WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH – Pioneer Entomologist Eleanor Ormerod, one of “The Paradigm Shifters” of Science

Pioneer Entomologist Eleanor Ormerod, one of

“The Paradigm Shifters” of Science [1]

In 1912 a Middle Eastern traveler to the United States by the name of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made some farsighted pronouncements concerning the role of women. He had spent his life mentoring both Eastern and Western women to achieve their full capacities and render great services to humanity. In a talk in Boston, Massachusetts, he specifically encouraged women to “devote their energies and abilities toward the industrial and agricultural sciences” and seek to assist humankind “in that which is most needful.”[2]

Abdu'l-Baha in 1912

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s thesis was that women could bring a unique dimension to these fields, due to qualities of character in which they excel. Among these qualities are intuition and receptiveness, mental alertness, “abundance of mercy and sympathy,” concern for “the needy and suffering,” and “greater moral courage.” [3]

Can one look to history for the first glimmerings of the application of those unique female qualities when women began to enter previously male-dominated fields of science?

A review of the agricultural sciences in any reputable university catalogue will show them to include a broad range of biological and natural sciences, including botany, agronomy, genetics and breeding, horticulture, soil science, entomology, plant pathology, animal science, zoology, microbiology, public health, food processing, and so on. The industrial sciences encompass all the engineering fields, chemistry, and any and all forms of technology associated with industry.

A survey of the contributions women have made in some of these fields reveals women scientists who have, indeed, exemplified qualities in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says women excel. When entering previously male-dominated fields they have evinced ground-breaking influence not only by their accomplishments but also by methods and motivations that contrasted those of previous practitioners.

Practicality and “That Which Is Most Needful”

There is a difference in focus when a scientist pursues what is most needful for humanity and when he pursues that which is most suitable to his own tastes or more profitable to his institution or company.  The motivations of scientists are myriad but some would argue that the most noble purpose of science is service to the common good.

Eleanor Ormerod in Early Life

A focus on and concern for what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says is “most needful” is richly illustrated by pioneer entomologist Eleanor Ormerod, who was born in 1828 into the English upper class.  When she died in 1901, she was one of the most highly honored scientists of her day.[4] Her greatest accomplishment was to bring the study of insects out of academic halls and into the fields. Ormerod invented efficient, inexpensive methods for eradicating injurious insects and for the first time in history brought a systematic approach to saving crops and livestock from their ravages.

Her pamphlets and annual reports on pest control, which she produced at her own expense, were the first published guides to farmers on the subject. She worked anonymously for decades, but in 1877, when she began publishing her Annual Report of Observations of Injurious Insects, it became immediately popular, and agriculturists throughout the world corresponded with her.

Victorian walled garden in Sedbury Park, home of Eleanor Ormerod

Her research was meticulous and scholarly (she built her own meteorological observation station), but her reports also offered common-sense remedies using easily available ingredients. Her widely published remedy for maggots plaguing livestock is credited with saving half the cows in England in the late 1800s. She was also responsible for devising the remedy when the Mediterranean caterpillar threatened widespread destruction of the stored flour inventory in the United States in 1889.

Eleanor Ormerod, the ecologist

She was not just an entomologist but also an ecologist. When she retired, the London Times wrote, “she revolutionized the subject of agricultural entomology, as it was known twenty-five years ago.”[5]

By suggesting that women scientists focus on that which is “most needful” to humanity, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá may have been tapping into a natural propensity of that sex, as some current analysts are starting to observe. In an article on education in engineering, Joe Alper, a writer for Science, summarizes several researchers’ observations:

“Males are interested in engineering problems no matter what, but women respond more energetically when these problems are put in the context of helping people or the environment. It’s not that women aren’t interested in engineering,…it’s a question of context: ‘Women aren’t so interested in engineering as a technical matter, but as a practical matter.’”[6]

Lael Parrot, a writer for Resource magazine, recommends a strategy for attracting women into engineering: “make science relevant. Girls should be taught that science and technology can change the quality of people’s lives and alter social structures.”[7]


[1] Adapted from the article by Rhea Harmsen published in World Order, pages 7-29, 1998, and from  Science in the Hands of Women – The Paradigm Shifters

[2] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 283.

[3] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks: Addresses Given by Abdul-Bahá in 1911. 12th ed. (London: Bahá’I Publishing Trust, 1995) 50.6; ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice, Women, no. 25; Abdu’1-Baha, Paris Talks 59.8; ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation284; ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Abdu’l-Bahá in London: Addresses and Notes of Conversations (London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1981) 103.

[4] Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek, “Eleanor Ormerod, “Mothers of Invention, From the Bra to the Bomb: Forgotten Women and Their Unforgettable Ideas (New York: Morrow,1988) 175-77.

[5] Quoted in Vase and Pracek, “Eleanor Ormerod,” Mothers of Invention 177.

[6] Joe Alper, “Science Education; The Pipeline Is Leaking Women All the Way Along,” Science, 260 (1993): 409-11.

[7] Lael Parrot, “Women and the Culture of Engineering: Society Could Benefit from More Female Engineers,” Resource (Jan. 1998): 6-8.


Stay tuned for more during WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH. This was Part 1 of 5 from Science in the Hands of Women – The Paradigm Shifters

Also check out my novel about a working scientist, Maddie Hawkins, and see what kinds of trouble she gets herself into.


About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at rheaharmsen.com
This entry was posted in agriculture, bahai, Eleanor Ormerod, equality, female professors, food security, genetic engineering, national discussion, Paradigm shift, science and religion, social justice, technology, Uncategorized, women in science, women's history and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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