Curtis, John (1791-1862) (DNB01)

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CURTIS, JOHN (1791–1862), entomologist, born at Norwich on 3 Sept. 1791, was son of Charles Curtis, an engraver on stone and a sign painter, who died when John was four years old. As a child Curtis was drawn to the study of insect life. While studying as a boy with Richard Walker, a local naturalist, the botany and entomology of the ponds and marshes in the neighbourhood of Norwich, he contracted a severe attack of rheumatic fever. When about sixteen years of age Curtis was placed in a lawyer's office as a writing clerk, but, finding the position distasteful, went in 1811 to live at Costessey, a village near Norwich, with Simon Wilkin [q. v.], where he met many scientific naturalists, the Rev. William Kirby [q. v.], the Rev. John Burrell, and others. During this period Curtis was placed for a time with a Mr. Edwards of Bungay to learn engraving, and, becoming acquainted with the works of Latreille, began systematically to dissect, draw, and describe insects, and to engrave them on copper. His first published work was on the plates to Kirby and Spence's ‘Introduction to Entomology,’ 1815-26.

During a visit to Kirby at Barham, near Ipswich, Curtis made the acquaintance of William Spence [q. v.] and Alexander Macleay [q. v.], secretary of the Linnean Society, and assisted Kirby in bringing out descriptions of Australian insects, published in the ‘Transactions of the Linnean Society,’ and in other work. In 1817 Curtis accompanied Kirby to London, and was presented to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, who granted him the free use of his library, and introduced him to Dr. William Elford Leach [q. v.], keeper of the zoological collection in the British Museum, with whom Curtis studied shells. At Dr. Leach's house he met James Charles Dale, of Glanville Wotton, Sherborne, called ‘the father of British entomology’ (Newman's Entomologist, vi. 56), and Dale (d. 6 Feb. 1872) became his lifelong friend and patron.

During his early days in London, Curtis executed much botanical drawing and engraving for the Horticultural and Linnean Societies. He became a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1822, and, after meeting Baron Cuvier and Latreille, began his great work ‘British Entomology,’ the first number of which appeared in 1824, dedicated to Kirby. The work extended to sixteen volumes, and was completed in 1839; it appeared in 193 parts, with 770 plates exquisitely drawn, the figures of the rarer and more beautiful species being coloured, and in many instances the plants upon which they are found. In the production of this monumental work Curtis was greatly assisted by his friend J. C. Dale, with specimens, information, and pecuniary aid. In the ‘British Entomology’ Dale's name is on almost every page, and it was from his collection that Curtis derived a vast portion of the material from which his elaborate work was drawn up. The two worked hand in hand, and their names came to be considered synonyms.

Cuvier pronounced Curtis's ‘British Entomology’ to be ‘the paragon of perfection,’ but its success was much hindered by the attacks of James Francis Stephens [q. v.] in his ‘Illustrations of British Entomology’ and elsewhere. Curtis was defended by Dale in London's ‘Magazine of Natural History.’

In June 1825 Curtis and Dale made an expedition to Scotland, and in Edinburgh met Sir Walter Scott, arrayed in the uniform of the Scots royal bodyguard. After a tour which included some of the western islands, they returned to Edinburgh on August 20, having added more than thirty new species to the list of British insects. In 1830 Curtis visited France, and collected insects from Bordeaux to Fréjus with great results, investigating the quarries of Aix in Provence, where were obtained the fossil insects collected by Lyell and Murchison. Curtis's entomological collection was sold by auction and transported to Melbourne; but Dale's collection, on which he worked with his son, Mr. C. W. Dale, remains in this country, and ‘enables the student in many cases to verify Curtisian species that would be otherwise doubtful’ (Entomologists' Monthly Magazine, viii. 255).

For many years Curtis made a special study of the habits and economy of the various species of insects injurious to garden and farm produce, and communicated the results of his investigations to the ‘Gardener's Chronicle’ under the signature ‘Ruricola,’ and to the ‘Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society.’ These were published in a volume entitled ‘Farm Insects: being the natural History and Economy of the Insects injurious to the Field Crops of Great Britain and Ireland, and also those which infest Barns and Granaries. With suggestions for their destruction. Illustrated with numerous engravings,’ Glasgow, 1860, 8vo; 2nd edit. London, 1883. Curtis had been awarded, on 25 Nov. 1841, a civil list pension of 100l, which was increased by 50l. on 16 April 1861, when his eyesight failed through the strain of his microscopical investigations. He was president of the Entomological Society in 1855, one of the six honorary members of the Entomological Society of France, and a member of various other learned societies in Europe and America. Curtis died at Belitha Villas, Islington, London, on 6 Oct. 1862, leaving a widow and several children. His elder brother, Charles M. Curtis, who predeceased him, was employed by J. F. Stephens as his first artist in the earlier volumes of his ‘Illustrations of British Entomology.’

Besides the works referred to above Curtis wrote: 1. ‘A Guide to the arrangement of British Insects; being a Catalogue of all the named species hitherto discovered in Great Britain and Ireland,’ London, 1829, 8vo; 2nd edit. enlarged, London, 1837, 8vo. 2. ‘The Genera of British Coleoptera, transferred from the original figures in 256 plates of “British Entomology,”’ London, 1858, 4to. 3. ‘The Genera of British Lepidoptera, transferred from the original figures in 193 plates of “British Entomology,”’ London, 1858, 4to; and very numerous papers contributed to various scientific journals, the ‘Transactions’ of the Linnean and Entomological Societies, also an appendix on the insects of the Arctic region in Ross's ‘Journal.’

[Chambers's Norfolk Tour, 1829, introduction, p. 50; Freeman's Life of the Rev. W. Kirby, 1852, p. 426; Athenæum, 1862, ii. 462; Notice sur John Curtis, by J. O. Westwood in Annales de la Société Entomologique de France, 4th ser. tome 3, trimestre de 1863; private information.]

J. H.-r.