994). West Virginia History. Retrieved from http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh53-1.html

The West Virginia Encyclopedia. (2020). Charleston, WV: West Virginia Humanities Council. Retrieved from https://www.wvencyclopedia.org

Lewis, V. R. (2016). Child prodigy, pioneer scientist, and women and civil rights advocate: Dr. Margaret James Strickland Collins (1922–1996). Florida Entomologist99(2), 334-336.

Warren, W. (1999). Black women scientists in the United States. Indiana University Press.

Tracey, L. (February 2020). Margaret S. Collins, Pioneering Black Entomologist. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/margaret-s-collins-pioneering-black-entomologist/

Ensley, G. (21 C.E., May 2006). The Ride to Equality. Tallahassee Democrat. https://web.archive.org/web/20070505151512/http://www.tallahassee.com/special/boycott/dimes.html

[Edited by Karli Chudeau]

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