Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kirby, William

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KIRBY, WILLIAM (1759–1850), entomologist, eldest son of William Kirby of Witnesham Hall, Suffolk, and of Lucy Meadowe, was born at Witnesham on 19 Sept. 1759. He derived a taste for natural history from his mother, who died in 1776. He was educated at Ipswich grammar school and Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1781 and M.A. in 1815. In 1782 he took holy orders and obtained the sole charge of Barham, Suffolk, held by the Rev. N. Bacon with the vicarage of Coddenham in the same county. He remained at Barham for the remainder of his life, the vicar on his death in 1796 leaving him the next presentation.

Kirby was already an excellent botanist, when the accidental finding of a beautiful insect determined him to study entomology. His name appears in the first list of fellows of the Linnean Society, founded in 1788, and in 1793 he contributed to the society's ‘Transactions,’ the first of a long series of papers. In 1802 he published his important monograph on English bees. He had collected 153 wild specimens in his own parish. In 1805 he made the acquaintance of William Spence [q. v.] of Drypool, Hull, whom he afterwards persuaded to be his coadjutor in the famous ‘Introduction to Entomology,’ first suggested in 1808. The form chosen was that of letters on the most interesting subjects in entomology. Vol. i. appeared in 1815, and a third edition was issued with vol. ii. in 1817; vols. iii. and iv., containing the special systematic description of insects, were written entirely by Kirby, owing to his friend's ill-health. The sixth edition was edited by Spence in 1843, when Kirby's advanced age disabled him from work. The seventh and subsequent editions, in one volume, consist of the first two volumes of the sixth edition. During the writing of the introduction Kirby had (in 1811) contributed an important paper to the Linnean Society, in which he founded the new insect order of Strepsiptera, which has held its ground. In 1818 he was elected F.R.S. He took an active part in the Zoological Club of the Linnean Society, founded in 1822, which afterwards developed into the Zoological Society. In 1830 he began the Bridgewater treatise on ‘The Habits and Instincts of Animals,’ which was published in 1835. In his seventy-eighth year (1837) he completed the description of the insects brought home by Franklin's first two arctic expeditions. Kirby's descriptions formed the fourth part of ‘Fauna Boreali-Americana.’ In 1837 he was elected honorary president of the recently founded Entomological Society of London. He died of old age on 4 July 1850. His collection of insects was bequeathed to the Entomological Society. He married (1) in 1784 Sarah Ripper, who died in 1814, and (2) in 1816 Charlotte Rodwell, who died in 1844, but had no children.

Kirby was of middle height, broad-shouldered and strongly built, with broad forehead and small blue eyes, deeply set. His chief aim in life was to trace the benevolence and wisdom of the Creator in His works. Though no theological work of his, apart from sermons, was published, he wrote much on theology from the point of view of an orthodox anti-Calvinistic churchman. An excellent portrait of him by H. Howard, R.A., was painted about 1819, and an engraving of it was published by T. Lupton. Besides many papers in the Linnean and other transactions, Kirby wrote: 1. ‘Monographia Apium Angliæ,’ 2 vols. 8vo, Ipswich, 1802. 2. ‘Strepsiptera, a new order of Insects proposed,’ ‘Linnean Transactions,’ xi. 86–122. 3. ‘Introduction to Entomology,’ along with William Spence, 4 vols. 8vo, London, 1815–26; vols. i. and ii., 6th edit., with much additional matter, London, 1843; 7th edit. of vols. i. and ii. 8vo, 1856, with Spence's account of the origin and progress of the work. 4. ‘Seven Sermons on our Lord's Temptation,’ London, 1829. 5. ‘On the History, Habits, and Instincts of Animals, being the seventh Bridgewater Treatise,’ London, 1835, 8vo, 2 vols. 17 plates; another edition in 12mo, in Bohn's ‘Scientific Library,’ 1852, 2 vols., with notes by T. Rymer Jones. 6. ‘Fauna Boreali-Americana,’ pt. iv., the ‘Insects,’ 4to, Norwich, 1837.

[The Rev. J. Freeman's Life of Kirby, 1852.]

G. T. B.