Remembering Dr. Margaret Collins, the ‘Termite Lady’


February 26, 2020

I’ve been in the industry since Moses was a lad, seems like, yet it was only this week that I learned of an entomologist that I wish I could have known while she was still living. Dr. Margaret Collins (1922-1996) was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in entomology, and was a Civil Rights activist as well.

With African American History Month winding down this week, it seemed like an appropriate time to learn more about Dr. Collins and her contributions to entomology. According to an excellent biographical profile on the JSTOR Daily website, Dr. Collins was born Margaret James in Institute, West Va., the same town as the historically black college West Virginia State: “Her father was a professor of agriculture there, and she was surrounded by a black intellectual community. Given access to the college library at age 6, she read voraciously, excelled at school, and was able to enter the college as a student at 14 years old.”

The article goes on to note:

After obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, she was admitted to the zoology program at the University of Chicago, which had already granted more Ph.D.s to African American students than any other university in the world. On orientation day, she met Dr. Alfred Emerson, an entomologist with expertise in termites, a subject that would become her own enthusiasm and earn her the nickname “Termite Lady.”

While Dr. Emerson was a friend and mentor, he was not without prejudices: He felt women were “annoying” during fieldwork. Dr. Collins thus had to work with Dr. Emerson’s own collection of termites for her dissertation, unable to see them in situ.

After graduation in 1950, she held faculty positions at Howard University, Florida A&M University (FAMU), and Federal City College (now the University of DC), all historically black institutions. Dr. Collins was active not only as a scholar, but as an advocate for civil rights — a role that many African American academics fill. During a pause in her scientific work at FAMU, she acted as a driver for coworkers in the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, which started in 1956. This activism put her at risk of arrest.

According to the book Black Women Scientists in the United Statesshe was like many budding scientists as a child, being quoted as explaining “I ruined Christmas for everyone because I couldn’t figure out how a reindeer could fly. I mean, they just aren’t built for flying, anyone could see that. So I had to reject either the truthfulness of adults or the conclusions of my own mind.”

In 1989, Dr. Collins was credited (with Dr. David Nickle) with co-discovering a species of Florida dampwood termite, Neotermes luykxi. Seven years later, she died at age 73 from congestive heart failure while doing what she loved, collecting specimens in the field, according to a solid biography from the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Dr. Collins’ profile section in the Black Women Scientists book begins with a positively inspirational quote: “Because of my family and our community, my childhood was unique. I never learned what I couldn’t do — as a child, as a woman, or as a black person.” She was a living embodiment of what someone with such encouragement could accomplish.



About the Author

Heather Gooch

Heather Gooch is the editor-in-chief for PMP magazine. She can be reached at or 330-321-9754.

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