Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/November 1879/Sketch of Dr. Asa Fitch
By E. P. THURSTON.
THERE is in the world a class of men whose characters, labors, and attainments well entitle them to be called great, who are yet so modest in their self-estimate, so unassuming in then knowledge, that those who dwell about them recognize only the common characteristics of average men; or if, from peculiar ideas and habits, they are found to be different, the difference is accredited them with complacent tolerance. They are so guileless in life, so pure in thought, and withal so generous-hearted, that in ordinary affairs the world holds them at a disadvantage, quietly appropriating the fruits of their labors with little if any sense of obligation. To this class belonged Dr. Asa Fitch, well known in the scientific world as a distinguished entomologist, whose writings and investigations have contributed largely to our present knowledge of American insects.
Dr. Fitch was the descendant of a long line which in this country, in early colonial times, was linked with the Brewsters of the Mayflower, and other distinguished families. He was the second son of the Hon. Asa Fitch, M. D., a man eminent in the medical profession, and equally so in various positions of public trust to which the people called him.
The subject of our sketch was born at Fitch's Point, Salem, Washington County, New York, February 24, 1809. His childhood was passed on a farm, and until twelve years of age he attended the district school. He was then sent to the academy at the neighboring village of Salem, and at about the same time began a journal of the interesting and important events of his daily life, which, with two or three brief lapses, was continued until his death. Early entries in this record betray the possession in a marked degree, even in his boyhood, of keen observing powers, and a rare faculty for accuracy and lucidity of description, characteristics which in later life grew into striking prominence, and gave to his scientific work an exceptional value. He was an unusually studious pupil, and early evinced a preference for the natural sciences, botany first claiming his attention. In his fifteenth year he began, according to a note in his diary, to arrange the botanical collection of his preceptor in classes and orders. His studies at the academy completed, he remained at home until his eighteenth year, engaged a portion of the time as clerk in a neighboring store.
In the spring of 1826 his father sent him to Rensselaer School, at Troy (now the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), where he soon became deeply interested in natural history, zoölogy almost immediately awakening his enthusiasm. The bent of his mind toward entomology quickly declared itself, and it was not long before the insects had more or less complete possession. He graduated with honor at the Rensselaer School with the class of 1827, and immediately after, at the instance of his father, began a course of medical studies, attending lectures at the Vermont Academy of Medicine, at Castleton, but still giving much of his time to the study of insects, the observation of which had now become almost a passion. He persevered, however, in the medical course, graduating M. D. in 1829, and afterward attended lectures at Rutgers Medical College, in New York City, concluding his preparation for the profession in the office of the late Dr. March, of Albany. While thus engaged he made industrious use of the libraries of that city so far as they could aid in advancing his knowledge of entomology. Being unable to purchase the books he needed, and determined to possess all the information they contained about the insects of this country, he copied with great accuracy and rapidity, from the various entomological works in both the State and academy libraries, all that had then been written on American insects.
His medical studies terminated, in the capacity of Assistant Professor of Natural History he accompanied the Rensselaer School Expedition of 1830 to Lake Erie, having then just attained his majority. The President of the school, Professor Eaton, regarded him at this time as the best entomologist in the United States, and he was urged by his friends to publish on the subject. He replied that "Sir Walter Scott was above half right, 'Study in youth, and publish in mature life,'" a precept the youthful investigator followed. At the western terminus of the expedition, Dr. Fitch left the party and traveled extensively in the Western States, collecting and analyzing the rare species of insects found in the localities visited. He returned home in the summer of 1831, and almost immediately began the practice of his profession at Fort Miller, New York, having his office with Dr. Tayler Lewis, afterward the distinguished Professor of Greek in Union College.
November 15, 1832, Dr. Fitch married Elizabeth, daughter of John McNeil, of Stillwater, New York, and soon after removed to that place, continuing the practice of the profession he cordially hated, for six years. In 1838 he gave up practice and returned to Salem, to assume the management of his father's business, for which the latter had become incapacitated by ill health. From this time he devoted himself largely to agricultural pursuits, which gave more ample opportunities for investigation in his favorite field, that he was not slow to improve, It is related that he would frequently be seen after a shower, on his hands and knees, searching about for insects and all manner of "creeping things," and would finally return to the house with his tall old hat completely covered inside and out with the writhing victims of his scientific greed. He was nicknamed "The Bug-Catcher" by his neighbors; and so eager became his quest for curious specimens in wood, field, and stream, that many thought him demented, while others declared that he destroyed more grain than his scientific investigations were worth.
At its organization he became identified with the Washington County Agricultural Society, and soon began to give attention to the public need by various contributions to the local journals on economic entomology. In 1845 he published in Dr. Emmons's "American Quarterly Journal of Agriculture and Science" an article of thirteen pages on "Insects of the genus Cecidomyia," in which he described a new species of willow gall-fly, illustrating it by figures of the insect in different stages of growth, and of the excrescence it produces on the willow. This was his first formal entomological essay. Six months later he sent another of thirty pages to the same journal on "The Wheat Midge," and, in 1846, a third of sixty-three pages on "The Hessian Fly." This was afterward revised and republished in the "Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society." In 1847 he published a valuable paper on "Winter Insects," of which he was the first to write specifically; and also in the "Transactions" gave an account of the currant-worm and its moth. This paper, beautifully illustrated with colored engravings, was widely copied in foreign scientific journals, and brought its author prominently into notice as a scientific investigator. At this period Dr. Fitch was employed for a time collecting and naming the insects of the State of New York, for the State Cabinet of Natural History. In the Report of the Regents of the University for 1851 he gave a descriptive catalogue of the insects of New York of the order Homoptera, in which he named and described a number of new species.
In 1854 Dr. Fitch was appointed New York State Entomologist, and held the position seventeen years, during which period he devoted himself exclusively and most assiduously to scientific work. The little office a few yards from his residence became his workshop, and night and day sent forth light to the world. So close was the watch he kept at the hatching-time of the various larvæ collected, that for a week together he would catch his sleep in an arm-chair, waking at intervals to note the wonderful changes taking place in the insect-life before him. At such times, his meals, and an extra hour after tea to read the news, was all the recreation he allowed himself, and even then his pocket-net was always within reach, to capture any unwary moth or curious beetle whose love of light attracted it to the room. Dr. Fitch was a most devout Christian, and reading the Scriptures and prayer with his family was a daily habit of his life. But even when thus engaged it was not safe for an attractive insect to come in his way. A daughter, the one to whom he was indebted for many of the beautiful drawings which illustrate his writings, relates that on one such occasion when he had the Bible in his hands, and was about to begin reading, a moth of peculiar appearance alighted on the book before him. The ruling passion was too strong for either time or circumstance: glancing about, as if conscious of the incongruity of the proceeding, he quickly seized his net, bagged the curious specimen, and with a half-guilty look proceeded with the reading. The capture was an important one, as the moth proved to be new to science.
While State Entomologist, his correspondence grew so large as to seriously interfere with other work, and he was at last reluctantly compelled to answer only such letters as were of most importance, devoting the remaining time to research and the preparation of his annual reports. These reports, of which there were thirteen in all, were published in the "Transactions of the State Agricultural Society"; the first nine being also issued in three bound volumes, which were widely circulated both here and abroad, and attracted very favorable attention. His researches were thus brought to the knowledge of foreign entomologists, their value promptly recognized, and the Doctor was soon enrolled as corresponding member of several foreign entomological societies, and later became the recipient of their diplomas, medals, and other testimonials of the appreciation in which his work was held.
The great entomologists of Europe—Westwood and Curtis, of London; Dr. Signoret, of Paris; Dr. Gerstacker, of Berlin; Baron d'Osten-Sacken, of St. Petersburg—were quick to avail themselves of his discoveries, not only by gleaning from his published works, but through the avenue of personal correspondence. His portfolios of foreign correspondence are literally filled with letters of inquiry and acknowledgment from such noted specialists as Dr. Sickel, M. Selys de Lonchamp, and the Abbé Marseul, of France; Professor Boheman, of Sweden; M. Malde, of Germany; and Andrew Murray, of Edinburgh, together with many others of equal reputation.
The success Dr. Fitch achieved was not in any sense the result of favoring circumstances, but the legitimate outcome of his patience in observation and study—study which was always directed by a well-defined plan to a definite object, which as early as 1840 he thus laid down:
"I have undertaken a very great work, and have laid upon myself a task both hard in the plan and difficult in the execution. To unite in one very limited body the most essential facts of the history of insects; to class them with precision and accuracy in a natural series; to delineate the chief traits in their physiognomy; to trace in a laconic and strict manner their distinctive characters, and follow a course which shall correspond with the progress of the science and the eminent men who have contributed to its advancement; to single out the useful and obnoxious species, those which from their manner of living interest our curiosity; to mark the thousand sources where the knowledge of the original authors may be consulted; to render to Entomology that amiable simplicity which she has had in the times of Linnæus, of Geoffrey, and of the first productions of Fabricius, and yet present her as she is to-day, with all the richness which she has acquired from observation, but without surcharging her with it; to conform her, in one word, to the model which I have under my eyes, the work of Cuvier—such is the end which I have taken upon myself to attain."
Dr. Fitch, to a large extent, accomplished this work; but his published treatises form only a small portion of his labors in that direction. One hundred note-books filled with complete and accurate entomological descriptions still remain on the shelves of his office, nearly or quite ready for the press; and it is much to be regretted that his life went out before he had finally completed and published them, and before he had arranged for the pertinent retention in this country of his cabinet of insects.
The position of Dr. Fitch as State Entomologist, and the wide circulation of his published writings, brought to him from all quarters insects of rare and little known species to be named and classified. This, joined to his own untiring energy as a collector, enabled him to fill his cabinet to overflowing with the rarest and least known species of many lands. It is rich in all the orders, and especially so in useful, obnoxious, and curious species; and is probably one of the most valuable collections in this country, and one that it would be impossible to duplicate. As such it should be purchased and retained by the State.
It is impossible to summarize the benefits which scholars of Dr. Fitch's character confer upon the world. But it is safe to assume that they are of incalculable value. It is many millions the richer for Dr. Fitch's researches in the science of entomology, and would have been had he written only of the wheat-midge, the Hessian fly, and the currant-worm.
Dr. Fitch lived to the age of seventy. His life was full of strong, pure manhood—full of such labor and study as few men have physical power to endure—full of the gentleness, the kindliness, and peace which come of well-living, and full of the honors which his labors had earned. He died April 8, 1879, the death of a good man.